Early in a cycle, national parties launch large waves of attack that target dozens of U.S. representatives, many of whom will not end up facing a competitive race. Yet, the list of chosen districts tells us a lot about the party’s offensive strategy - and the NRCC is letting us know that it intends to mount a real offensive for seats that are not commonly thought of as top-tier opportunities.
The NRCC’s first mass offensive, which occurred in early February, targeted 30 House Democrats with radio ads devoted to the stimulus bill. Now, the committee is targeting 43 Democrats for supporting Barack Obama’s budget - or rather, for supporting Nancy Pelosi’s budget, since the GOP is doing its best to separate congressional Democrats (who are generally unpopular) from the President (who enjoys high approval ratings).
33 of these incumbents are only being stung by robocalls; radio ads are running in 9 districts; and only 1 Democrat - Ohio’s Zach Space - is finding himself targeted by a TV ad.
“Just how fast is Congressman Zack Space spending your money?” asks the announcer. “Newspapers say Space and Nancy Pelosi authorized 1.2 trillion dollars in spending in less than two months. Now they’re spending even faster. Nancy Pelosi pushed a budget with a trillion dollar deficit. And Space voted to let Nancy Pelosi get her way.”
Space picked-up an open seat in 2006, boosted by the scandals that engulfed Rep. Ney; in 2008, he easily won re-election, 60% to 40%. He is certainly vulnerable in 2010 because he represents a conservative district that voted for McCain 52% to 45%; yet, he looks to be a good fit for the district and he is less obviously endangered than many Democrats who won their first election last fall.
That the NRCC is choosing to make this the one district in which they are airing a TV ad is a recognition on the GOP’s party that OH-18 is the type of district they will need to contest if they want any hope of meaningfully cutting the Democrats’ majority next year: Just as winning back TX-22 and KS-02 was not enough in 2008, winning back heavily conservative seats like AL-02 and ID-01 will not do much for the GOP in 2010. What they need is to reconquer conservative districts with relatively entrenched incumbents.
Just like OH-18, many of the 43 districts that are now being targeted by the NRCC meet that description. First, the 9 districts that are being targeted by radio ads:
Allan Grayson (FL-18), Debbie Halvorson (IL-11), Charlie Melancon (LA-03), Dina Titus (NV-03), Carol Shea-Porter (NH-01), Michael Arcuri (NY-24), Mary Jo Kilroy (OH-15), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-03) and Chet Edwards (TX-17)
5 of these Democrats were first elected in 2008, and 2 others are sophomore lawmakers. While there are no surprises on this list, it is noteworthy that a number of these districts are not what we would consider the early top-tier of 2010 contests. While Dahlkemper, Shea-Porter and Grayson are sure to be on the GOP’s target list, others should be harder to defeat.
Dina Titus and Mary Jo Kilroy represent blue-trending districts, and the GOP’s confidence is certainly noteworthy - especially in NV-03, which dramatically swung to Democrats last year. While IL-11 remains a swing district, Debbie Halvorson did easily win her open seat and Obama prevailed by a decisive margin. Michael Arcuri was supposed to be ultra-safe last year but he received a shockingly low 52% - a clear indication that he has a weak base of support in NY-24 - but he will not let himself be dulled by a false sense of security in 2010. As for Charlie Melancon, he represents a conservative district but looks to be well entrenched - at least until the next round of redistricting disrupts the state’s congressional lines.
In other words, districts like NV-03, OH-15 and IL-11 are places Democrats are favored to keep but in which the GOP needs to do well if it wants to regain its status as a party that should be taken seriously and could conceivably regain a majority. The same principle applies to the 33 Democrats who are only the target of robocalls:
John Adler (NJ-03); Jason Altmire (PA-04); Tim Bishop (NY-01); John Boccieri (OH-16); Leonard Boswell (IA-03); Allen Boyd (FL-02); Chris Carney (PA-10); Gerry Connolly (VA-11); Peter DeFazio (OR-04); Steve Driehaus (OH-01); Brad Ellsworth (IN-08); Gabby Giffords (AZ-08); John Hall (NY-19); Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL); Baron Hill (IN-09); Jim Himes (CT-04); Steve Kagen (WI-08); Paul Kanjorski (PA-11); Larry Kissell (NC-08); Ron Klein (FL-22); Dan Maffei (NY-25); Eric Massa (NY-29); Jerry McNerney (CA-11); Dennis Moore (KS-03); Gary Peters (MI-09); Loretta Sanchez (CA-47); Mark Schauer (MI-07); Kurt Schrader (OR-05); Joe Sestak (PA-07); Heath Shuler (NC-11); Vic Snyder (AR-02); John Spratt (SC-05); Bart Stupak (MI-01).
The inclusion of some of these districts is expected: Adler, Altmire, Carney, Driehaus, Kagen, Kanjorski, Kissell, Klein, Massa, McNerney, Moore, Peters and Schauer have all picked-up their seat over the past two cycle, and the GOP has to test their vulnerability as soon as possible to prevent them from having the time to entrench themselves. Other districts could conceivably be vulnerable, but it’s difficult to consider Ellsworth, Herseth Sandlin, Hill or Maffei as even being part of the second-tier of competitive races - especially as the GOP has no credible candidate in sight in some of these states.
Finally, there are some truly surprising inclusions on this list, at least considering the playing field we have gotten used to over the past two cycles: Tim Bishop (NY-01), Allen Boyd (FL-02), Peter DeFazio (OR-04), Vic Snyder (AR-02) and Bart Stupak (MI-01) are certainly not names we have gotten to used to hearing in the context of competitive races as they regularly coast to comfortable re-elections. Yet, all of these Democrats represent swing districts that are very competitive at the presidential level - all but OR-04 were won by George W. Bush in 2004, and Bush prevailed in that district four years earlier (making OR-04 one of only two district to switch from Bush to Kerry).
Bishop, Boyd, DeFazio, Snyder and Stupak remain undoubtedly favored to win another term, and for the GOP to even make one of them worry about re-election would already be a significant achievement. So the fact that these Democrats are being targeted should once again be taken as a sign that the GOP needs that it needs to seriously think about expanding the field to places it did not seriously contest over the past few cycles - places (like OR-04) it has not seriously contested for decades!
And it looks like the GOP is already having some success in its simple goal of being competitive in districts that should be competitive on paper. In AR-01 Rep. Marion Berry has had little reason to be concerned about keeping his job since he first won his seat in 1996; yet, the district has taken a dramatic swing rightward over the past decade. While AR-01 voted for Al Gore by 1% in 2000, it chose George W. Bush by 5% in 2004 and John McCain by 16% in 2008 - a dramatic collapse of Democratic performance that could open the door to a credible Republican congressional challenge.
For the NRCC to successfully put AR-01 on the radar screen will require a top-notch candidate, and the GOP is already touting buisnessman Rick Crawford, known in the district for his agricultural broadcasting. Crawford, who just formed an exploratory committee, could be all the GOP needs to test how loyal Arkansas remains to its Democratic history.