Can Tom Cole and Howard Dean Both Be Wrong?

by Stuart Rothenberg November 29, 2006 · 11:04 PM EST

I’ll bet that Rep. Tom Cole, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma and the new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean of Vermont agree on very little. But they are singing from the same songbook when they argue that there are dozens of House seats ripe for the picking if only the parties would recruit strong candidates and spend enough money to elect them.

This year, Dean spent DNC funds to put political operatives on the ground in reliably Republican states to build grass-roots Democratic political operations and to improve his party’s electoral opportunities.

Now, with Democrats winning the House and the Senate and picking up loads of gubernatorial and state legislative seats, the party chairman is claiming success. And the Association of State Democratic Chairs apparently agrees: That group adopted a resolution recently praising Dean for “never retreating from what was right for every Democrat in every state.” (Of course, state parties received DNC resources, giving Democratic chairs a reason to be grateful for Dean’s 50-state strategy, regardless of whether it actually produced results.)

Cole, much as Dean and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did last cycle, now talks about working “aggressively to expand the playing field.”

“The idea that there are only three dozen competitive congressional districts in America is a myth,” Cole wrote in a Nov. 9 memo that asked GOP members to support his bid for NRCC chairman. “If we accept it, we doom ourselves to playing on a constricted battlefield that will benefit the incumbent majority party. … 2008 will be a year to hunt with a shotgun, not a rifle.”

If politics makes strange bedfellows, then Dean and Cole are a perfect team. There is only one problem: They are both wrong about the size of the playing field. It is still small, and there is very little the parties can do to change that.

Whatever Dean accomplished in his role as DNC chairman, he isn’t responsible for electing many new Democratic officeholders, whether to Congress or to state legislatures. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) didn’t lose because the state Democratic Party had a communications director. If anyone is responsible for the GOP losses, it’s President Bush.

If you want to give Dean credit for boosting Democratic enthusiasm, and possibly Democratic turnout, in a number of Republican areas, fine. The DNC’s 50-state strategy may have energized some previously unenthusiastic Democrats in very red states.

But in the end, all that talk about Democratic Congressional victories in reliably Republican territory – in Colorado’s 4th, Idaho’s 1st, Colorado’s 5th, Nebraska’s 3rd and Washington’s 5th – turned out to be nothing but talk, and anyone who credits the DNC for Jon Tester’s Senate win in Montana couldn’t have followed that race.

Yes, Democratic candidates in some long-shot districts got close, but that’s like Republicans saying that they were close to winning the Virginia Senate race, and therefore close to retaining the Senate. Sorry: Close doesn’t count.

But weren’t there more House seats in play this year than anyone expected? Of course, but that’s not because of the DNC’s 50-state strategy. The president’s unpopularity, combined with the Iraq War, created an abnormal political environment, one in which independents behaved like Democrats. That put races into play that in a “normal” year wouldn’t be the least bit competitive. The DNC doesn’t deserve credit for that — nor does the DCCC or the Democratic blogs.

Indeed, given the horrendous environment for Republicans, the fact that just 60 or so Republican-held seats were in play on Election Day proves the “narrow playing field” assessment that Dean and Cole seem to dispute. In 1994, close to 100 Democratic seats were in play.

But isn’t it wise to recruit strong candidates and build a party infrastructure to take advantage of a political wave, as both Cole and Dean have argued?

Sure. Who can argue with Cole’s assertion that Republicans must “recruit as many qualified candidates as possible”? It’s always better for a party to have more good candidates. But for the DCCC or the NRCC, there is a huge difference between trying to run the best challengers possible, thereby giving voters a true choice, and investing in every race, thereby wasting some of those valuable resources.

And it’s also true that spending resources on things that possibly might take advantage of a wave that never comes inevitably diverts resources away from other projects or personnel that might be more important in a “normal” year. How much time will Cole’s NRCC spend recruiting challengers to Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.)? None, I expect.

We can’t know what the political environment will be like in ’08, but it’s almost always wise to assume, at least initially, that we will have a relatively “normal” election cycle. And normalcy, given the current House lineup, our divided government and the current district lines, argues once again – strongly – for relatively few seats being in play.

Dean obviously has his own reasons for claiming credit for the Democratic victories on Nov. 7, and Cole made his argument in an effort to boost his prospects for winning the NRCC chairmanship. But a dispassionate assessment of the political playing field, as well as the election results this year, strongly suggests that if the ’08 election cycle at all resembles a normal one, the two parties will be fighting it out on a very narrow playing field.