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Making the Case: How the Parties Can Woo Candidates for ’06

If the top priority for 2006 for the House and Senate campaign committees is incumbent retention, then candidate recruitment is a close second. How would you try to recruit talented, often wealthy men and women to run for the House or Senate next year? [IMGCAP(1)]

Of course, some candidates don’t need to be recruited. They not only want to run; they have already decided to roll the dice.

But other possible candidates are only toying with the idea of a bid for the House or the Senate. Some are novices, while others are already officeholders who would like to run for something higher — but only if they have a good shot at winning. Both types need to be convinced that 2006 is their year.

For the Democrats, candidate recruitment seems to rest on the party’s ability to entice candidates with the prospect of a damaged Republican president and a political environment that favors Democrats and the Democratic message. It’s a classic “macro politics” argument.

If you are Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) or Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), your argument goes something like this:

“George W. Bush has gone too far with his proposal to privatize Social Security. Americans aren’t buying what he’s selling. Even Republican Members of Congress are backing away from it, and from the higher taxes or stripped down benefits that he must ultimately support. Next year is going to be a Democratic year.”

For Democratic recruiters, of course, Social Security is just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the growing deficit, the continuing cost of the Iraq war in both human lives and dollars, uncertainty about Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs and the possibility of a growing fatigue with the Bush administration, which haunts almost every two-term presidency.

The issue agenda is actually two arguments for the price of one. First, Democratic leaders can make an argument about principle that should appeal to potential candidates, arguing that the Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill are bent on destroying Social Security, eliminating abortion rights, protecting business at the expense of the environment and workers, invading Iran and defending the drug companies at the expense of consumers in general and seniors in particular.

“We’ve got to stop them. You’ve got to stop them,” is how Democratic recruiters might try to close the deal with that line of argument.

That argument on “principle” is accompanied by an argument about practicality. The GOP agenda not only must be stopped, they can argue, but Bush and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) have overreached, finally pushing swing voters over the edge. That means that 2006 will be a good year for Democrats who are on the ballot.

History, too, is on the side of the Democrats, if you look at it from only one perspective. In 22 of the past 25 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost House seats, and Democrats can point to that century-old trend to make an argument that will sound appealing to would-be members of Congress.

Republicans must make an entirely different argument to potential recruits. Yes, like the Democrats, GOP leaders — including National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) — can woo potential candidates by talking about the need for tort reform, tax cuts, private accounts under Social Security and a strong national defense, and arguing that a few more supporters in both chambers could mean passage of the president’s agenda.

But the Republican case for recruitment is based more on technical and candidate-specific factors.

GOP recruiters can promise potential candidates that they will be members of the majority party, giving them added influence and prestige. This is a particularly effective appeal for Republican state legislators who serve in chambers where the GOP is in the minority, and for Senate recruiters, since a couple of more Republican votes in that body would mean much more than a couple of more votes in the House.

President Bush and his top aides, including senior strategist Karl Rove, can be obvious assets in Congressional recruiting efforts. They’ve already been successful over the past couple of cycles, and they can help woo uncertain potential candidates into a contest.

House Republican recruiters also can talk resources with potential recruits. While the NRCC has $5.8 million in the bank, the DCCC is carrying a debt of over $11 million. That financial difference isn’t likely to be missed by potential GOP candidates, who will be assured by party leaders that some of that money will be used to help elect them to Congress.

For potential candidates worried about what midterm trends portend for next year, GOP strategists can focus on the near-term trends. While long-term trends suggest that 2006 could be a good Democratic year, short-term trends suggest the opposite. In each of the past two midterms, 1998 and 2002, the president’s party — the Democrats during Bill Clinton’s second midterm and the Republicans three years ago — gained seats.

While it is still unclear who will win the recruiting war, each committee is guaranteed to call attention to the other’s recruiting failures. But one missed opportunity does not make a bad cycle, and because the Democrats need to make gains in the House and Senate to boost party morale, they bear a heavier burden than the GOP.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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