With All the Bad News, How Can the NRCC Recruit Candidates?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 21, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Over the past few weeks, a handful of potentially strong Republican challengers have jumped into House races. Sid Leiken in Oregon, Frank Guinta in New Hampshire, Van Tran in California and Cory Gardner in Colorado, for example, look to be the kind of recruits whom Republicans didn’t get last cycle.

Leiken, who is running against Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), and Tran, who will challenge Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), are running in districts that the National Republican Congressional Committee hasn’t targeted in many cycles.

Of course, there is no guarantee that these Republicans will turn out to be ideal challengers, or even that they’ll win. On paper, former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D) and Illinois businessman Steve Greenberg (R) looked interesting in the previous cycle. Then, as actual candidates, they flopped.

Given the Democrats’ certain fundraising advantage, the damage to the GOP brand, President Barack Obama’s strong poll numbers, the lack of an effective national Republican message and internal GOP divisions, how are national Republican strategists selling potential candidates on a 2010 run?

Is this first wave of GOP recruits merely the low-hanging fruit? Will the NRCC be able to recruit credible challengers in additional districts that they have ignored over the past few cycles?

And while the NRCC has interesting candidates against DeFazio and Sanchez, will the party have formidable challengers to freshman Democratic Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Harry Teague (N.M.), Alan Grayson (Fla.), Larry Kissell (N.C.) and Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio), each of whom is more vulnerable than DeFazio or Sanchez?

Republican strategists acknowledge that the national political landscape still isn’t wildly favorable for recruiting, but they argue persuasively that changes since November make recruiting far easier than during the previous two election cycles.

First, Republican operatives note the historical trend that the party controlling the White House loses seats in midterm elections, and they say that trend is one reason why some potential candidates are more interested in running in 2010.

Party strategists also argue that Democrats first elected to the House during the past two cycles have never run in a neutral political environment and therefore have never really been tested. That argument makes some Democrats seem less intimidating than their incumbency might suggest.

But GOP insiders say one factor is more important than any other in explaining the greater interest from potential candidates.

“Some candidates took a pass last time because they didn’t want to have to run in Bush’s shadow. Democrats don’t have Bush to use this time. This time, they’ll have to stand with the president or [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. We definitely point that out to candidates,” one Republican operative said.

“We are using the same message that Democrats used in 2005: the president,” a Republican strategist echoed. “Whenever you have an activist president — on either end of the ideological spectrum — a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t run decide that they have to do something. They believe that the president is running the country into a ditch.”

For many reporters and Democrats, this assessment seems odd because Obama’s polling numbers look good. But the president isn’t equally popular everywhere or among all groups, and his administration is already controversial.

Finally, NRCC insiders also say the committee has changed some of its approaches, even borrowing ideas and strategies from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The NRCC’s “Patriot” program is a thinly veiled copy of the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, which is aimed at helping re-elect incumbents.

“From now on, Members will be holding other Members accountable for running strong re-election efforts,” said one insider who expressed frustration and even contempt for past Republican incumbents, such as Reps. John Hostettler (Ind.) and Bill Sali (Idaho), who failed to fundraise or run modern campaigns.

The NRCC is also taking a page out of the DCCC’s playbook by trying to put more districts into play, a very different strategy from the one followed when Republicans controlled the House.

The committee has absorbed what was a small program initially established by GOP Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — the “Young Guns” program — to help candidates put together quality campaigns and to measure the success of those efforts.

Candidates are required to meet a series of benchmarks that the NRCC (often in coordination with the campaign) identifies, including fundraising goals and a fundraising system; a volunteer database and recruitment goals; an e-mail list, press lists and communications strategies; and media training, vendors and other measures.

Candidates who reach the first set of benchmarks are placed in “On the Radar” status, while those who move on and satisfy the next set of benchmarks reach the “Contender” status. Reaching the top level of benchmarks gets a candidate the status of “Young Gun,” assuring a certain level of NRCC assistance with fundraising and staff. (Certainly sounds something like the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, doesn’t it?)

“It’s an interactive program,” said one Republican who is close to the NRCC. “We want to help candidates get there, not merely give them goals and tell them to get back to us when they have met them.”

The NRCC still has a long way to go in candidate recruitment. And potential retirements (and Senate candidacies), financial issues and branding problems could well leave the campaign committee in another hole for the cycle. But at this point, the Republican Party’s national problems haven’t dried up interest in 2010 House bids.