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Democrats face uphill battle to retake House

An 18-month recruitment drive by the Democrats has produced nearly a dozen strong candidates with the potential for unseating House Republicans, but probably not enough to take back control of the House absent a massive anti-incumbent wave this fall, according to House political experts.
U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 20
U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill on Oct. 20Win McNamee / Getty Images FILE
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An 18-month recruitment drive by the Democrats has produced nearly a dozen strong candidates with the potential for unseating House Republicans, but probably not enough to take back control of the House absent a massive anti-incumbent wave this fall, according to House political experts.

Democratic leaders have been heartened by the quality of the candidates they have recruited to challenge vulnerable Republicans in congressional seats in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they insist that there is a strong chance they can narrow the Republicans' 30-seat majority. Their efforts are being helped by widespread public dissatisfaction with Congress and with President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, a situation that has driven down the Republicans' approval ratings to less than 40 percent.

But Tuesday's special election north of San Diego to fill the seat of former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) showed that the Democrats face an uphill battle to pick up seats even in districts where the Republicans have their backs to the wall. Democrat Francine Busby, running on a theme of ethics in government, finished first in a crowded field of 18 candidates to succeed Cunningham, who was sent to prison after pleading guilty to taking bribes in return for legislative favors.

Busby, a school board member and self-described soccer mom, garnered only 44 percent of the vote and was forced into a June 6 runoff, possibly with former Republican congressman Brian P. Bilbray, who finished second with 15 percent. State GOP leaders expect Republicans to coalesce around the eventual nominee in the runoff and retain the seat.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said his party was able to avoid a primary fight in California and is emerging from Tuesday's balloting united and ready to go after independent voters. In contrast, he said, Republicans will have to unite a fractious party around a nominee who still has not been officially named.

Not enough top-tier candidates?
From a national perspective, the California contest has not changed most analysts' views of the Democrats' chances in November. "If this election comes down to the individual, race-by-race, case-by-case campaigns, like we've seen for the last four cycles, the Democrats don't have enough top-tier candidates to win 15 seats," Amy Walters, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, referring to a net gain. "But they do have enough second- and third-tier candidates who can ride a wave."

Political analysts divide the Democratic field into three tiers: the top-ranked challengers who pose a real threat to Republican incumbents, a second level of challengers who have a chance because of the Republicans' problems nationally and their own competence on the stump, and a third tier of aspirants who have proved to be inept campaigners but who are running in swing districts that are susceptible to change.

Within the top tier, Democrats will field a two-term New Mexico attorney general, Patricia Madrid, to challenge their perennial target in Albuquerque, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R); Ron Klein, a prominent, telegenic state senator, to challenge Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.); a law-and-order Indiana sheriff, Brad Ellsworth, to run against Rep. John N. Hostettler (R-Ind.); law professor Lois Murphy to run against Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.); and former Westport first selectwoman Diane Farrell to take on Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). In other races, Harry Mitchell, a former Tempe mayor already honored with a statue in his district, is taking on Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.); Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy is challenging Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio); and Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne is attempting to unseat Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), a perennially vulnerable incumbent.

Currently, there are 231 Republicans, 201 Democrats, one independent and two vacant seats in the House. It will be up to lesser Democratic lights -- running in Republican districts with less-than-glowing résumés -- to help provide the 15 net victories Democrats need to take back control of the House, which has been in GOP hands since the 1994 election.

In that context, Busby's performance -- respectable but not surprising -- is not encouraging to Democrats, said Stuart Rothenberg, a congressional analyst and editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

"There may be a wave building, but it's still off the shoreline," he said. "It certainly didn't hit here."

Aggressive hunt for candidates
DCCC officials now refer to their recruitment efforts as putting as many surfboards as they can in the water. But Emanuel's campaign began shortly after Bush's reelection, when there was not even a pro-Democratic ripple.

Emanuel turned to a team of young, eager House Democrats, with Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen in the lead and with meetings set for every other Thursday at 8 a.m. The team divided the country by regions and aggressively beat the bushes in search of candidates with charisma and the potential for raising money. Trudi Inslee, the wife of Rep. Jay Inslee (Wash.), led a spousal outreach program to reassure the wives and husbands of candidates about the life of a congressional family.

From the beginning, they did not shy away from the hard sell.

"By gerrymandering the map, Republicans have tried to get people not to run for Congress. Our job was to pick the lock," Emanuel said.

Last summer, as Heath Shuler mulled a bid for the House, the former Redskins quarterback mentioned his concerns that a return to Washington would not fit with a life built around his family. At Emanuel's direction, congressmen began calling to urge him to run. Wives of congressmen called. Even lawmakers' children were recruited to try to persuade Shuler to run.

The former North Carolina high school football star finally jumped into the race to try to unseat Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.).

Districts that have rarely registered in recent congressional elections are now on the political radar screen. House analysts are watching the races of Pryce, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) because of the strength of their opponents and the weakening Republican position. Pryce is the chairman of the House Republican Conference.

"I will give them full credit for having recruited some good candidates, no doubt about it," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

But there have also been some glaring recruitment failures. The NRCC cites 32 potential candidates who rebuffed Emanuel's overtures in 21 districts.

Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R), a freshman in a key swing district in Pennsylvania, should have been "target numero uno," said Walters, the House political analyst. Another ripe district in the state, now represented by Charles W. Dent (R), has no challenger at all.

"I'd give Rahm a B" for recruitment, Rothenberg said. "There isn't a giant sea change here. Have they had some successes at the margins? Yeah. And maybe that's about all you can do."