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Parties Refine Recruiting Pitches

Get in on the ground floor of rebuilding a Republican House majority and reap the rewards — that’s the pitch National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) is making to potential candidates in the first cycle in 14 years in which Republicans are in the minority.

“I like to tell them we’re like a beaten-down stock,” Cole said Wednesday. “We’re a heck of a good buy right now.”

Cole is focusing on recruiting candidates for the 60 Democratic-held districts President Bush won in 2004, with special attention on 10 seats he thinks are particularly vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is seeing the downside of having a double-digit seat advantage over Cole’s GOP — he primarily has to play defense.

But in the districts where Van Hollen is on offense, he can offer a powerful incentive Democrats have not possessed since 1994 — the opportunity to serve in the majority. Speaking broadly, the DCCC is targeting suburban districts, which Van Hollen sees as especially ripe for Democrats, and Republican incumbents who won re-election by 10 points or less in 2006.

“We stay on offense and make sure we expand the playing field as much as possible,” Van Hollen said Wednesday. “We’re right where we want to be. Let’s just say I’d rather be us than them right now.”

Van Hollen, who led the DCCC’s recruitment committee in the previous cycle, began working on 2008 immediately after the 2006 elections. There was a bit more lag time at the NRCC, where Cole completely changed the staff and revamped the committee’s operations.

Neither committee leader has major recruiting triumphs to boast of yet, but some key races are slowly coming into focus.

When pitching potential candidates in districts Bush won in 2004, Cole promises the NRCC’s full financial and operational support in the general election while highlighting three factors he believes are working in the GOP’s favor:

• The Republican presidential nominee is likely to once again carry districts that Bush won in 2004, boosting the GOP House candidate in the process.

• The Republican challenger in these districts will face a Democrat with a Congressional voting record that is probably too liberal for most voters in the district. Last cycle, Republican incumbents were in the majority and largely running against blank-slate Democrats without voting records that could be attacked.

• It is rare for a party to have two disastrous cycles in a row. After the GOP’s 30-seat loss and drop to minority status in 2006, 2008 likely will be a lot better.

Despite the Republicans’ devastating losses, Cole said recruiting has been going well.

Some Republicans see an opening that did not exist when Republicans were in the majority, as most would never have challenged an incumbent in a primary — and would have found victory difficult if they did, Cole said.

“It’s believable to people that we could be back in the majority if you target your opposition well,” Cole said. “There are always people that want to be in Congress.”

Although the NRCC as a rule will not endorse in primaries, Cole said he will stop recruiting in targeted districts once he has nabbed the best possible candidate. Cole does not intend to clear the field for recruits, but he will not create obstacles for exceptional candidates, either.

Among the districts receiving special attention from Cole, a former political consultant, are California’s 11th, Florida’s 16th, Kansas’ 2nd, New York’s 20th and Texas’ 22nd, to name just five districts Republicans feel should be theirs naturally, considering the political sensibilities of each district and the GOP voter-registration advantage.

Democrats captured all five districts in 2006, thanks in part to flawed GOP incumbents or Republican scandals that were impossible for their nominees to overcome.

Cole said he has been talking to a number of possible candidates for these seats and expects the eventual nominee will put Republicans in excellent shape to retake the districts.

A handful of credible Republicans are eyeing four of the seats, and in Kansas, ex-Rep. Jim Ryun (R), who was upset by now-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D), is expected to run again. In New York, Cole expressed an affinity for wealthy former New York GOP Chairman Sandy Treadwell — who, like Cole, is a former secretary of state.

However, Cole acknowledged that the House GOP could find rough going in the Dakotas, which lean Republican but are represented by Democrats whom Cole referred to as formidable.

North Dakota and South Dakota, which usually up GOP performance in presidential years, are represented by Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.). Cole is hoping that the Democratic leadership will force them to cast votes that will be politically untenable to voters back home.

But first, the NRCC chairman needs candidates to throw at them, and so far the committee has come up empty.

“We’re looking,” Cole said.

The DCCC declined to specify which Republican seats the committee is targeting.

But a Democratic consultant familiar with the committee’s plans said the DCCC is hoping to put several GOP-held seats in play, including the one held by Rep. Richard Baker in Louisiana’s 6th district, should he retire or run for Senate, party-switching Rep. Rodney Alexander in Louisiana’s 5th, Rep. John Doolittle in California’s 4th, Rep. Jim Walsh in New York’s 25th, Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware’s at-large seat, as well as multiple seats in Michigan and Ohio.

Additionally, a Democratic operative confirmed that the DCCC is trying to target Republicans in all corners of the country, not just those in one or two regions. Committee staffers have already been dispatched to Delaware, California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania in an effort to discover formidable challengers to Republicans seen as vulnerable.

“What the DCCC is doing right now is taking what worked so effectively last year but getting started even earlier,” this operative said.

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