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A Tough Year for Recruiting

Plenty of GOP-Leaning Seats Still Need Candidates

With the GOP still mired in the political doldrums and the conclusion of the off-year recruiting period approaching, the National Republican Congressional Committee is running out of time to sign up top-tier candidates in several targeted districts.

For the most part, the NRCC’s recruiting efforts have been successful. But with roughly three months to go before politics takes a break for the December holidays and candidate filing deadlines begin to hit, the committee must navigate inhospitable political terrain as it seeks to sign A-list recruits in a number of Democratic-held, Republican-leaning districts and GOP-held open seats.

In interviews, both past and present NRCC strategists discounted the effect of national atmospherics on recruiting. A Congressional campaign committee’s ability to sign strong candidates has much more to do with personal ego and the political environment in an individual district, they agreed, and much less to do with a political party’s fortunes and its status in Congress.

“You will find more individuals reluctant to run because they don’t want to be one of 435, rather than any perception of what the national environment might be on Election Day,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.

To prove this point, Republicans point to Kansas’ GOP-leaning 3rd district and state Sen. Nick Jordan (R), who is challenging Rep. Dennis Moore (D). The GOP tried in previous cycles, when Republicans were riding high nationally, to recruit Jordan into a race against Moore.

But Jordan declined until this cycle, when his party is in trouble nationally, partly because he sees a greater political opportunity locally. With the Democrats in control of Congress, the Republican state Senator believes he can run against Moore as the change candidate — and that Moore will be forced to take tough votes by his leadership that he, as a Republican, will be able to capitalize on.

“Jordan thinks the national environment will help him out a lot against Moore,” said one Republican strategist with experience running House races. “With Democrats in control of the House and Senate, it’s easier to run for change.”

Recent public opinion polls have shown that an anti-Washington mood has gripped much of the electorate. And with Congress’ record-low approval ratings, the political environment can be somewhat perilous even for Democrats.

But it’s the GOP that is bearing the brunt of President Bush’s low job approval numbers, the unpopular Iraq War, and bad publicity as a result of ethical malfeasance by Members in both the House and Senate that was rampant last cycle and has continued to some degree this year.

Democrats believe this environment is causing many of the NRCC’s preferred recruits to turn the committee down. Democrats also contend the NRCC is having to work overtime finding candidates for open seats that would have been safely defended by incumbents if not for a poor national environment scaring them into retirement.

“National Republicans are saddled with second-tier candidates, divisive primaries and a record of rubber-stamping President Bush’s policies and endless war in Iraq,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “With an environment like this, it is no surprise that Republican Members are rushing to the exit doors and their recruitment efforts are sputtering.”

Some Republicans say the national political environment occasionally plays a role in recruiting.

In 1994 and 2006, for example, as it became clear that a wave was building for, respectively, the GOP and the Democrats, certain candidates felt encouraged enough to jump into the race after previously declining to run. An individual tends to run when his ego is satisfied that victory is attainable — and the national environment can affect that assessment.

“Ego has a lot to do with it,” said one Republican strategist. “ But as part of that ego, the person has to believe they can win. It’s a lot easier to make the case you can win if things are going well nationally, especially in a presidential election year.”

Although the NRCC continues to have severe fundraising troubles, even Republican critics of the committee have been complimentary of its recruiting efforts.

The NRCC itself is particularly high on candidates it has running in 15 districts across the country, including recruits it has tapped to run in the Northeast. That region is thought of as an especially rough territory for the GOP coming out of the 2006 cycle, when several of its longtime incumbents were defeated.

Among those recruits are state Sen. David Cappiello (R) in Connecticut’s 5th district; businessman Andrew Saul (R) in New York’s 19th district; and former New York Secretary of State Sandy Treadwell (R) in the Empire State’s 20th district.

However, the NRCC still has holes to fill.

Seats without a candidate include Indiana’s 2nd and 9th districts, although the NRCC’s Spain said the committee expects to announce a top-tier recruit in the 9th “in the very near future.”

In Indiana’s 8th district, the NRCC is throwing Greg Goode, a university lobbyist and former Congressional aide, against Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D). Observers of that race don’t expect Goode to cause Ellsworth much of a problem, but Spain said he just might surprise the prognosticators.

In Ohio’s 15th, where Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) is retiring, the NRCC has yet to dig up a candidate, and many Republican consultants predict that seat will be flipped by the Democrats next year.

In Ohio’s 18th, the NRCC is adamant that Fred Dailey (R) and Paul Phillips (R) have what it takes to take back the Republican-leaning seat from freshman Rep. Zack Space (D). Dailey was Ohio’s longest-serving elected agriculture director, and Phillips is an attorney and ex-military man. Still, some analysts who follow Ohio House races are unimpressed at this point.

In North Carolina’s 11th district, freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D) might be immune from a serious challenge, especially with former Rep. Charles Taylor (R) refusing to rule out a rematch. A state Senator who was highly regarded by the national GOP recently decided against running, and Taylor may be freezing out other Republicans interested in running.

The NRCC might face a similar problem in Pennsylvania’s 8th district, where former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick is wavering on whether to challenge the Democrat who ousted him in 2006, now-Rep. Patrick Murphy. Spain said the NRCC is in talks to recruit for that district in case Fitzpatrick decides not to run again.

In New York’s 24th and New Hampshire’s 2nd, the NRCC also is without top-tier candidates at this point, although Spain said the committee should have something to announce in the very near future.

In Georgia’s 12th, the NRCC is after physician Wayne Mosely. Mosely is currently serving in Iraq, and Spain said he is just what Republicans are looking for to take on Rep. John Barrow (D).

Should the NRCC build on the recruiting success it has experienced thus far and fill its remaining slots with quality candidates, there’s still the problem of fundraising.

Thus far this cycle, the NRCC has been completely outgunned financially by the DCCC. At the end of July, the DCCC had banked more than $33 million, compared to just under $2 million for the NRCC.

“They can recruit all the candidates they want, but they have no money to fund them,” said one Republican consultant whose clients include House candidates.

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