If House Republicans want to win back the majority next Congress, their primary targets will likely be freshman Democrats.
And with the first candidate filing deadline two months away, the National Republican Congressional Committee has had some success in recruiting candidates to run against almost two dozen first-term Democrats in competitive districts.
According to a Roll Call analysis, the NRCC has successfully recruited 10 top-tier challengers to freshman Democrats in 2010. But the committee has also suffered several setbacks, including failing so far to recruit their best candidates in at least seven House districts represented by Democratic freshmen.
What’s more, it appears the numbers might not be in their favor. There are only 14 freshman Democrats representing districts that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won in 2008’s presidential election. And with NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) looking to target 80 races this cycle — twice as many as he needs to win to get his party back to the majority — Republicans have a difficult recruitment challenge ahead of them.
In Alabama’s 2nd district, the NRCC can count Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby (R) as a successful recruitment story. Roby is her party’s top choice for defeating freshman Rep. Bobby Bright (D) and was courted early on in the cycle by Sessions and the NRCC.
Roby acknowledged in her May announcement that she was working with state and national GOP officials to clear the Republican field, and their work paid off when wealthy state Rep. Jay Love, the 2008 nominee, decided not to run again.
At just 33 years old, Roby is a solid conservative in a district that went for McCain by 26 points in the presidential election. She has also proved to be an impressive fundraiser, bringing in more than $125,000 in the first six weeks of her campaign. The only knock on Roby so far appears to be the simple fact that she’s still unknown outside her small corner of Montgomery.
It appears some of Republicans’ best recruits against freshman Democrats include some familiar names, as several former Members have announced bids for their old seats. And although former Members often come with political baggage, House Republicans see ex-Reps. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) as their best bets in their respective districts, given their name identifications and fundraising networks.
Pearce relinquished his House seat to run for Senate in 2008 but lost the general election. Now he is trying to recapture his former House seat from his friend, freshman Rep. Harry Teague (D), who won his first term with relative ease.
Chabot was one of the first Republicans to announce his bid for his former seat. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) defeated Chabot in the previous cycle when an increase in black turnout in Cincinnati with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket boosted his campaign. Chabot raised almost as much as the incumbent for his bid through the end of June.
And while the face might not be familiar, voters in Illinois’ 14th district know attorney Ethan Hastert’s (R) name. He is the son of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R), and Republicans are optimistic that he’ll be a top-tier challenger to Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.). Foster won a special election to replace the elder Hastert in 2008, and Republicans believe they can take the seat back with a stronger candidate.
In Maryland, state Sen. Andy Harris (R) is another top recruit, but the NRCC won’t be truly successful in that district until it can be determined whether Harris will face a serious primary challenge next year. State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R), who traded blows with Harris in a messy three-way primary in 2008, is once again contemplating a House bid. Clearing the field for Harris will certainly go a long way in helping Republicans regain the conservative 1st district now held by freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D).
Democratic freshman Rep. Larry Kissell’s (N.C.) district has been a political battleground for most of the past decade. After narrowly losing his 2006 race to then-Rep. Robin Hayes (R), Kissell returned in 2008 to finish the job.
Although Hayes lost by 10 points in November, many Republicans believed that the former Congressman, who was listed as one of the wealthiest Members during his tenure on Capitol Hill, might try to reclaim his old seat.
Besides Hayes, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a serious gubernatorial bid in 2008, and former Carolina Panthers star safety Mike Minter, were two other well-known Republicans who had expressed an early interest in the race.
But Minter took himself out of consideration in May, and then in mid-August McCrory and Hayes passed on the race in the same week.
Suddenly the party is without any of its big-name candidates in the district, and Army veteran Lou Huddleston, who is coming off a failed state House bid in 2008, has become the Republicans’ best hope for the moment. But the recent presence in the district of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the NRCC’s recruiting chairman, is a sure sign that the committee recognizes it has more work to do there.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) started his freshman year with a target on his back. Democrats have targeted the southwest Connecticut district for several cycles, and Himes finally defeated longtime Rep. Christopher Shays (R) by a slim margin in November.
Republicans publicly wooed state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney (R) to run against Himes. As the son of the former Rep. Stewart McKinney (R), who represented the district for almost 20 years, he would have been an ideal candidate. But John McKinney officially said no to a race against Himes in late July, leaving the NRCC with a crowded field of little-known Republicans running against the well-funded freshman.
In Michigan, Republicans have failed to find quality candidates to run against freshman Democratic Reps. Gary Peters and Mark Schauer. House Republicans insist they are still in talks with potential candidates for both races, but it looks more and more like these two freshman Members might get a pass this cycle.
Peters won his first term by a healthy 9-point margin over then-Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R). Former Knollenberg aide Paul Welday is the top Republican in the race so far, but his recent fundraising report showed about $101,500 of his $105,000 campaign account came from his own wallet. What’s even more telling is that Republicans are still searching for a candidate.
The situation in Schauer’s district is more favorable for Republicans: Former Rep. Tim Walberg (R) has announced a bid for his former seat, and Republicans are in talks with other potential candidates. Although House Republican leaders are not overjoyed that Walberg is back in the race, the 7th district is more favorable for their party — Schauer defeated Walberg by only 2 points in November.
Not Just for Freshmen
Although freshman Members are often the most obvious political targets, House Republicans appear to be recruiting — and with measured success — many candidates to challenge some of Democrats’ most senior Members as well.
In Wisconsin, state Sen. Dan Kapanke (R) announced in late July that he was running against Rep. Ron Kind (D), who has a plum spot on the Ways and Means Committee. Kind might be a reach for Republicans, but the western Wisconsin Democrat is mulling a gubernatorial bid, and if he leaves, the race to replace him will be wide open — with Kapanke’s campaign in full swing already.
North of Kind’s district, Republicans have tapped Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy to challenge Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D). While many Republicans even acknowledge that this race is a long shot for them, the NRCC has promoted Duffy’s candidacy. He is a former cast member of MTV’s “The Real World,— making him a sharp contrast to Obey, a 40-year Congressional veteran.
The last time Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) received less than 60 percent of the vote on Election Day was in 1982, but Republicans are suddenly making noise about challenging the 17-term Congressman this cycle. After blasting Skelton in his conservative district for his support of Obama’s stimulus plan and the cap-and-trade legislation, the NRCC is now hitting the Armed Services chairman on health care. The barrage is intended to soften up the incumbent for whoever emerges from the GOP primary. Former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R) and state Sen. Bill Stouffer (R) have both filed paperwork to take on Skelton.
But while the NRCC has had some success finding candidates — albeit not always top-tier challengers — to run against veteran Democrats, they have also had their share of failures in some of their most favorable districts.
Two-term Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.) represents one of the most Republican districts in the Keystone State, and it appears the NRCC has failed to find a good candidate so far to run against him. Several South Dakota Republicans are still talking about challenging Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D), but no top-notch candidate has come forward to challenge the moderate Blue Dog co-chairwoman in her Republican at-large district.
The NRCC has spent a good deal of time and money on radio ads and robocalls attacking seven-term Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) in a district that McCain won by a double-digit margin last year. But despite a good deal of talk about targeting the seat, the party so far has only been able to lure an unknown Army veteran into taking on the Congressman.