Election 2008: Muscling Up the Majorities


Download: CQ’s Current Projections

By Bob Benenson

(CQ) Elizabeth Dole enjoys political assets that most of this year’s congressional candidates can only dream of: She’s a household name in her native North Carolina, because she’s been a force to be reckoned with in national Republican policy and political circles for four decades. Her portrait hangs among those of the past secretaries at two Cabinet departments. Six years in the Senate meant she could readily raise $14 million to seek a second term. And she’s running in a state that has been steadily moving toward dominance for her party.

So how is it that Dole may well be toppled next week because of a pair of old guys in rocking chairs at a country store?

Because the men were actors hired by the Democrats this summer to star in one of the year’s more talked-about television spots – an advertisement that, by its very existence as well as its apparent effectiveness, symbolizes the extraordinarily strong position the Democratic Party has put itself in for the final fortnight of this year’s Senate and House campaigns. The ad crystallized, in 30 seconds, four of the party’s main arguments against Dole. One actor asserts that she “is 93,” then points to her ranking as one of the least effective senators in a survey by a nonpartisan political Web site. “I’ve read she’s 92,” says the other, citing a calculation that she’s voted that high percentage of the time in support of President Bush. But the implications, of course, are that the senator (who’s actually 72 years old) is way past her prime and a carpet-bagger more comfortable in Washington, and they are hammered home in the final lines. “What’s happened to the Liddy Dole I knew?” says one man. “She just not a go-getter like you and me,” says the other.

When the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee decided in August to dip into its exceptionally flush coffers and buy some TV time for the spot, Dole was a solid favorite to win re-election. But the DSCC’s targeted investment produced an impressive and immediate return. Polling showed such a pronounced downturn for Dole that she decided to stay home and campaign rather than attend the Republican National Convention, where she’s been a presence since the 1970s. And challenger Kay Hagan, a relatively obscure state senator who was actually the Democrats’ fifth choice to make the race, suddenly appeared to have the political wind at her back. Contributions started rolling in, voters and reporters started taking her more seriously – and the momentum has never faded, so that Hagan is now even or ahead in the polls in what has become one of the hottest Senate contests of the year.

Similar stories have cropped up all across the country this fall, where waves of support for Democrats who had not been seen as competitive have put the party in position to potentially secure a “filibuster-proof” majority of 60 or maybe even more Senate seats on Nov. 4 and also pad its House majority by as many as two dozen. The reasons go beyond the flagging popularity of the Republican “brand,” which has been in evidence all year, and the coattails of Barack Obama , who appears well-positioned to win back the presidency for the Democrats next week with a clear-cut majority in the Electoral College. The GOP has been on the outs with the public in plenty of other election years, and the opposing party has not positioned itself to capitalize on the opportunity the way it has now.

What’s different this time is the increasingly aggressive and agile tactical savvy of the Democrats’ congressional campaign operatives, who committed early on to “expanding the playing field” of competitive races in 2008 – and have shown they know how to pounce whenever they see an opportunity. The result has been one of the party’s best years in decades for candidate recruiting, fundraising and media strategy.

Takeover Targets

One consequence is that North Carolina is one of the states – along with two others in what had been seen as the reliably Republican South – where surging Democratic challengers are boosting hopes of the biggest senatorial gain by a single party since the 1980 Reagan landslide, when the GOP picked up a dozen seats. That is the outside limit of the Democrats’ aspirations this time, but they are off to a fine start. There’s a chance they could lose a single seat (in Louisiana) but are favored at the moment to take at least five seats away from the Republicans – in Virginia, Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire and New Mexico. Four more races are tossups – in Mississippi, Minnesota, Oregon and Dole’s North Carolina. And Democrats are still within striking distance in three other states: Maine, where a hard-fought race has been under way for two years, and in contests that have only recently become genuine opportunities for the party in Kentucky and Georgia. Polling shows that Louisville nursing-home entrepreneur Bruce Lunsford is closing in on Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and former state Rep. Jim Martin of Atlanta is breathing down the neck of incumbent Saxby Chambliss. Both challengers moved into serious competition with the help of some venture capital from the DSCC; now, the campaign organization has enough money to make a heavy investment in both upset quests in the final days.

The parallel Democratic organization in the House, known as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has been at least as enterprising in pursuing takeover opportunities in districts where Republican control long appeared firm. The party has pulled into a clear lead in eight districts now represented by Republicans – seven of which were carried by President Bush in 2004: in Alaska, Staten Island, rural Arizona, exurban Chicago, the Virginia suburbs of Washington and two seats in and near Orlando. Bush lost the eighth, in upstate New York, by only 2 percentage points. Contests in another 17 districts now held by Republicans are going right down to the wire as true tossups; in almost two dozen more races for GOP-held seats, the incumbent party has only a slight edge, and a Democratic takeover is highly plausible. Of these 40 races, 36 are in districts that favored Bush over John Kerry four years ago. What that means is that the Democrats are again taking the fight to Republicans on their own home turf even after taking away 33 seats from the GOP in the midterm election and subsequent special elections – with 23 of those victories in districts that wanted Bush re-elected.

At the beginning of last year, Republican campaign strategists started planning for the 2008 House campaign with hopes of a comeback. Freshmen are typically the category of lawmaker most vulnerable to defeat, because they have not had much time to capitalize on the benefits of incumbency by making themselves familiar to their constituencies and bringing home legislative victories and parochial favors – which is why a good number of members first elected in big partisan “swing” elections such as 2006 are often swept out by a reverse tide two years later. But that is not the case this year, in part because Democratic leaders acted swiftly to give members of their big freshman class helpful committee assignments, prominent roles in promoting popular pieces of legislation and early assistance in planning and raising money for their re-election campaigns this year. Of the 33 seats that have gone Democratic since the fall of 2006, only one is rated as even leaning toward a Republican take-back. And that is the South Florida seat where freshman Tim Mahoney – who won mainly because the incumbent, Mark Foley, was exposed as making inappropriate advances toward underage male congressional pages – has recently become embroiled in his own scandal involving extramarital sex and a congressional employee.

Big Picture Meets Ground Game

Just four years ago, you could have gotten pretty long odds in Las Vegas that 2008 would pan out this way for the Democrats. Back then, Bush won by the narrowest margin ever for a re-elected president but nonetheless declared the outcome a clear mandate for his agenda, including his handling of the Iraq War. Democrats held fewer Senate seats than at any time since Herbert Hoover was president, and in the House, GOP leaders were boasting that they would soon be known as the permanent majority. Without a doubt, the degree to which the reach of these Republican leaders exceeded their grasp has fueled the Democrats’ current momentum in congressional politics. Angry voters appear prepared to complete the purge of Republicans from power that began when they were stripped of their House and Senate majorities two years ago.

Public approval ratings for Bush and for Republicans in general have been driven down to near-historic lows. Key factors include smoldering resentments over the war, worries about other international hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iran, government failures in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, high gasoline prices, corruption scandals that tainted the GOP image – and now, crowding out all of that for the electorate’s attention, an economy spiraling into what many economists say will be the worst recession in decades. Yet it is hard to imagine that the long-beleaguered Democrats could have advanced so far so fast had the Republicans’ decline not coincided with the rise of a new cadre of creative and hyper-aggressive campaign strategists, who emerged at the right place and the right time for their party.

There was no shortage of Democrats who voiced their doubts about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean when he was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2005, a year after his bid for the presidency as a white-hot liberal activist flamed out. Yet Dean quickly set out to prove himself to be a pragmatic and visionary political field general. His trademark innovation was what he dubbed the 50-State Strategy, aimed at rebuilding Democratic organizations in every corner of the country – even in reliably “red” Republican places where his party had withered.

The notion of spending precious time and relatively scarce money trying to revive the Democratic Party in, say, rural South Carolina was derided by some party activists, who argued that all the resources should be focused on tipping the balance in traditionally competitive “battleground” states and districts. But such criticisms of Dean are rarely heard these days as Democrats compete for congressional seats in states and districts – from Mississippi to Nebraska to Alaska to a pair in South Carolina – that have long been out of play for the party. Dean’s program has dovetailed neatly with the campaign strategy of Obama, the first-term Illinois senator whose presidential campaign has focused on taking the fight to the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in a dozen or more states that Bush carried four years ago. Two of those states, Virginia and Indiana, last voted Democratic for president in the 1964 Johnson landslide.

Meanwhile, the “ground game” of picking Republican districts to target, and recruiting and raising money to back the challengers, has been handled adeptly by the lawmakers put in charge of the party’s national campaign committees. Charles E. Schumer of New York is running his second campaign for the DSCC; Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is at the helm of the DCCC after acting as top lieutenant in 2006 to Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who now chairs the House Democratic Caucus. The impression that these campaign organizations have run rings around their GOP counterparts, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, is reflected in a race-by-race assessment of the campaign. In a year when Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats to the Democrats’ 12, there are a dozen highly competitive races for GOP-held seats but only one race where a Democrat is facing any serious competition. And in that one, in Louisiana, Mary L. Landrieu appears to have a solid lead.

There is also a dramatic competitive imbalance in the national House campaign. There are 48 races for Republican seats in which Democrats are highly competitive – meaning the race is leaning their way, is a tossup or is leaning only slightly to the GOP – while the GOP is similarly in the running in 20 Democratic-held districts. The Democrats are also waging a much longer list of plausible, if long-shot, takeover bids: 25 of them, compared with 14 potential upsets in the sights of the GOP. Taken together, the Democrats have put 73 Republican seats in play while defending against GOP challenges for just 34 of their own seats. Fifteen seats appear to be the minimum Democratic pickup. Even retiring Rep. Thomas M. Davis III , who ran the NRCC’s successful campaigns in 2000 and 2002, has publicly predicted another double-digit setback for his party. And one of the GOP seats most likely to fall is Davis’ own, in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where the Democrats have rapidly gained ground over the past few years. Gerry Connolly, who as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is highly familiar to most of the district’s electorate, is the clear favorite.

The Democrats currently control 236 House seats, if you include the reliably Democratic Cleveland-area seat left vacant by the death in August of Stephanie Tubbs Jones , which is guaranteed to stay in the party’s hands. If the Democrats gain 20 more, they will match the number they held in 1994, just before they began their dozen years in the minority.

Striking While the Iron Is Hot

It is possible for events to drastically shift the partisan outlook in the course of a two-year campaign cycle. That was the case in the run-up to the 2006 election, which began with the Democrats licking their wounds after their 2004 setback and ended with the party winning control of Congress. Yet the degree of partisan competition, even in the most tumultuous political climate, is actually determined to a great extent by the tactical moves executed early in each cycle by the campaign strategists – especially moves to ensure that they have the best possible candidates for takeover opportunities and have inoculated as many of their own incumbents as possible from serious challenges. It is, of course, easier to recruit challenger candidates and persuade incumbents to stick around for another election when circumstances are working in one party’s favor. One early warning sign that Republicans were not optimistic about their 2008 prospects was the large number of GOP incumbents who announced that they were heading for the exits this year. In the House, 25 of the Republicans elected two years ago – one out of eight – have announced or executed their departures from public service. But only three House Democrats are retiring. In the Senate, five of the 23 Republican senators whose terms expire this year are retiring, but no Democrat is stepping down.

And three of the five open Senate seats are likely to be taken over by Democrats. In Virginia’s battle between former governors, Mark Warner is an overwhelming favorite to defeat James S. Gilmore III for the seat John W. Warner is relinquishing after five terms. Rep. Tom Udall has almost as daunting a lead in his quest for the New Mexico seat being left open after six terms by Pete V. Domenici. Rep. Mark Udall, a cousin of the New Mexico front-runner, has an only slightly more competitive race for the Colorado seat Wayne Allard is vacating after two terms. These contests point to a signal achievement by Schumer and his DSCC staff, who have done a much better job than their Republican rivals of recruiting top-tier candidates for takeover bids. Along with Warner and the Udalls, the Democrats persuaded former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to challenge the recently appointed Republican Roger Wicker , creating a tossup in what has been reliably Republican Mississippi; former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen is now favored to avenge her narrow loss six years ago to John E. Sununu in New Hampshire; Al Franken, the well-known comic entertainer, is in a too-close-to-call race against first-termer Norm Coleman in Minnesota; state House Speaker Jeff Merkley has emerged as a serious threat to deny Gordon H. Smith a third term in Oregon; and Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, Alaska, is in position to oust Ted Stevens , who is not only the longest-serving Republican senator in history but also the first senator to be tried on federal criminal charges in three decades.

Even the recruiting of Hagan in North Carolina is something of a triumph, signaling that the party had a deep enough bench of viable challengers in the state even after the governor, a former governor, the state attorney general and a congressman all passed on the race. Over at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Nevada’s John Ensign had much more limited recruiting success. The best they did was to persuade a Louisiana Democrat, state Treasurer John Kennedy, to switch parties to run against Landrieu. After a series of stumbles, the best recruit they could find in New Jersey – where 84-year-old Democrat Frank R. Lautenberg has never been very popular – was Dick Zimmer, a three-term congressman in the 1990s who lost his last Senate race by 10 points, a dozen years ago, and then failed to win his old House seat back in 2000. Unable to recruit anyone in GOP-leaning Montana to take on Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, the party ended up watching as the primary was won by an 85-year-old perennial candidate who has sometimes run for the Green Party. In Iowa the nomination went more or less by default to businessman Christopher Reed, who had raised all of $47,000 through the end of last month to take on Tom Harkin, who has never won more than 56 percent of the vote in four Senate elections. In South Dakota, where Tim Johnson won six years ago by 524 votes – but then became something of a folk hero by surviving a near-fatal brain hemorrhage – the challenger is an obscure state legislator, Joel Dykstra. Republicans are not even fielding a sacrificial lamb against Mark Pryor’s bid for a second term in conservative-leaning Arkansas.

On the House side of Capitol Hill, the Democratic campaign strategists entered this campaign cycle facing a more treacherous political landscape than their Senate colleagues. Their first priority was to shore up the 30 Democrats who won Republican-held seats in 2006 to make sure as few as possible ended up labeled “one-term wonders.” And they wasted no time doing so. In February 2007, just a few weeks after the 110th Congress was sworn in, the DCCC announced the names of the first 29 enrollees in its “Frontline Democrats” program, which provides fundraising and logistical assistance to the incumbents deemed most vulnerable to Republican challenges.

Money Changes Everything

The party’s admonitions to those candidates to raise money early and often paid off grandly. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York’s Upper Hudson Valley led the 2006 Democratic takeover winners with $4.4 million in receipts during her first 21 months in office. Four others – Ron Klein of southeastern Florida, Joe Sestak and Patrick J. Murphy of suburban Philadelphia and Mahoney of South Florida – had raised $3 million by the start of this month, while 12 others raised more than $2 million for their campaigns. All raised more than $1 million, except Iowa Democratic freshman Dave Loebsack – and he is nonetheless heavily favored to defeat an underfunded Republican challenger. Gillibrand has needed all that money, as she is trying to fend off the best-funded Republican challenger: Sandy Treadwell, a General Electric Co. heir who has poured $4.4 million of his fortune into his bid and raised roughly $1 million in donations. The only other member of the Democratic freshman class who’s been outraised by his opponent is Christopher Carney of northeastern Pennsylvania, whose $2.2 million take put him almost $300,000 behind challenger Chris Hackett. Most of the Democratic incumbents have huge advantages in campaign money over their Republican opponents.  

The DCCC also geared up early for its campaign to expand its majority with its “Red to Blue” program to target ripe takeover opportunities. Starting with a modest initial list of 10, the Red to Blue program now is providing assistance to 63 candidates – 22 of them in open-seat races and the rest challenging Republican incumbents. These direct-assistance programs, though, are only part of the Democrats’ arsenal in the individual Senate and House campaigns. They have also run up huge fundraising advantages of their own over their Republican counterparts. The DSCC through Sept. 30 had raised $103 million, swamping the $68 million brought in by the NRSC. The numbers were similarly disparate on the House side: $130 million for the DCCC to $103 million for the NRCC. This has given the Democrats a huge advantage in the number of races in which they can intervene with independent expenditures on behalf of their candidates and in how much they can spend in each race. The result is that many Republicans are fending off what amounts to a 2a?`againsta?`1 attack. Some examples:


  • The DCCC, through Oct. 21, put $1.7 million into independent expenditures in the sprawling northeast Arizona district where former state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick had raised almost $1.6 million through Sept. 30 for her own campaign to succeed retiring Republican Rick Renzi . The GOP nominee, mining industry lobbyist Sydney Hay, raised $523,000 for her campaign and received no independent expenditure assistance from the NRCC.
  • The DCCC put more than $1.7 million in the southern North Carolina district where Democrat Larry Kissell, a social studies teacher, is running in a rematch of the 2006 race that he lost to Republican Robin Hayes by just 329 votes. That has closed the spending gap in the race, as Hayes has raised $3 million for his own campaign treasury to $1.1 million for Kissell’s.
  • The two Ohio state senators running for the seat left open by retiring 18-term Republican Ralph Regula have been competitive in their own campaign fundraising, with Democrat John A. Boccieri reporting $1.5 million in receipts, to $1.1 million for Republican Kirk Schuring. But the DCCC is hoping to tip the scales with $1.3 million in independent expenditures in the district.


These are just the most expensive of the DCCC’s independent-expenditure campaigns in 13 individual districts that topped $1 million by Oct. 21. The NRCC, at that point, had no seven-figure expenditures. All told, the DCCC had made independent expenditures in 50 House contests, compared with 26 by the NRCC.

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