GOP Effort to Aid at-Risk Incumbents Heartens Democrats
The group tasked with getting Republicans elected to the House of Representatives -- and keeping them there -- added 10 party members to its incumbent protection program this week, a development that Democrats hailed as a nod from the other side that the lower chamber is in play.
The National Republican Congressional Committee now has 30 incumbents enrolled in its Patriot Program, which establishes benchmarks for the most vulnerable incumbents and provides the financial support to help get them there.
Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to reclaim control of the House, and have an ambitious and highly calculated plan to reach that number. Most analysts characterize the goal as an uphill climb, but Democrats see the Republicans’ new list as an admission that it is doable.
“The NRCC just confirmed what we’ve been saying for months and poll after poll has shown: The House is in play and the Republican majority is in jeopardy,” said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Facing sagging poll numbers and an unpopular agenda, Republicans now agree: They have enough members in danger to lose control of the House. ”
The DCCC has an incumbent protection program of its own, with 17 admitted members. That's a tough spot from which to point fingers, Republicans argue. Democrats haven't said they will win back the House in November -- and they are wise not to. But they promise it will be "razor close," and are happy to seize upon anything that potentially sharpens that razor, like Republicans expanding their list of vulnerable members.
Many of the lawmakers in the Patriot Program are freshmen and some were swept into Congress on the Tea Party wave -- among them, Allen West of Florida and Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. But others are veterans who have fallen victim to the redistricting knife. Maryland's Roscoe Bartlett is one. The Western Maryland congressman has been elected 10 times with at least 54 percent of the vote, but his conservative district will now have more liberal voters. Nine-term California Rep. Dan Lungren (pictured) fits a similar profile; he has been on the Democrats' hit list for much of this cycle and has borne the brunt of the House Majority PAC's attacks. He describes the NRCC program as "an outside check on what you’re doing with your campaign; it's always good to have someone come in and have a look with a fresh set of eyes."
Lungren, in an interview with RealClearPolitics, said expanding the Patriot Program roster is a sign of preparedness, not submission, from Republicans. To assume otherwise "would be as silly as the coach of the New York Giants saying because [Patriots Coach] Bill Belichick has a game plan for the Super Bowl, he thinks he's going to lose the Super Bowl," he said.
Lungren also has more faith in his new district than do others, and says within the new lines, voters in 2010 backed Democrat Jerry Brown for governor but also supported Republican Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate. Lungren has won elections with a sizable majority of the support (he served a different district before leaving the House and eventually returning in 2004), but 2008 was his narrowest win: He beat his opponent by just five points as Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the district by about 1,600 votes.
"Patriot Members have demonstrated the leadership and ability to wage aggressive campaigns based on rigorous goals and proven strategies for victory," NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions said in a statement. Other new members include Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Gary Miller and Brian Bilbray of California, Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman of Colorado, Joe Walsh and Tim Johnson of Illinois and Dan Benishek of Michigan. (Illinois, Maryland and California have new maps that help Democrats.)
These will be tough seats for Republicans to hold, but fundraising from national Republicans can make a difference, says former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, who once served as NRCC chair. "You look at the alignment of the districts, you look at the presidential dynamics and everything else, and when you have a 25-seat lead, the big goal is to protect your incumbents," he told RealClearPolitics. "It's easier to protect an incumbent than to win another seat. They're doubling down on their incumbents, trying to take them off the table."
But the NRCC is also ambitious, after being on the winning side of a history-making wave election. Republicans don't just want to keep their majority, Davis says. "They want to keep their margins up."
Few anticipate another wave election in 2012, especially not for Democrats in a year where President Obama is at the top of the ballot. History has shown the unlikelihood of back-to-back waves, and many strategists describe a net gain of 25 seats as constituting one.
Still, Republicans would be unwise to be too confident. "I don't think the House is in jeopardy," says Davis. "But given the volatility of the electorate, you rule nothing out at this point."
Democrats are banking on that volatility working in their favor. Steve Israel, the DCCC chairman, has said the anticipated anti-incumbent mood will work in Democrats’ favor because the minority has fewer incumbents to protect. The party also touts a pair of polls showing a plurality of voters backing Democrats over Republicans for control of Congress. Still, the RCP average puts the congressional job approval rating at 13 percent -- hardly an encouraging sign for either party. "It's not like 2006, where the Democrats were popular and the Republicans were unpopular," says Davis, referring to the election that swept a wave of Democrats into office to lead both chambers. "Everybody is unpopular."
House Republicans have work to do on the public relations front after highly publicized standoffs on the federal debt ceiling and the payroll tax extension, along with other eleventh-hour squabbles. But they will try to convince voters that a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House hamper the legislative progress, and they will tie their opponents to the president’ unpopular policies, including health care. While Republicans will try to nationalize these races, Democrats are being advised to run their House campaigns like mayoral races -- keeping them local and focused on the two candidates vying for that office. But they will also paint the Republican Party as one bound to its Tea Party faction.
If Democrats win, it will likely be because of their messaging, Lungren believes. If the campaign is run "based on some sort of distractions, and the Democrats are successful in what I consider an attempt to divide us into 'us versus them,' then I think they've got an outside shot," he says. "If the results of the election are a result of an understanding of the positions we as the Republicans have taken in the House -- the changes we have made, the changes we would make to the federal government and the federal budget if the Senate were to go along with us -- then I think we win.”