House Republican leaders believe they have a bumper crop of quality candidates lining up to run for seats the GOP lost in the 2006 Democratic wave.
Almost 20 of the 30 seats Democrats picked up on their way to winning the House majority sit in Republican districts where ambitious GOP pols have been waiting years for the rare opportunity to run for Congress.
“They say, ‘Hey, this seat hasn’t been open in 10, 20 years. If I don’t do it now, I may never get the chance,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).
Many well-established Republican incumbents went down to defeat in November, some of whom were ethically scarred. Given the bent of the districts — 18 Democratic freshmen represent areas that President Bush carried in 2004 with anywhere from 51 percent of the vote to 62 percent — local officials who have been waiting their turn are eager to run against those new Democratic Congressmen, Cole said.
“People think it’s counterintuitive [but] most of their gains came in seats that the president carried,” Cole said.
According to Cole, people in those districts are willing to take a shot because the numbers are so favorable and also because “we don’t believe the Democrats will get two 2006s in a row, just like we didn’t get two 1994s” — a reference to the election cycle in which the GOP won control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
But despite Cole’s boasts, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the NRCC’s drive to recruit high-quality candidates has had some major misfires.
Twenty-five to 30 of the NRCC’s recruits are in Washington, D.C., this week to attend the committee’s “candidate school.”
The NRCC has lined up wealthy former New York Republican State Committee Chairman Sandy Treadwell to take on freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the Empire State’s 20th district. Failed 2006 gubernatorial nominee John Faso (R) also is taking a look at that race.
“We already have a good candidate [in Treadwell], and we could have others,” Cole said.
Fashion company executive Andrew Saul (R) is ready to face off with freshman Rep. John Hall (D) in New York’s 19th district.
Two serious Republican contenders, state Sen. Dick Day and state Rep. Randy Demmer, have declared against freshman Rep. Tim Walz (D) in Minnesota’s 1st district.
In Pennsylvania, Ron Francis (R), a former Allegheny County councilman, likely will run against Rep. Jason Altmire (D) in the 4th district — though former Rep. Melissa Hart (R) and former football star Lynn Swann also may run. Numerous Republicans are eyeing Rep. Christopher Carney (D) in Pennsylvania’s 10th district. Tom Marino, a U.S. attorney, looks the most formidable and serious.
Gillibrand, Hall, Walz, Altmire and Carney all ousted GOP incumbents in the fall.
Cole also is hopeful about Arizona’s 5th and 8th districts, where Democratic Reps. Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords, respectively, captured Republican-held seats.
In the 5th district, former Rep. Matt Salmon’s name is being tossed around along with that of Hugh Hallman, a former mayor of Tempe, and Sean Noble, who is chief of staff for Rep. John Shadegg (R) in the neighboring 3rd district.
In the 8th district, which Giffords won handily in an open-seat race last year, state Senate President Tim Bee (R) is being courted heavily to run.
Two other seats Cole is hopeful about were previously occupied by politically problematic Republican incumbents before last year’s Democratic wave.
In Florida’s 16th district, which disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley (R) reluctantly vacated, Republicans have three serious contenders vying to take on freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney (D): state Rep. Gayle Harrell; attorney Tom Rooney, who is the son of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney; and local city councilman and Vietnam War veteran Hal Valeche.
Golden State voters in the 11th district tossed former Rep. Richard Pombo (R) overboard largely in response to an aggressive campaign to oust him by environmentalists. But questions about Pombo’s ethics hurt him, too.
State Assemblyman Guy Houston (R) and former Assemblyman Dean Andal (R) are weighing bids against Rep. Jerry McNerney (D), who started out as a long-shot candidate in the previous cycle after losing badly to Pombo in 2004.
“I’m really surprised at the quality of candidates” in these districts, Cole said. “I compare them to the 1992 Republican class. A lot of them were longtime political operatives or in elected office.
“We picked up 10 seats while we were losing the presidency” that year, he said. “These people were making smart decisions based on the district.”
Republicans believe their odds of picking up seats also are greatly increased in districts they lost because the incumbent was under indictment or had some other serious ethical problems or flaws.
For example, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) sits in a district that gave Bush 64 percent of its vote in 2004, but he was running to replace former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R), whose legal woes are many. At least three local Republican officials are looking at challenging Lampson, and if a “clean” Republican runs, the GOP chances of retaking the seat increase immeasurably.
But DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said NRCC recruiters have missed some big opportunities.
“Judging from the growing list of so-called interested Republicans choosing not to run in ’08, it seems clear that their recruiting efforts have stalled,” Thornell said, rattling off the names of more than a dozen would-be GOP candidates who have taken a pass — including four highly regarded politicians in Florida alone who declined entreaties to challenge freshman Democrats.
“We look at it seat by seat,” Cole said. “I think we’re going to surprise some people with places where we have candidates.”
The former political consultant said the NRCC will not just target the 18 freshmen. He said his playing field spans the 61 districts currently represented by Democrats that Bush carried in 2004.
“They have more Democrats sitting in our seats then we have theirs,” he said, noting that only eight districts carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 are represented by Republicans.
But given the huge cash advantage the DCCC currently enjoys over the NRCC — $9.8 million to $2.5 million as of March 31 — Thornell questioned how committed Cole is to funding challengers’ campaigns, especially when Democrats plan to be on the offensive in several Republican-held districts.
“It seems unlikely they’ll invest their limited resources in long-shot bids when they have to defend 40-50 seats,” Thornell said.
Cole believes many of his coveted 61 districts will return to their Republican roots in next year’s presidential election. He also said the race for the White House should get Republicans who sat out 2006 to cast ballots in the GOP’s favor.
“We don’t have to go in to a lot of new territories; we just have to go reclaim lost territory,” Cole said.