House and Senate Races Lack Passion Of White House Election; GOP Favored

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:58pm

Every four years, House and Senate strategists are pushed to the side as party regulars, consultants, lobbyists and the donor community focus almost exclusively on presidential politics.

“The presidential is always more interesting,” said one Democratic source. “We go through this every four years in the Senate and the House.”

For Democrats this year, the problem is particularly acute.

The Democratic candidates for president are generating energy, excitement and anger among base voters. Newly created left-leaning organizations are poised to devote millions of dollars to defeat President Bush.

But the same passion and money-gathering prowess have yet to trickle down to the party’s uphill fights for control of the Senate and House.

Although presidential politics typically overshadows the message put forward by Congressional leaders in an election year, it has been particularly difficult this cycle for Democrats in the Senate and House to break through the clutter of the eight candidates pursuing their party’s presidential nomination, according to interviews with a number of Democratic consultants and party strategists.

“If you ask people what we have the best chance of winning — the presidency, the Senate or the House — they will say the presidency,” said one strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Republicans Poised to Make Gains

The current electoral dynamic in the country points to the possibility of significant changes in the Senate and House, where after a decade of slim margins of control, Republicans seem well-positioned to expand their majorities in each body.

Five open Southern Senate seats frame the playing field in 2004 and make a two- to three-seat overall gain for Republicans the most likely scenario.

Similarly, the recent decision by a three-judge federal panel in Texas to uphold a plan that drastically redraws the state’s Congressional map in favor of the GOP makes House Democrats’ already slim chances of retaking the majority nearly nonexistent.

Holding the status quo would likely be spun as a victory by both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

These problems are exacerbated by a funding deficit between Republicans and Democrats on the Congressional level.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in the 107th Congress and approved in large measure by the Supreme Court in December, bans the raising and spending of soft money — a source of unlimited contributions that Democrats had grown increasingly reliant on during the past several cycles.

In the first 11 months of 2003, the three national Republican Party committees brought in $183 million in hard dollars compared to $82 million for the three Democratic committees.

The DCCC performed best in 2003, raising $28.5 million, nearly equaling the $32 million in hard and soft money it collected in 2001.

Privately, Democratic insiders admit that it will take them several cycles to build the broad hard-dollar donor base that Republicans have been perfecting for the past two decades.

And while Democratic-leaning 527 groups like America Coming Together, America Votes and the Partnership for America’s Families are raking in millions of soft-money dollars to spend on the presidential race independent of the party organizations, the two committees formed to raise hard and soft money for House and Senate races have met with much less success.

The New House PAC and the Democratic Senate Majority Fund raised just more than $200,000 combined in hard money in the first six months of 2003. New House PAC did no soft-money fundraising, while the DSMF brought in $35,000 in soft cash.

Howard Wolfson, one of the co-founders of the New House PAC, disassociated himself from the group late last year. Marc Farinella, former executive director of the DSMF, left the fund around the same time to become a partner in Saul Shorr’s media firm.

But while most Democrats acknowledge that the hill is steep, several strategists interviewed for this story maintained that once their presidential nominee is selected, the race for control — at all levels of government — will fundamentally change.

“We don’t have a nominee so there hasn’t been a way to frame the election yet,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant. “We don’t have the two main actors on the stage.”

House Playing Field Appears Narrow

While the identity of the Democratic nominee remains a mystery, much of the Senate and House playing field is already set.

As in the past three cycles, the House landscape looks unlikely to include more than 40 competitive races nationwide, with less than half that number expected to be truly close on Nov. 2.

House Democrats devoted a great deal of rhetoric to the notion of expanding the playing field, actively recruiting in 42 districts where the party performance is 47 percent or higher.

That program has met with mixed success so far as it has generated challenges to Rep. Lee Terry (R) in Nebraska’s 2nd district and to Washington Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) but failed to find serious opponents for other “targeted” GOPers such as Reps. Jack Quinn (N.Y.) and Bill Young (Fla.).

In fairness, neither side has excelled in recruiting, but the burden of enlarging the playing field falls more squarely on Democrats, as they must make up a 13-seat deficit.

That hole was made deeper when a panel of judges approved a Republican-backed map in Texas that could endanger as many as six Democrats.

The map was a prime factor in Rep. Ralph Hall’s (R) decision to switch parties earlier this month and is likely to match at least two sets of incumbents against one another.

Reps. Charlie Stenholm (D) and Randy Neugebauer (R) will square off in Texas’ 19th district; Rep. Martin Frost (D) is expected to challenge Rep. Pete Sessions (R).

With only a handful of House incumbents truly endangered on each side, open seats will once again serve as the epicenter of volatility in House races.

Republicans currently have 13 Members retiring or running for other offices, while Democrats have eight.

Of these 21 seats, however, only four are even marginally competitive between the parties: Pennsylvania’s 13th and 15th districts, Washington’s 5th and Colorado’s 3rd.

In the 2002 cycle, Republicans won 15 of the 23 competitive open-seat races, the key to their surprising six-seat pickup.

Democrats do have a chance to gain two seats before voters even head to the polls next November, however.

Two special elections are on the docket: Kentucky’s 6th district (Feb. 17) and South Dakota’s at-large seat (June 1). Both are Republican-held districts where the Democratic candidate holds an early advantage [for more details, see p. 26].

Senate Recruiting: Wins and Losses

Meanwhile, the Senate battleground also appears largely set, with a maximum of 15 races likely to determine the partisan makeup of the chamber next Congress.

The only gaping recruitment hole for Democrats is in Georgia, where they have yet to field a viable candidate a year after Sen. Zell Miller (D) announced that he would not run again in 2004.

Although this has not been a banner recruiting cycle for Senate Republicans, party strategists maintain that they couldn’t be more pleased with the current playing field.

While the GOP failed to entice top challengers into races against Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Democrats are saddled with defending five open seats in the South, a region where the party has faltered in federal races in the past decade.

Democrats have also struggled with fundraising in the off-year, and the DSCC ended 2003 with by far the lowest cash-on-hand total of any of the four Congressional committees. At the end of November, the National Republican Senatorial Committee held a 10-1 cash advantage over its Democratic counterpart.

Still, Democratic strategists tout the fact that they recruited almost all of their desired candidates into their open-seat races, and they are also excited about their prospects for picking up GOP-held seats in Illinois and Alaska.

Republicans are equally enthusiastic about their chances of knocking off Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), after former Rep. John Thune (R) announced earlier this month that he is running again. Thune lost to Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by 524 votes in 2002 — the closest Senate race of the cycle.

Although crowded open-seat primary fields in Illinois and Florida create some general election uncertainty, both parties have been almost equally successful clearing the field in several states.

Democrats have been able to stave off competitive primaries in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Alaska, where party leaders have united behind their desired recruits.

In Louisiana, Reps. Chris John (D), who has not yet made his campaign official, and David Vitter (R) are the leading candidates to replace retiring Sen. John Breaux (D). All candidates in Louisiana will run in an open primary on Nov. 2; if none garners 50 percent, the top two votegetters advance to a December runoff.

Likewise, Republicans in North Carolina, with the help of the White House, cleared the field for Rep. Richard Burr (R), who is seeking to succeed Sen. John Edwards (D).

Clinton White House Chief of Staff and 2002 Senate nominee Erskine Bowles is the frontrunner for the Democratic nod. A new independent poll out last week showed Bowles with a slight lead over Burr.

Bush Comes to the Aid of His Party

The presidential election is sure to play a role in the outcome of House and Senate races.

Aides to President Bush have repeatedly emphasized that he does not want a “lonely victory” and will put significant emphasis on down-ballot races.

In 2002, Bush used his ample political capital on a whirlwind tour of key Senate races, which netted Republicans two seats and control of the body.

While Bush and his campaign team have undoubtedly set his re-election as their first priority, the astronomical amount of money they are raising ($130 million as of Dec. 31) coupled with the turnout operation being constructed for the presidential race are likely to help down the ticket.

The impact of the Democratic nominee on down-ballot races is less clear.

Some Washington strategists have expressed concern that if former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the nominee, Democrats in the South will have a difficult time winning tight races because of Dean’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and call for a complete rollback of the Bush tax cut.

If the Democratic presidential candidate is losing badly to Bush this fall, however, some insiders believe it could be a blessing in disguise for Senate candidates.

“If prospects don’t look great in the presidential and the Senate appears to be the best shot of putting a check on a second Bush term, there will be a huge amount of energy and excitement in Senate races,” a Democratic consultant said.