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Less Is More in ’04: DCCC Should Narrow, Not Expand, Target List

Three months ago, I raised doubts about House Democrats’ promise to “expand” the playing field by recruiting candidates and mounting strong efforts in districts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has recently ignored. [IMGCAP(1)]

I’ve decided that I had it only half right back then. I should have gone much further: I should have argued that the DCCC should narrow its focus for 2004, devoting its time, efforts and, most importantly, resources to far fewer races next year than it did in 2002 or 2000.

Of course, the DCCC isn’t likely to adopt my suggestion for reasons that I’ll go into in a moment. But it’s a strategy that makes sense.

After their 2002 midterm disappointment, House Democrats turned to a new leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who promised to take the fight to the GOP.

Pelosi’s choice to lead the DCCC, highly regarded California Rep. Robert Matsui, suggested in February that even with the drop in the number of competitive districts, he thought that the DCCC was “looking at 45 House seats” in which it could play.

“We’re basically going to be looking at every Republican seat, not just the ones that won by 55 percent or below,” he told The Washington Post.

While I understand the reasons that led Matsui to make those remarks, I think he ought to resist the voices telling him to boost the number of seats the party targets next year.

In fact, savvy Democratic insiders believe that their party should focus on no more than 15 to 20 Republican-held and soon-to-be-open House districts. They argue that the DCCC should pour resources, on TV and on the ground, into those races where Democrats have the best shot of winning.

While this strategy would limit potential Democratic gains, it would also enhance the chances that the party could begin to chip away at the GOP’s 229-206 majority.

The DCCC financial position also argues for this more focused strategy. Although the committee is off to a good fundraising start, it is likely to be at a financial disadvantage as the election cycle advances. Widening the playing field can only hurt the DCCC’s prospects.

Democratic operatives complain that K Street lobbyists can now afford to ignore their party, knowing that the House is not in play. But, insists one party operative, if the party picks up even a few seats in 2004, those same business interests will once again have to hedge their bets for 2006.

A perfect example of a district that the Democrats might consider avoiding in 2004 — at least early in the cycle — is Kentucky’s 3rd, where Rep. Anne Northup (R) rules the roost.

The Democrats have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Northup, and each time she holds on. There is simply no reason to believe that she will lose this time without a change in the national mood.

The DCCC can throw tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain again this cycle in Kentucky’s 3rd, or it can wait until 2006, when the lay of the land might look better for them in Northup’s district.

If the committee can find better targets of opportunity for 2004, they should forget about Kentucky’s 3rd. But if they see the district as one of their best dozen or so opportunities, they should begin a full-scale, 15-month assault on Northup. But treating the seat as if its one of four dozen serious Democratic opportunities is not going to get the job done.

Obviously, if the DCCC bought my argument they would be acknowledging that they can’t win the House back in 2004. So what? They can’t win it back without a wave, so what’s the drawback of admitting the obvious?

Yes, targeting only a dozen seats or so might sink House Democratic morale even lower than it is now (if that’s possible). But is it better to raise expectations — as DCCC leaders have in the past — only to have them dashed as Election Day approaches? If you’ve made it to the U.S. House of Representatives, you should be able to look reality in the eye without feeling sorry for yourself.

The most effective argument against my strategy is that the party wouldn’t be in a position to take advantage of a late-breaking partisan wave.

Well, if there is a Democratic wave, Republicans in marginal districts, incumbents such as Northup, Reps. Heather Wilson (N.M.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Steve Pearce (N.M.) and Jim Leach (Iowa), will be in serious trouble anyway.

And if a wave does show signs of developing, money will start to flow to the DCCC, and the committee will be able to redirect some resources to districts where its prospects are rising.

“Success” is different in every cycle. For the Democrats, small House gains next year that position the party for a possible run at control of the House in 2006 is a reasonable goal. The best way to achieve that is with a much more targeted strategy. That approach wouldn’t guarantee Democratic gains, but it would give them the best opportunities.

Rothenberg Political Report

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