Are GOP Freshmen Ready to Rumble in 2012?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 21, 2011 · 12:00 PM EDT

Redistricting may ultimately save some Republican House freshmen who were elected through no fault of their own. But that isn’t stopping GOP insiders from worrying whether freshmen who were swept up on the beach by the strong November tide understand why they won and what they need to do to win re-election.

Republican concern is well-warranted. Some Democrats who won in 2006 and 2008 misinterpreted their victories and paid the price. Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) thought she won in 2006 because of the quality of her campaign. She insisted on running the same campaign two years later and lost.

And Rep. Carol Shea Porter (D-N.H.), who won in 2006 and 2008 because of Granite State anger at George W. Bush, was swept out last year after compiling a liberal activist record that didn’t fit her district.

Among those Republican freshmen worth watching because of the way they won in November are Rep. Tom Marino, who was elected even though two mid-October surveys found his unfavorable rating far higher than his favorable score, and Rep. Jim Renacci, whose business dealings were savaged in Democratic TV spots and who had huge negatives by the time November arrived.

Marino represents a very Republican Pennsylvania district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried by 9 points, while McCain carried Renacci’s northeast Ohio district by only 2 points.

Two former Members who won back their old seats, Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.) and Tim Walberg (Mich.), also ended their campaigns with low favorable numbers. Bass narrowly won an open seat, while Walberg defeated the Democrat who had defeated him in 2008.

Democratic strategists are upbeat about their chances of putting the House into play this cycle, but it’s simply too early to say whether they will be able to do so. But if they do, it will likely be because more than a few Republicans didn’t understand that the GOP nominees were irrelevant to many voters in 2010.

Among the GOP freshmen who may not understand why they won or what they need to do to win in a very different political environment are Reps. Renee Ellmers (N.C.) and Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), both of whom won in impressive upsets. Neither Republican appears to be off to a strong fundraising start.

“Ellmers woke up on third base and thought she hit a triple,” one Republican said about the freshman who hasn’t done enough on the Hill and organizationally to demonstrate that she understands voters were casting ballots against Rep. Bob Etheridge (D), not for her.

GOP observers fret — and Democratic strategists are gleeful — that Buerkle is spending so much time on controversial social issues such as abortion given that the district went for both Barack Obama in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

“She shied away from abortion as a candidate but has been leaning into the issue since she was elected,” commented a Democrat who is licking his chops.

Democrats believe that freshman Rep. Randy Hultgren made as major gaffe by voting for the GOP budget, which could result in a massive budget cut for the Fermi National Accelerator Lab, which is located in his district.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already attacked Hultgren and other Illinois Republicans for their budget votes, and the Republican could easily be negatively affected by redistricting.

Democratic operatives believe freshman Rep. Allen West (R) is also ignoring the political realities by staking out very conservative positions in a part of Florida that is more moderate.

And they are thrilled at the bad press that another Florida freshman, Rep. David Rivera (R), continues to receive. Rivera has been accused of two separate ethical lapses, involving a loan from a company owned by his mother and campaign reimbursements during his time in the state Legislature.

West’s district went for both Kerry and Obama, while Rivera’s went very narrowly for McCain but comfortably for Bush in 2004.

Republican insiders give West somewhat better early marks, noting that he continues to have a strong fundraising operation and seems to understand what he needs to do to win in 2012. Rivera could well face a primary next year.

But if some GOP freshmen still have to show they are preparing for 2012, other just-elected Republicans are off to a fast start, knowledgeable observers said. Illinois rookie Rep. Robert Dold, for example, gets rave reviews from political pros on his side of the aisle.

“Dold won’t need to rely on another wave,” one GOPer said. “He’s really impressing people. He’s smart but also has a high political IQ.”

Allies expect the Financial Services Committee member to show strong early fundraising, and they comment that his votes breaking with most of his GOP colleagues on certain proposed amendments to the continuing resolution to fund the government demonstrate political savvy.

Freshman Rep. Patrick Meehan (Pa.) also gets high marks from GOP insiders for being a “fundraising machine, understanding his district and picking the right amendments [to the CR] to separate himself from his party.”

With redistricting delaying the start of most 2012 House races, candidate prospects are uncertain. But that doesn’t mean some Republicans aren’t already whetting the appetites of Democratic strategists. Even now, the wheat is separating from the chaff.