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Rove Memo Exposes ’08 GOP Fears

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

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

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

Last week 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.) and Rove did not.

All but two of the rest are Democrats who represent Republican-leaning districts.

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

Eleven overlap with the 27 Republicans that 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 or that it was too early to talk about 2008.

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?’”

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.).

Hunter is running for president in 2008 and has already said he will give up his House seat. Myrick, who began 2007 with just $80,000 in her campaign account, is said to be exploring a possible gubernatorial run next year.

Knollenberg had $134,000, but got quite a scare in 2006. A woefully underfunded and relatively unknown Democrat, Nancy Skinner, held Knollenberg to 52 percent of the vote in the Wolverine State’s 9th district.

That close call has evidently reinvigorated the 73-year-old former insurance agent. The Detroit News recently reported that Knollenberg has erected $10,000 worth of billboards in his district and is making more public appearances than usual.

Ehlers, also 73, had a respectable $370,000 in the bank at the close of 2006, especially considering he has never won with less than 65 percent of the vote in his Grand Rapids-based third district.

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 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 headlining 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.), who insists he is seeking another term — unless he runs for Senate if Sen. Joseph Biden (D) vacates his seat to concentrate full time on his presidential bid. Castle is listed in the “secondary defense” column in the strategy memo compiled by the White House.

Two Republicans who Democrats think are vulnerable because of ethics issues only make 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 both made the DCCC’s list and are in 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 controversy surrounding the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, 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 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 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.

The White House also assessed how its vaunted 72-hour get-out-the-vote program held up.

The report noted that Republicans lost four of five House races where the program was not implemented — Kentucky’s 3rd, Iowa’s 2nd, Pennsylvania’s 4th and North Carolina’s 11th. In five other key races, the White House’s analysis claims that the 72-hour program helped GOP incumbents add votes compared to the final polls before Election Day, allowing the GOP to hold them all.

In the memo, White House operatives conceded that some GOP incumbents lost because of scandals — Democrats worked endlessly to convince voters that the Republican-controlled Congress was engulfed in a “culture of corruption.” They also said that many incumbents lost because they were caught off guard, or as the Jennings’ presentation put it, were “complacent.”

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