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Eclipsing Congress

The 2008 congressional elections have already been eclipsed by the unfolding presidential campaign, despite Democrats' narrow margins in both chambers. Why?   By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this anything-but-ordinary election season is that in the wake of a monumental midterm election, the 2008 congressional elections have already been eclipsed by the unfolding presidential campaign, despite Democrats' narrow margins in the House and particularly in the Senate.

Yes, House and Senate campaign committees are busy raising money, scouting and recruiting candidates and maneuvering for position in preparation for an election that is 18 months from now. But after three decades of watching congressional elections, I've never seen them pushed so far into the background.

A big reason for the lack of attention on House and Senate races is that many of the important factors that will drive the upcoming elections have yet to be determined. The political climate today isn't appreciably different from last November's midterm election. The situation in Iraq 18 months from now remains to be seen. Will it be better or worse for the president and his party in 18 months than it was in November? In light of the troubling economic numbers in recent weeks, will the economy slow down further or pick back up over the next year and a half?

Will voters think that Democrats have made good on their promise to change the culture in Congress and deliver results, or will the electorate come to perceive those promises as empty rhetoric? The climate drove the outcome of the last election, but we really don't know if it will return to a more normal Tip O'Neill "all politics is local" kind of election.

Another important consideration is retirements. Having waited for a dozen years to get back into a majority, it's hard to imagine a large or even typical number of Democratic incumbent retirements. Certainly there will be a few who give up their seats to run for the Senate or governor, but we don't expect many run-of-the-mill retirements.

It is not hard to envision a large number of retirements among House Republican incumbents. After all, they spent a dozen years living in the promised land but now find themselves out in the cold without strong prospects of recapturing a majority.

In cases involving safe Republican districts, this is no big deal; if one Republican leaves, another takes over. But for those in competitive districts, retirements create a problem, particularly if there is a disproportionate number of Republican open seats in swing compared with Democrats in the same situation.

In the Senate, with its different rules and power structure, minority status isn't nearly as bad, particularly with Republicans holding 49 seats. A large number of Republican seats that could potentially be in play do not appear to be in 2008, but in a 51-49 Senate, even two or three for either party can be problematic.

Then there is recruiting. It is way too soon to even begin to evaluate the effectiveness of each of the four campaign committees. It is also important to consider that we might need to look at and measure the effectiveness of recruiting with different standards than before.

Historically, the most desirable candidates were those who had fit these criteria: They had run for elective office before and won; had been vetted by their opponents and the media, and had their shortcomings identified and evaluated.

But in 2006, many Democrats of this caliber declined to run; they were skeptical that the political climate would be that good for their party. So Democrats, especially in House races, had to resort to candidates who had never run or never won before. But this lack of experience also meant the lack of a paper trail of votes and public statements, giving Republican campaign operatives little to work with for opposition research.

Like past wave elections -- 1994, 1980 and 1974 come to mind -- a lot of political novices won last year because of their inexperience, not despite it. Still, finding smart candidates with potential, whether they have electoral experience or not, is key.

Finally, there is money. Poll numbers often drive money, and so far, Democrats have the wind at their backs in the polls and thus are finding an easier time raising money than when they were in the minority and the polls looked less promising.

Having Sen. Charles Schumer of New York remain as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee means that once again, Senate Democrats will have a chief fundraiser who is not only incredibly good at the job but, perversely, seems to enjoy it, leaving colleagues shaking their heads in disbelief.

In the House, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland has the easier job of expanding the playbook left by his highly successful predecessor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill. Plus, raising money and recruiting as the majority party, under favorable political winds, gives him natural advantages over his counterpart, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

House and Senate contests have been largely eclipsed by the presidential campaign not because of media interest, but because key developments that will define the election have yet to occur. With such a fluid situation, any focus on House or Senate races would bring more questions than answers.