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By Jay Cost

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On the GOP's Congressional Targets

Many of you probably read the Washington Post story from Tuesday regarding political briefings given to Administration officials. One of the recent briefing included a list of Democrat-held House districts that the White House thinks might make for good targets next year.

WaPo reported:

White House aides have conducted at least half a dozen political briefings for the Bush administration's top diplomats, including a PowerPoint presentation for ambassadors with senior adviser Karl Rove that named Democratic incumbents targeted for defeat in 2008 and a "general political briefing" at the Peace Corps headquarters after the 2002 midterm elections.

The briefings, mostly run by Rove's deputies at the White House political affairs office, began in early 2001 and included detailed analyses for senior officials of the political landscape surrounding critical congressional and gubernatorial races, according to documents obtained by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Over at the RCP Blog, Reid Wilson does a great job of categorizing the races. I have no amendment to make to it, but I imagine many readers are left wondering why the Administration would brief political officials about its prospect list. What is the value of this? Might it not be better to keep it quiet?

The answer is: not at all. You might think that the answer is "yes" because it is tipping off those House members that they will have competitive races next year - but in all likelihood, those members are gearing up for competitive races, anyway (or, at least they should be).

The publication of a list like this is, I think, a good thing for Republicans. The reason is that these races are not yet competitive. In all likelihood, they will become competitive only if the Republicans manage to recruit quality candidates for them. This is why it is worth communicating to political elites what districts are on the White House's watch list. If the White House gets the word out that certain districts are on the agendas of the highest officials in the party, political elites who can make for quality candidates will be more likely to run in those districts. After all, they may then assess that they can count upon resources from the party in support of their bids.

The list, then, is a cue to political elites that, should they make credible runs for those districts - the party will be there to assist them. This includes not just providing them campaign cash, but also candidate training, helping them hire quality campaign consultants, giving them access to the party's extensive network of donors, providing them with on-demand strategic assistance, selling them campaign services at cost, and so on. The party does not do that for every candidate in every race. It picks and chooses the races that are the most promising. This list signals to political elites that, should they jump into these races, the party will consider their runs promising.

In fact, it is especially good news for the Republicans that these memos were made public when they were. After all, there has been a whole spate of stories lately about how Democrats are out-raising Republicans nationwide. This is a symptom of Republican malaise, I think. But it might also become a cause: if potential candidates assess that 2008 will be a bad year for the GOP, and poor fundraising figures might very well signal to them that it will be, those elites might refrain from running for office. And without good candidates, races usually do not become competitive. This is one way that the national political environment comes to affect local congressional elections - the responses of strategic elites to that environment determines which races have, and which races do not have, good candidates.

At this point, both party committees are working to recruit good candidates and to keep incumbents from retiring. My intuition is that both of these tasks are right now much easier for the Democrats. It is unlikely that many Democratic incumbents will retire - after all, they have just acquired the majority status for the first time in 12 years. What is more, it is likely that Democratic elites intuit that 2008 will also be a good year for the party. With Bush's continued low job approval numbers, and a general sense that the Democrats stand to do well next year, expect a lot of quality Democratic candidates to jump into the race. On the Republican side of the aisle, I expect both tasks to be problematic for exactly the opposite reasons. Elder Republicans in the House, who see little chance of the party reacquiring the majority, might be inclined to retire - thus creating vulnerable open seats. Meanwhile, quality would-be candidates will also assess that this might not be the year for them to run. So, they opt out.

Recent stories about Democratic fundraising edges probably exacerbate these differences - and so a memo about "White House targets" was probably of benefit to the GOP.

-Jay Cost