Like everyone who pays attention to House races, I was more than a little interested to see where the National Republican Congressional Committee would use its limited resources on independent expenditures this cycle.
[IMGCAP(1)]Now, with Election Day fast approaching and Republicans likely to lose more than two dozen House seats and quite possibly more than 30 seats its possible to evaluate the NRCCs decisions.
At least 19 of the 29 districts in which the NRCC advertised seem like good calls. Five others are debatable, while five are not justified, in my view.
The five Democratic seats targeted by the NRCC Paul Kanjorskis (Pa.), Nick Lampsons (Texas), Carol Shea-Porters (N.H.), Steve Kagens (Wis.) and retiring Rep. Bud Cramers (Ala.) all seem like reasonable choices.
Kanjorskis ethics problems and poll numbers put him on the list. Lampsons district is rock-solid Republican and favors challenger Pete Olson (R). Even Democrats will tell you Shea-Porters win last time was a fluke, and Cramers retirement opens up a generally conservative seat thats an obvious GOP target. Kagens district also leans Republican.
All 11 open Republican seats on the list are obvious places for the NRCC to play. Normally, it shouldnt have to spend money to defend an at-large seat in Wyoming or Alabamas 2nd district. But given the national landscape and race-specific factors, nobody ought to question the NRCCs decisions in those districts.
NRCC funding surely is warranted in three GOP-held districts that have proved to be competitive in the past, in Washingtons 8th district (Rep. Dave Reichert), Ohios 1st district (Rep. Steve Chabot) and Nevadas 3rd (Rep. Jon Porter).
Reicherts Seattle-area district went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election, and Reichert has won two squeakers. Chabots district went only narrowly for President Bush in 2004, and the Democratic nominee this time, state Rep. Steve Driehaus, looks formidable, especially given the considerable African-American population in the district. Porters district was drawn to be a tossup, but a surge in Democratic registration has changed that. All three Republicans have campaigned hard.
In five other districts with Republican incumbents, its less clear that the NRCCs help was justified.
Rep. Thelma Drakes Virginia district gave Bush 58 percent four years ago, not quite the 60 percent that Rep. Lee Terrys Nebraska district did and only a point more than Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balarts Florida district did. Two other Republicans, Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg and Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, sit in districts that Bush carried with 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively good margins but hardly overwhelming.
As incumbents, all five of these Republicans had the opportunity to solidify themselves for re-election both by working hard to communicate with their constituents and by building up huge war chests. Terry raised the least of the bunch, at $1.4 million through Oct. 15. English raised the most, $2.2 million.
Changing demographics and the Democratic strength at the top of the ticket added to Drakes woes, justifying NRCC action, in my view. The competitiveness of Englishs district and Walbergs also make it reasonable for the NRCC to expend valuable resources there, though as a candidate for the NRCC chairmanship this cycle, English surely should not be in the vulnerable position he now finds himself.
That leaves Terry, who has again run a lackluster campaign that took his re-election for granted, and Diaz-Balart, who represents a Republican district in the very expensive Miami media market. Given their situations, Id argue that the NRCC should not have spent money in either race.
Five GOP incumbents who have benefited from a total of more than $2.2 million in NRCC spending also should have been cut loose immediately and told to fend for themselves: Reps. Randy Kuhl (New Yorks 29th district), Bill Sali (Idahos 1st), Jean Schmidt (Ohios 2nd), Mark Souder (Indianas 3rd) and Marilyn Musgrave (Colorados 4th).
Each of the districts represented by these incumbents is reliably Republican under normal circumstances, and their vulnerability, even in this political environment, reflects their individual weaknesses. In 2004, Bush carried Salis district with 69 percent, Schmidts with 64 percent, Souders with 68 percent and Musgraves with 58 percent. Kuhls district was the closest of the bunch, with Bush winning it with 56 percent.
It says a great deal about Sali, Schmidt and Souder that they ran so far behind Bush. Not all conservative candidates in those districts necessarily would run so poorly. These three simply have limited appeal, and the NRCC shouldnt have to spend considerable resources every two years to rescue them in districts that they should retain easily.
Finally, there is no way that the NRCC should have considered rushing into Michele Bachmanns race after the Minnesota Congresswoman shoved her foot in her mouth on MSNBC recently. The conservative legislator turned a comfortable re-election into an uphill race by taking Chris Matthews obvious bait. She has no one to blame but herself, and she has been sitting on more than $1 million that she could have spent to support her candidacy.
Some conservatives had a cow when the NRCCs IE unit decided to pull the plug on Musgrave and refused to spend its limited funds on Bachmann. Sorry, but the NRCCs job isnt to elect conservatives. Its to elect Republicans.
While damaged GOP incumbents such as Sali, Schmidt and Souder continue to drain the NRCCs cash in solid Republican districts, strong GOP open-seat candidates such as Darren White (New Mexicos 1st), Erik Paulsen (Minnesotas 3rd), Leonard Lance (New Jerseys 7th), Chris Lee (New Yorks 26th) and Steve Stivers (Ohios 15th) are fighting for their political lives.
If radio talk-show host Michael Reagan and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins want to spend their time productively, they shouldnt be beating up the NRCC for its decisions not to waste money on incumbents who made themselves vulnerable. They should be hunting for personable, smart, politically savvy conservatives with campaign skills and thoughtful new ideas.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.