You sure can’t accuse Republicans of not being confident heading into 2010. As has been obvious for months, the GOP’s optimist outlook about the likelihood of a red wave is helping the NRCC score recruitment coups - and the past few days have brought the party a number of new candidates.
The most important development is undoubtedly Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta’s reported decision to seek a rematch against Rep. Paul Kanjorski in Pennsylvania’s 11th district.
Well-known as a hardline conservative on immigration issues, Barletta challenged Kanjorski last year in what was one of the GOP’s top-pick opportunities of the cycle. As a longtime incumbent representing a blue-leaning district, Kanjorski should never have been in trouble in the first place. But his hold on the district weakened, partly because of ethical controversies and Barletta led in polls throughout the campaign. On Election Night, Pennsylvania was submerged by Barack Obama’s coattails and Kanjorski narrowly survived, winning 52% to 48% in a district that gave Obama 57%.
In 2010, Kanjorski will not benefit from that high a turnout level among his base and there is no reason to think his already low standing with voters will have improved. Barletta’s candidacy thus makes him one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents yet again. Complicating matters is that Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O’Brien is running against him in the Democratic primary, which could either push Kanjorski towards retirement or force him to work hard enough to reach out to his base that it could help him in the general election.
On the other hand, Barletta will face major problems of his own, mostly that his reputation is undoubtedly far worse today than it was in early 2008: The DCCC spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative ads last year, hitting Barletta hard on issues like Social Security. That’s the kind of attack that leaves a durable trace, which explains why candidates who’ve lost a highly competitive often fail if they try again, no matter how favorable the political environment (Diane Farrell in 2006, Darcy Burner and Linda Stender in 2008).
Might this be Salazar’s first competitive race since 2004?
Despite winning a red-leaning open seat in 2004, Salazar did not face much trouble winning re-election over the past two cycles. That might change next year, as the GOP has recruited a candidate and is rumored to be working on another.
State Rep. Scott Tipton announced that he would take on the incumbent. The twist: Tipton challenged Salazar in 2006, and lost by a decisive 25%. But that loss came before Tipton won a seat in the state House, which should give him more campaign experience, more institutional support and more credibility with donors and voters. Furthermore, the 2006 environment was about as bad as it could get for Republicans in Colorado. Governor Bill Ritter’s re-election race next year will bear no resemblance to his 16% triumph the open Governor’s race four years ago.
As always, I am not saying that a red wave will submerge safe-seeming incumbents like Salazar (quite the contrary, I’ve argued that predictions of Democratic doom are way overblown), only that Republicans are positioning themselves in such a way that they’ll be able to take advantage if the environment is toxic for Democrats. And they’ll be all the better positioned if they manage to convince state Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry to challenge Salazar: Penry just dropped his gubernatorial race, and his district falls in Salazar’s, which has driven up speculation that he could delight the NRCC and get in.
In NY-24, another Republican who looks set on a rematch
If PA-11 was expected to be a close race last year, absolutely no one was paying attention to NY-24: Yet, Election Night brought a stunning nail-bitter that ended in Rep. Michael Arcuri holding on to his seat by a small 4%. His 2008 rival Richard Hanna is now signaling that he’s preparing for a rematch: While he hadn’t made it clear that he was looking at 2010, he issued a press release denouncing Arcuri’s vote in favor of the health care bill.
The reason Republicans would be delighted to have Hanna get back in: He can self-fund his campaign, as he did last year. Since it’s unlikely the NRCC would commit money to this race from the get-go, the GOP needs a wealthy recruit again in 2010. Yet, Hanna shouldn’t expect a repeat of 2008: Arcuri will not be taken by surprise, nor will the DCCC. They will be sure to poll the race this time, and pour in money if they notice the incumbent is in trouble.
ID-01: One Republican in, one Republican out
As long as the GOP manages to get its act together, it should be favored to pick-up ID-01, a heavily conservative district that gave Bush 69% of the vote and McCain 62%. For now, much of the attention has concentrated on Vaughn Ward, a veteran who has never before sought public office but who has attracted the support of figures like Sarah Palin.
Democrats ran many Iraq veterans in the 2006-2008 cycle, and it did not prove a particularly successful experiment - for instance in IL-06. It is always a risk to nominate a political novice, as one can never be sure how he’ll hold up on the trail. Yet, Ward caught a break yesterday when state House Majority Leader Ken Roberts announced that he would drop out of the race. Within 24 hours, another party contender emerged: state Rep. Raul Labrador announced his candidacy.
But none of this matters as much as the man everyone is watching: former Rep. Bill Sali, whose extreme politics and personal antics so antagonized Republican leaders and voters that he lost re-election last year. Numerous reports this week indicate that Sali is actively considering running again in 2010. He would probably need a crowded GOP field to prevail, as I have trouble seeing him reach 50% of the primary vote; his candidacy would also lead to an interesting split within conservative groups, since Palin has already sided with Ward while Sali is a Club for Growth protegee.
One recruitment failure in PA-17
Rep. Tim Holden might represent a red-leaning district but he hasn’t had much trouble winning re-election in recent cycles. This week, speculation started risingthat state Senator David Argall would give local Republicans their first reason to cheer in years, but it did not take long for Argall to deny those rumors, saying he was 99% certain that he would not challenge Holden (not that he would not risk losing his legislative seat if he did). That leaves PA-17 out of reach for the NRCC’s ambitions.