Republicans Running Uphill


By: Wall Street Journal

With More House Seats to Defend, Funding Looms Large
By JUNE KRONHOLZ
October 19, 2007

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

WASHINGTON — The bad news keeps getting worse for the Republicans.

They have twice as many seats to defend as Democrats next year in the narrowly divided Senate. The Democratic presidential candidates are raising twice as much money as the Republicans. And now it looks like the party will even have trouble holding its ground in the House, which had been considered its best shot.

A dozen House Republicans have announced they won’t stand for re-election next year, a wave of retirements that could grow and leave the party with fewer seats next year and perhaps well beyond. Even veterans in safe Republican seats are heading for the exits, including former Speaker Dennis Hastert. This summer he announced he would be leaving Congress at the end of this term, but yesterday aides said he would step down late this year or early next year.

The Republican congressional campaign committee is in debt, while the Democrats’ committee said Wednesday it has raised $28 million. “Right now we’re in a race with ankle weights,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the committee’s chairman, said this week.

Without campaign funds to spread around, the party is having trouble recruiting candidates. Meanwhile, the Iraq war has energized the liberal Democratic base and angered independents, who deserted the Republican Party in 2006 and seem unlikely to return.

Party operatives still speak confidently about their electoral chances, noting there is a large class of freshman Democrats elected on slim majorities in 2006 and a bigger group of Democrats representing Republican-leaning districts. Meanwhile, they predict the presidential election will boost Republican turnout, and Republicans will try to force Democrats into casting unpopular votes as the election draws nearer.

“I like the way the battlefield is tilting,” Mr. Cole said. “The terrain favors us.”

Republicans also take cheer from the strong showing their candidate made Tuesday in a special election to fill an open seat in Massachusetts. Jim Ogonowski polled 45% of the vote in the traditionally Democratic district north of Boston, despite campaign visits from President Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Democrat Nikki Tsongas. Ms. Tsongas, widow of former Sen. Paul Tsongas, who held the seat in the 1970s, won with 51%.

But others see bad news for the Republicans. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicts an additional 16 Republicans could retire before the election. Typically, about 30 congressmen resign each election cycle. A key difference this year is that only two Democrats have announced they are leaving so far, both to run for the Senate.

“The worse things get, the more discouraged [Republican] members are, the more likely they are to look for something else to do, and the worse things get,” said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. “It’s an accelerating ride downhill,” adds Republican strategist Craig Shirley.

It is more than likely the party will retain some of the open seats and could take back seats from some of the three dozen Democrats who slipped into office with tiny majorities last year.

High on the Republicans’ list are once-safe Republican districts in Sugar Land, Texas, and Palm Beach, Fla., that Democrats won last year after Tom DeLay and Mark Foley resigned because of ethics investigations.

Republicans also are targeting four dozen Democratic incumbents in districts that President Bush won in both 2000 and 2004 and that, on paper at least, seem an easy mark. But the party would have to keep all of the 202 seats it now holds and take 16 seats away from the Democrats to win back control of the House. That “would take a significant wave on our part and money we don’t currently have,” said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, who puts the chances of that happening at one in five.

The party’s money woes should ease as the election nears, but for now they have complicated candidate recruiting. Months after Ohio’s Deborah Pryce announced her retirement, for example, the party still has no candidate to replace her.

Partly that’s because would-be candidates know they could face years in the minority if they win. But candidates also know they can’t depend on the party to help pay for their races. Over the summer, Pennsylvania Republican Melissa Hart raised $238,000 for her campaign to take back the House seat she lost in 2006.

But that’s only about one-fourth as much as her opponent, Jason Altmire, whom Democrats have identified for party support. The Democrats’ money advantage enables them to take the offensive early, knowing the Republicans don’t have the money to counterattack.

The idea is “to strangle the life out of [an opponent's] campaign before there’s any momentum,” says Mr. Fabrizio, the Republican pollster.

The party’s money woes, and a politically weakened White House, also make it tough to clear the field for declared candidates so they don’t have to face divisive and costly primaries. Four Republicans are running for the Palm Beach County seat won by Democrat Tim Mahoney after Mr. Foley’s resignation. Four others are running for the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., seat held by freshman Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

The split between the party’s fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives who have long been the party’s activist core compounds its problems. “There aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to spell out how many ways conservatives are angry with the Republican party,” said Mr. Shirley, the Republican strategist, who names spending, the Iraq war, and warrantless wiretaps among them. The bruising immigration battle only deepened the split while driving away Hispanics.

Republicans pin their remaining 2008 hopes on voter unhappiness with Congress and a possible backlash against Sen. Hillary Clinton, if she is the Democratic presidential candidate. Democrats “ran as agents of change and nothing changed,” said Mr. Cole, the Republican congressional campaign committee chairman.

But in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September, 47% of registered voters said they preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress to 35% who said they preferred Republican control.

Mrs. Clinton’s unpopularity with conservatives would energize Republican voters, which could tip some close House races to the Republicans. But Rudy Giuliani, if he is the Republican candidate, could cause them to stay home because of their opposition to his moderate social stance.

The Republicans’ problems may be deeper than just one or two election cycles. Women, who vote in larger numbers than men, are increasingly trending Democratic. Hispanics and young people, though less likely to vote than older people and whites, are too. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 42% of registered voters identified themselves as Democratic-leaning compared to 34% who said they were Republican leaning. Five years ago, there was only a one-point gap.

Write to June Kronholz at june.kronholz@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications:

Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, won a special election to fill an open U.S. House seat in Massachusetts. In this article, her first name was misspelled as Nikki.

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