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‘Playbook’ Reveals White House Thinking on House Races

White House adviser Karl Rove gave the Congressional campaign committees plenty to chew on when his 2008 “playbook” became a matter of public record this week thanks to a Congressional inquiry into government agencies being used for political purposes.

Scott Jennings, the White House’s deputy director for public affairs, gave a presentation to General Services Administration officials, including Administrator Lurita Doan, on Jan. 26 outlining which House Republicans and Democrats the administration thinks are most vulnerable. The contents of the presentation became public in connection with Congressional testimony this week.

The revelation is particularly interesting as the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are both drawing up their target lists and assessing whether their counterparts are bluffing by claiming to target certain potentially vulnerable seats.

Rove’s list of Democratic targets are obvious and have been telegraphed already by the NRCC.

On Thursday NRCC officials announced they had created Web sites for criticizing 11 Democratic freshmen it thinks are vulnerable.

Most overlapped with Rove’s list of “top 20 targets,” though the NRCC included Democratic Reps. Harry Mitchell (Ariz.) and Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.).

The rest are Democrats who represent Republican-leaning districts.

More revealing are the 16 Republicans Rove’s office thinks might retire at the end of the 110th Congress.

Eleven overlap with the 27 Republicans House Democrats said they had on “retirement watch” as of Jan. 18, just eight days before Jennings’ GSA presentation.

All the Republican Members on the DCCC’s list, except those who have confirmed they are seeking other offices, told Roll Call earlier this year that the rumors were false.

Yet Rove, too, is worried about Members such as GOP Reps. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Elton Gallegly (Calif.) — to name a few — who have said they are not going anywhere.

“I think the memo confirms Republican concerns and fears about many of the incumbents we’ve been mentioning for the past few months,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said. “It’s curious that there are several Republicans on the memo that publicly have said they are running, so it begs the question ‘what does Karl Rove know about the intentions of these Members that people in their districts do not?’” Thornell asked.

Four Republicans made Rove’s potential retirement list but not the DCCC’s: Reps. Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), Sue Myrick (N.C.), Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Joe Knollenberg (Mich.).

House Republican strategists played down the importance of Jennings’ presentation.

“It was a very speculative presentation based on the immediate aftermath of the [2006] election and does not represent the current state of affairs,” said one Republican operative familiar with the NRCC’s thinking who did not want to be named.

The source pointed out that once Democrats lost control of the House following the 1994 elections, rumors abounded that old bulls and veteran Democrats would call it quits in droves. While more Democrats did not seek re-election in 1996 than in previous cycles, mass retirements never materialized.

The NRCC pointed to recent events as proof that some information in the White House presentation was just laying out worst-case scenarios.

NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) is hosting a fundraiser for Knollenberg soon and Regula recently hosted an NRCC regional fundraising event, for example.

Many of the other Republicans who made the DCCC’s retirement watch list are on the White House’s defense list.

First on the Democrats’ retirement and target list is Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.).

House Democrats made their biggest gains in the Midwest and Northeast in November and practically wiped out Republican moderates. Delaware’s at-large district preferred Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to President Bush in 2004.

Castle, who suffered a minor stroke last year, may mount a Senate race if Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) vacates his seat to concentrate full time on his presidential bid. Democrats also believe the 67-year-old Republican incumbent might decide now is a good time to leave a Congress that increasingly has seen his party move to the right and become dominated by Southern conservatives.

But a spokeswoman for Castle — like aides to most of the Republicans on the DCCC’s watch list — denied that her boss, who just won a ninth term, is ready to leave Washington when contacted by Roll Call when it obtained the DCCC list last month.

Castle is listed in the “secondary defense” column in the strategy memo compiled by the White House.

Two Republicans that Democrats think are vulnerable because of ethics issues also are only on the White House’s second-tier defense list.

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) reportedly is under FBI investigation, which has Democrats dreaming about his Inland Empire-based 42nd district, even though it gave Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004. The same goes for the neighboring 41st district, where Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), former Appropriations chairman, also is being scrutinized by federal authorities.

Others made both the DCCC’s list and the White House’s first tier.

For example, Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who eked out an 879-vote win over Democrat Patricia Madrid in November and now faces questions regarding the U.S. attorneys firing controversy, is No. 4 on Rove’s list of “priority defense.”

No. 10 is Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), who seemed to invite the DCCC to come after her when she won a seventh term by barely 1,000 votes in the Equality State in November, where only 29 percent of the electorate supported Kerry in 2004.

The list’s release is causing trouble for those Republicans on it, according to one Democratic official.

“Several of these Members are already being questioned at home and having to distance themselves from Karl Rove and the White House’s assessment of their vulnerability,” the source said.

NRCC spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said the committee already knows which incumbents need the most protection. Last week it named the first 10 members of the Retaining Our Majority Program, which raises money for vulnerable incumbents.

Three ROMP Members — Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio), Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) — aren’t mentioned on the White House’s watch list.

Overall Boulanger said thinking defensively this early in the cycle will pay off on Election Day.

“I think it’s smart; one thing the last cycle proved is that incumbents who were prepared held on and the folks who were unprepared and did not see it coming were not successful in their effort.”

All these lists just prove that Republicans need to get started early with their fundraising and organizing, she said.

“We are taking incumbent retention seriously,” Boulanger said.

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