If Republicans Fail to Win the House, Look Behind the ‘Eight’ Ball

April 19, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

I’ve always said that the party campaign committees usually get too much credit for success and too much blame for failure, so I’m certainly not pointing fingers in this column. But if Republicans fall a handful of seats short of taking over the House in the fall midterms, it could be because of the party’s inability to recruit strong candidates in a short list of districts with highly vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

North Carolina’s 8th. Freshman Rep. Larry Kissell owes his membership in the Congressional fraternity to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which dragged him across the finish line in 2008. But if Kissell wins a second term, he ought to send a thank-you note to Tar Heel Republicans for failing to find a top-tier challenger in the best Republican year since 1994.

The DCCC spent just under $2.4 million to help elect Kissell — almost $1 million more than he spent on his own campaign. That made Kissell the second-largest beneficiary of DCCC independent expenditures, right behind New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

The district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville and includes lots of rural territory in between, went narrowly for President Barack Obama in 2008 (52 percent) and more substantially for George W. Bush in 2004 (54 percent).

National Republican insiders aren’t writing off this race just yet, but they don’t have the challenger they once hoped for.

GOP insiders first tried to woo businessman Mike Minter, a former all-pro with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, into the race. He ultimately decided against a bid. Then the National Republican Congressional Committee tried to coax former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory into the contest. McCrory had recently lost a bid for governor and seriously considered the Congressional race. But he, too, said no.

The Republican field includes businessman Tim D’Annunzio, who calls Kissell a “socialist” in a video on his Web site and boasts endorsements from former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), activist Bay Buchanan, former sportscaster Harold Johnson and businessman Hal Jordan, who narrowly lost a state legislative race in 2006.

The favorite for the GOP nomination is Lou Huddleston, who spent three decades in the Army, retiring as a colonel in 2003. He, too, lost a state legislative race, in 2008, drawing 38 percent.

The Republican nominee may somehow ride a massive political wave to victory against Kissell. But unless that happens, this district will be the best example of a wasted GOP opportunity against a politically unimpressive, vulnerable House Democrat.

Georgia’s 8th. If Larry Kissell is at one end of the campaign quality spectrum, Rep. Jim Marshall (D) is at the other. Yet both constitute missed Republican opportunities.

Marshall is smart, cocky and politically astute. He got clobbered in his first run for Congress in 2000, but came back two years later to win an open seat. In 2006, he held off a former Congressman (who had represented part of the territory when the state’s districts were drawn differently) in a nail-biter.

Marshall defeated retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rick Goddard (R) comfortably in 2008, 57 percent to 43 percent, and that may help explain why no top-tier challenger has stepped forward for 2010.

All of this is disappointing for GOP strategists given the nature of the district and the developing national Republican wave. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the district with 56 percent in 2008, and Bush carried it in 2004 with 61 percent of the vote. In a year when voters may want to send a message to Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Republicans ought to have a candidate who can tap that voter sentiment in a district like Marshall’s. So far, they don’t.

Illinois’ 8th. Rep. Melissa Bean (D) is a tough adversary, like Marshall. She’s focused, politically astute and running in an expensive media market. But given her district and the kind of political year it may be, it’s hard to believe that Republicans came up empty-handed against her in 2010.

Her opponent this year is Joe Walsh (R), a favorite of tea party activists and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress (against then-Rep. Sidney Yates) in 1996 and for the state Legislature in 1998.

I don’t know if anyone can beat Bean this time, but her 6-point victory against David McSweeney (R) in a horrendous year for Republicans and her subsequent 20-point win over inept challenger Steve Greenberg (R) in a year when Obama was sweeping the state shouldn’t be enough to earn her a cakewalk in 2010. It has, however.

Wisconsin’s 8th. Finally, Republicans can’t be thrilled by their field against Rep. Steve Kagen (D). State Rep. Roger Roth, whose uncle served in Congress, could develop into a credible threat to Kagen, as could businessman Reid Ribble. Former state Rep. Terri McCormick and Door County Supervisor Marc Savard hope to do the same.

But no matter how you slice it, the Republican field in this GOP-leaning district doesn’t look particularly intimidating.

While McCain drew only 45 percent here in 2008, Bush won it with 55 percent four years earlier. Kagen barely won the open seat in 2006 but won it comfortably two years later. Still, given the national landscape, the district’s bent and Kagen’s personal style, a strong GOP challenger would put this district into play.

Right now, it’s not clear that the field includes a challenger who can win, though in a big Republican wave, even the current crop of contenders can’t be dismissed.