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Enemy Territory?

NRCC Believes It Can Compete in Many Northeastern Districts

House Republicans know they enter the 2008 cycle in their weakest position in more than a decade. But the National Republican Congressional Committee believes that GOP candidates can make up some of the ground they lost last year on Democratic turf.

When Democrats picked up 11 seats in the Northeast in November, many political watchers called it a major realignment, similar to the one Congressional Republicans enjoyed in the South following the 1994 elections.

The NRCC says Democrats would be unwise to assume that the seats they picked up in states stretching from New

Hampshire to Pennsylvania are theirs to keep.

“Republican candidates are lining up to run in the Northeast,” said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. “We are very happy with the way things are shaping up for us there.”

Spain rattled off the names of eight potentially strong Republicans who have filed or are committed to running in the region and said the committee is in talks with a handful more potential candidates who do not want their names made public yet.

Spain pointed to Connecticut, where Democrats picked up two seats last year, leaving Rep. Christopher Shays as the lone Republican in the state’s delegation — and the only GOP House Member in all of New England — as a good example of where the NRCC is not backing down.

“In Connecticut, Democrats are failing to generate any serious excitement about challenging Chris Shays while we have two top- tier candidates to run against the two [freshmen] Democrats,” he said.

Spain was referring to Sean Sullivan, a former commander of the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, and state Sen. David Cappiello.

Sullivan already has filed the paperwork to take on Rep. Joe Courtney (D), who wrested the 2nd district seat away from then-Rep. Rob Simmons (R) by less than 100 votes last year.

Cappiello is also an official candidate. He hopes to avenge veteran Rep. Nancy Johnson’s loss in the 5th district to now-Rep. Christopher Murphy (D).

Democrat Diane Farrell came close to knocking off Shays last year and in 2004 but is not trying again. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attempted to recruit National Hockey League player Mike Richter to take on Shays, but he ultimately passed the puck.

Businessman Jim Himes (D) has entered the race, though other Democrats may follow.

Democrats point out that all three of those Connecticut districts have favored Democratic White House candidates, and that should boost their prospects in the upcoming presidential election year. Furthermore, the DCCC had $9.8 million in the bank as of March 31, while the NRCC had just $2.5 million.

“If their strategy is to invest their limited resources in many of these Northeastern districts, then I really like our prospects in 2008,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said.

The GOP also took a thumping in New Hampshire last year, losing both House seats to Democrats.

Former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) already is revving up for a rematch with Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in the 1st district, while several Republicans are seriously looking at freshman Rep. Paul Hodes (D) in the 2nd.

“In Carol Shea-Porter you have a one-dimensional novice who won a fluke victory … and we are confident that Jeb Bradley can win that seat back,” Spain said.

Shea-Porter was not the DCCC’s first choice last year. National Democrats favored state Rep. Jim Craig in the Democratic primary and did not give Shea-Porter — who was considered a long shot — much help in her contest with Bradley.

Spending less than $300,000, and without a single paid staffer, Shea-Porter captured the seat with 52 percent of the vote. In both the primary and the general election, she relied on grass-roots, anti-war activists to propel her to victory. So far this cycle, Shea-Porter has refused any help from the DCCC.

Meanwhile, the NRCC also likes its prospects in Maine’s 1st district.

Rep. Tom Allen (D) is vacating the seat to challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R). Several Democrats have already lined up to replace him, but Republicans think they have a shot in the district that only gave President Bush 43 percent of its presidential vote in 2004.

Steve Abbott, Collins’ chief of staff, confirmed that he is taking a serious look at the race.

Former state Sen. Charlie Summers (R), a former aide to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is also contemplating a bid, Spain said.

The NRCC has lined up former New York Republican Party Chairman Sandy Treadwell to take on freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the Empire State’s 20th district, and GOP officials say they have lined up philanthropist Andrew Saul to face off with freshman Rep. John Hall (D) in the 19th.

Saul, a fashion company executive, holds several positions at New York institutions, including the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where he is the vice chairman.

Both districts favored Bush in 2004, giving him 54 percent of the vote.

“We continue to be on the offensive in districts that didn’t necessarily perform well for Bush,” Spain said. “Contrary to popular belief, Republicans are well-positioned to compete in the Northeast.”

Thornell said the NRCC is daydreaming and that when the election draws nearer, the committee will not have the resources to help its recruits in the Northeast. The entire region prefers Democratic presidential candidates, he said, and Bush will be a drag on all GOP candidates in 2008, even though he will not be on the ballot.

“Voting for Bush Republicans who support a never-ending war in Iraq will be about as appealing to Northeastern voters as spending a long day at the dentist office,” Thornell said.

Spain countered that socially moderate Republicans can do well in those districts and that many of the incumbents who fit that description lost only because the national environment was so bad for Republicans last year.

Furthermore, Spain believes that the GOP’s presidential nominee could be a boon to Republican House candidates throughout the Eastern Seaboard, noting that all three of the Republican presidential frontrunners — Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have some appeal in the region.

But Thornell noted that the GOP frontrunners all favor Bush’s position on the Iraq War.

A recent poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., a Democratic polling firm, showed that Republicans face an uphill climb in their quest to retake control of Congress.

In fact, according to the Feb. 27-March 1 survey of 1,137 voters in 50 battleground districts, Bush is more unpopular in districts held by Republicans than in Democratic-held areas.

Sixty percent of voters in the Republican-held districts disapproved of Bush, while the total was 58 percent in Democratic-held districts, according to the survey, which had a 2.5-point margin of error.

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