Realizing that I had not updated my House ratings since late May, I put together a new classification this week-end. I was interested in seeing whether an overall look at the landscape would show it really has deteriorated as much for Democrats as the past few months’ fragmented analyses have suggested. While I expected the trends I found (the number of even potentially GOP competitive has plunged and the number of highly competitive Democratic seats has skyrocketed), I have to admit that the discrepancy is clearer than I had anticipated. Details will be coming later this week. For now, suffice it to say that Democrats have been receiving such a continuous drip of bad news that even New Year’s week-end brought them 3 disappointments.
In KS-02, promising Democratic candidate state Senator Laura Kelly announced she was ending her campaign against freshman Rep. Lynn Jenkins. While Kelly always faced an uphill climb (unseating an GOP incumbent in a district that voted for John McCain by 12%), she had experience winning in hostile territory since her legislative district is Republican; also, Kelly could have gotten an opening from the fact that Jenkins faces a tough primary against state Senator Dennis Pyle, who charges the congresswoman has revealed herself as a non-conservative in her first year. (Reminder: Jenkins claim to fame in 2009 was her comment that the GOP needs a “great white hope” to oust Obama.)
Kelly’s exit is part of the broader story of the debacle that is the Kansas Democratic Party. Republicans are uncontested in the open Senate and Governor’s seats; at the moment, we can say the same about KS-03, the House seat left open by Rep. Dennis Moore: While Democrats are still hoping Kansas City Mayor Joe Reardon and former Mayor Carol Marinovich will enter the race, they are still looking for a candidate 6 weeks after Moore’s retirement. At this point, Democrats have their strongest Kansas candidate in KS-04 (left open by GOP Rep. Thiart), which is bizarre because this district is more conservative than KS-02 and KS-03 and more conservative than Kansas at large!
In AL-05, Public Service Commissioner Susan Parker announced she would not challenge recent party-switcher Parker Griffith. She becomes the second prominent Democrat to do so this week, since Ron Spark stuck to the Governor’s race on Tuesday. Parker was never as likely as Sparks to get in, because a House campaign would have meant giving up her safe seat on the Public Service Commission (whereas Sparks is an underdog in his statewide race); on the other hand, Parker was known to have congressional ambitions since she was looking to run for the open House seat back in 2008. The DCCC signaled it preferred (self-funder) Parker Griffith, and the rest is history.
As is to be expected in a Southern state, Democrats have a decent bench of local officials so the party could still field a known entity (for instance, state Rep. Randy Hinshaw). Yet, the district’s conservative drift combined with what is shaping up to be a good environment for Republicans would have made the general election challenging for even the most formidable of Democratic candidate, let alone for the party’s second choice candidates.
In TX-10, not only did surprisingly well-financed Democrat Jack McDonald unexpectedly end his campaign two weeks ago, but his party’s second choice has now ruled out a run after spending a few days considering the possibility: 2008 nominee Larry Doherty (a former TV Judge on the show “Texas Justice”) will not seek a rematch against Rep. McCaul. While Doherty gained attention in the final weeks of the campaign, the final result was underwhelming (he lost 54-43, the same margin as Obama) so it’s not like he would have stricken McCaul with fear. But he would at least have been a prominent contender, attracted coverage, met some fundraising success.
Thus, he might have faced a very uphill climb but he would at least have forced the GOP to pay some attention to the district. Even with the speculation that McCaul’s 2006 opponent Ted Ankrum might file for a rematch tomorrow (which happens to be the filing deadline), TX-10 will now most likely completely leave our radar screen.
That gets us to the reason these developments are so problematic for Democrats. Sure, it’s been a while since the DCCC last dreamed of big 2010 gains. Sure, KS-02, AL-05 and TX-10 would have been tough districts to win in any environment - just look at the 2008 results - let alone next year’s. But Kelly, Parker, McDonald and Doherty would have put these districts on the map; they would have forced the GOP to keep an eye on them. Since national committees’ first duty is to protect their incumbents, the NRCC would have had to spend money defending Reps. Jenkins, Parker and McCaul.
The GOP is now free to use that to expand the map, to put more Democratic districts in play, to target more congressmen who haven’t faced competitive races in decades but who might reveal themselves to be very vulnerable if only the NRCC finds the resources to go after them. If Democrats want to protect Reps. Berry, Snyder, Hall or Mollohan, they better make sure not to keep some GOP districts in play, even if it’s only marginally.