GOP Effort to Aid at-Risk Incumbents Heartens Democrats

GOP Effort to Aid at-Risk Incumbents Heartens Democrats

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 2, 2012

The group tasked with getting Republicans elected to the House of Representatives -- and keeping them there -- added 10 party members to its incumbent protection program this week, a development that Democrats hailed as a nod from the other side that the lower chamber is in play.

The National Republican Congressional Committee now has 30 incumbents enrolled in its Patriot Program, which establishes benchmarks for the most vulnerable incumbents and provides the financial support to help get them there.

Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to reclaim control of the House, and have an ambitious and highly calculated plan to reach that number. Most analysts characterize the goal as an uphill climb, but Democrats see the Republicans’ new list as an admission that it is doable.

“The NRCC just confirmed what we’ve been saying for months and poll after poll has shown: The House is in play and the Republican majority is in jeopardy,” said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Facing sagging poll numbers and an unpopular agenda, Republicans now agree: They have enough members in danger to lose control of the House. ”

The DCCC has an incumbent protection program of its own, with 17 admitted members. That's a tough spot from which to point fingers, Republicans argue. Democrats haven't said they will win back the House in November -- and they are wise not to. But they promise it will be "razor close," and are happy to seize upon anything that potentially sharpens that razor, like Republicans expanding their list of vulnerable members.

Many of the lawmakers in the Patriot Program are freshmen and some were swept into Congress on the Tea Party wave -- among them, Allen West of Florida and Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. But others are veterans who have fallen victim to the redistricting knife. Maryland's Roscoe Bartlett is one. The Western Maryland congressman has been elected 10 times with at least 54 percent of the vote, but his conservative district will now have more liberal voters. Nine-term California Rep. Dan Lungren (pictured) fits a similar profile; he has been on the Democrats' hit list for much of this cycle and has borne the brunt of the House Majority PAC's attacks. He describes the NRCC program as "an outside check on what you’re doing with your campaign; it's always good to have someone come in and have a look with a fresh set of eyes."

Lungren, in an interview with RealClearPolitics, said expanding the Patriot Program roster is a sign of preparedness, not submission, from Republicans. To assume otherwise "would be as silly as the coach of the New York Giants saying because [Patriots Coach] Bill Belichick has a game plan for the Super Bowl, he thinks he's going to lose the Super Bowl," he said.

Lungren also has more faith in his new district than do others, and says within the new lines, voters in 2010 backed Democrat Jerry Brown for governor but also supported Republican Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate. Lungren has won elections with a sizable majority of the support (he served a different district before leaving the House and eventually returning in 2004), but 2008 was his narrowest win: He beat his opponent by just five points as Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the district by about 1,600 votes.

"Patriot Members have demonstrated the leadership and ability to wage aggressive campaigns based on rigorous goals and proven strategies for victory," NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions said in a statement. Other new members include Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Gary Miller and Brian Bilbray of California, Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman of Colorado, Joe Walsh and Tim Johnson of Illinois and Dan Benishek of Michigan. (Illinois, Maryland and California have new maps that help Democrats.)

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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