About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> 2008 Congressional Election - The House

Murtha in a Tight Race

After making some unfortunate comments to the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, calling voters in his region "racist" then "redneck," Western Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha finds himself in a tight race. The NRCC and the DCCC have both entered the fray, blanketing the Pittsburgh area with advertising, and Murtha is calling upon Bill and Hillary Clinton to help him carry his district tomorrow.

Murtha's district is Pennsylvania 12th. It covers a vast expanse of Western Pennsylvania, stretching 130 miles from Johnstown in the east to Waynesburg in the southwest corner of the state. His district is the one shaded blue in this picture, courtesy of Sean Oxendine.

Pennsylvania 2002.gif

As this Post-Gazette article notes, Murtha's district did not always look like this. When he was first elected in 1974, his district, then Pennsylvania's 22nd, looked like this (again courtesy of Sean Oxendine):

Pennsylvania 1972.gif

Centered in Johnstown, it stretched north instead of west. The shape of the district has changed because Pennsylvania has lost congressional districts over the years - from 27 in the 1970s to 19 in the 2000's.

According to the Post-Gazette, this has contributed to Murtha's problem. Around Johnstown, voters know him well. However, he is not known nearly as well to the voters in the west.

The farther west you go, the deeper the puzzlement at the congressman who called Western Pennsylvania "racist" in an interview with the Post-Gazette editorial board and then apologized by substituting "redneck" in a television interview.

Mr Murtha already had irked veterans and social conservatives in the area by calling for a U.S pullout from Iraq and accusing eight Marines of atrocities in the town of Haditha.

Back home, the "racist" remark is viewed as Mr. Murtha -- who is as famous for his plain speech as for his capacity for handing out federal moolah -- speaking more bluntly than clearly. Yet, in much of the new district, well to the west of Johnstown, there is puzzlement verging on anger.

Murtha's problem is similar to the kind of trouble that many long-serving members of Congress face. When they are first elected to Congress, and for the first few terms, they develop what political scientist Richard Fenno calls a "homestyle." This is a way of interacting with and understanding voters in the district - cultivating good relationships with important constituent groups, appearing at the right events, knowing when to vote with the district and when you can get away with voting against it, and so on.

However, members can face trouble as the district changes. In some instances, the change is induced by new types of voters moving in. In other instances, such as Murtha's, redistricting means new lines and new voters. These new voters do not have the same relationship with the member, which means he must cultivate a bond with them. If he fails to do that, those new voters might ultimately turn against him.

This Post-Gazette article indicates that Murtha has had trouble adapting to his changing district. Voters in Johnstown are more forgiving of Murtha's comments, but to the west his voters are less so because they don't know him as well. This makes intuitive sense. If you've known John Murtha as a man who has brought jobs and federal dollars to the district for 34 years, you have a context for those comments. But if he's new to you, and these comments are some of the first things you've heard from him, they could be very important in shaping your opinion.

So, Murtha's problem this cycle is an extreme example of a common kind of trouble. Congressional districts are not static. They change because of population movements, shifts in the economy, redistricting, and other factors. Members, even long-serving ones, need to adapt to these changes. If they don't, they can face the kind of trouble that Murtha has today.

Will this be enough to end Murtha's career? I don't know. Fortunately for him, he made his bone-headed remark in a year that favors the Democratic Party. That's a lucky break for him - and luck can sometimes count as much as anything in House races.

-Jay Cost

Filing Deadline Now Passed in Illinois

The deadline to file candidacies in the state of Illinois has now passed. Illinois comes well ahead of the rest of the nation in this regard - most states have a deadline sometime in March of next year. A look at the candidates for the major contests can be had here.

A few observations:

(1) Five Democrats do not face Republican opposition: Jesse Jackson, Jr., Luis Gutierrez, Rahm Emanuel, Danny Davis, and Phil Hare

(2) No Democratic incumbent drew a Republican challenger who has previously won electoral office. This includes Melissa Bean, who ousted Phil Crane in 2004 and whom Republicans targeted in 2006.

(3) Neither Chicagoland Republican incumbent (Mark Kirk or Peter Roskam) drew a Democratic challenger who has previously won electoral office. However, Dan Seals - who gave Kirk a good run in 2006 - is challenging him again.

(4) There are three Republican open seats in Illinois - IL 11, 14, and 18. All of them are downstate. The Democrats have a candidate who has previously won an election in IL 11. In that contest, the Democrat has more electoral experience than either Republican.

(5) Dan Lipinski might face some strong opposition in the Democratic primary for IL 03. Lipinski is the son of former representative Bill Lipinski, who suddenly withdrew from the race in 2004 after he had won the Democratic nomination. His son was selected to replace him on the ballot. And, IL 03 being a district on the South and West sides of Chicago - he won the general election easily. But Dan Lipinski faced a tough primary challenge in 2006 (the opposition garnered 46% between them), and it looks as though he might again this cycle.

(6) Unsurprisingly, Richard Durbin faces no serious opposition to retain his Senate seat.

(7) Gutierrez, Jackson, Jr., and Hare face no opposition. The current tally for the 111th Congress is: Democrats 3, Republicans 0, TBD 432.

-Jay Cost

A Few More Considerations

A reader of mine named Sean, who runs the very excellent MyElectionAnalysis.com, sent along the following email in regards to today's column.

I generally agree with everything that Sean says below, and I post it without comment because it stands on its own. I'll just say that any metric of an election that is 13 months away is going to have efficiency problems, which is what we are really discussing. The difference between "politics nerds" like myself and Sean (i.e. people who spent way too much time studying politics at the university-level) and others, I think, is that we like to list all of our caveats right up front. The two metrics that other analysts have been making use of - the money race and retirements - probably have as many caveats as recruitment.

That said, I'll leave it to Sean to fill out my list of caveats.


I hope all is well. Allow me to suggest two further caveats to your "candidate quality" metric.

First, I believe it excludes a number of quality candidates who might not have run for Congress before. Two immediate examples spring to mind: Admiral Joe Sestak in PA-07 and the Republican Four-Star General who is challenging Jim Marshall in GA-08 this time around. I understand that the beauty of the "previous elective office" rule is that it is a very bright line, and that candidates who have never won elected office before tend to be of the Carol Shea Porter variety, so I don't consider this an important one (BTW, do you happen to know off the top of your head the name of the guy who developed the measurement system from 1-4 of measuring candidate quality? Can't remember it, but it was a good one).

[Jay: David Cannon is, I believe, the creator of that scale. I think the work is Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress (1990). I believe that the four-point scale gives different scores to previous office holders, candidates with a prior political job like an appointment, ambitious amateurs who have run before, and then all other candidates. The binary variable I used in today's column is one used by Gary Jacobson and Alan Abramowitz, though of course they use actual general election challengers. It is therefore much more precise.]

Carol Shea-Porter, though, leads me to a second, more important caveat, which questions the efficacy of the measurment. By my count, fifteen of the twenty-three Democrats who defeated GOP incumbents in 2006 held no prior elected office (McNerney, Donnelly, Loebsack, Boyda, Yarmuth, Walz, Shea-Porter, Hall, Gillibrand, Shuler, Altmire, Sestak, Murphy, Carney, and Kagen) (I'm not sure if Brad Ellsworth was an elected sheriff). That's about 65%!!!

There are three possible conclusions to draw from this to build an additional caveat. The first is that prior elected experience isn't such a great metric. I don't think this is correct, if only because the parties would have noticed this and spent a lot less time recruiting state reps and a lot more time recruiting one-hit-wonder 70s pop starts who posed shirtless on their album covers.

The second two possibilities concede that prior elected office is a good metric, but only in "normal" years. Possibility number two would be that in "wave" years, incumbents who see they have a "weak" challenger let their guard down and get swept out. This strikes me as very likely. As I recall, similar dynamics manifested in 1994 (think Hostettler, Souder, Tiahrt, etc) and in 1974 (Thomas Downey) (okay, I don't recall 1974, but I've read lots about it).

The third possibility is slightly broader, which is that in years where voters are mad at Washington (whether at a particular party or in general), they are more favorably inclined toward candidates who have not held prior elective office. This would explain Ogonowski's recent showing in an environment that is fairly toxic to Republicans (Tsongas had never held elective office either, but she was definitely associated with it).

My guess is that there should be a caveat of some sort that includes some variant of the second and third possibilities. And to the extent that it favors the third possibility, in the current environment, it could be advantageous to Republicans.

Best Regards,


-Jay Cost

Measuring Congressional Competition

Lots of pundits and bloggers have been trying to get an early read on the 2008 House elections. I think that much of this analysis has been good because it has been relying on two solid metrics - retirements and party money.

Analysts have been looking at congressional retirements, which gives us a sense not only of how many districts will be open (obviously), but also the expectations that both sides have for the next election. The party with more retirements is more likely to be the party that expects a tough year. Its incumbents retire rather than face a hard challenge. Another valuable metric is Hill committee fundraising receipts. This probably speaks to the enthusiasm of both party's donor bases - which gives us another bit of insight on how the parties think they are doing.

I'd like to introduce another metric for analyzing the 2008 election. Again, it is early. But if we are careful in our use of measuring sticks, we can still get some purchase on what to expect next year.

Scholars have found that a good measure for congressional elections is the state of party recruitment. Namely, have the parties been able to attract "qualified" candidates to challenge the opposing side? This is a good metric for two reasons. First, if a party has had success with getting qualified candidates - it is a sign that the party is bullish about its prospects. Qualified candidates are usually serious candidates. Serious candidates run to win, and so they will only throw their hats into the ring if they think they can succeed. Second, qualified candidates tend to be better campaigners, which is very important. Congressional elections are not simply a consequence of the president's job approval, or the general feeling in the country. These play an important part - however, very often it is the case that the party favored by the public mood has to translate these feelings into political action. They must signal to the public that a vote for them is an expression of their current sentiment - and either an endorsement of the status quo or a vote for change.

Next question - how do we measure qualification? There is no way to measure it perfectly. Any measure we use will almost undoubtedly identify some unqualified candidates as qualified, and some qualified candidates as unqualified. That is not to say that some measurements are not better than others. Whatever measurement we choose, we have to make sure that we apply it evenly and objectively. Furthermore, we would need it to have good predictive power. Because we expect qualified candidates to do better than unqualified candidates, we should find that the candidates our yardstick identifies as qualified win more often than the candidates our yardstick identifies as unqualified.

One common metric that you'll see in academic literature is whether the candidate has won a previous elective office. If he has, he is labeled qualified. This metric satisfies both of the standards I listed in the previous paragraph. We can apply it fairly across the parties, and we also know that previous officeholders win more often than those who have not previously held office. Like any estimate of real qualification, it probably includes some truly unqualified candidates and exclusdes some truly qualified candidates. But it is still a reasonably good measuring stick.

At this point, every state except Illinois is far from its candidate filing deadline. So, to get an estimate of candidate qualifications, we would have to discover how many qualified candidates have either declared or have expressed an interest in declaring. This is not quite as precise as we might like because lots of those potential candidates will turn out not to run. We'll have a much better read on candidate qualifications next June when most filing deadlines have past and we know who is running and who is not. But this just means our metric becomes less precise - it does not become useless. We'll just have to factor in our imprecision when we analyze the data that we find.

The trick is how to collect this data. This would be incredibly labor intensive - but not for us, thanks to Ron Gunzberger and the indispensible Politics1.com. I absolutely love this site. If I could only visit three websites every day - it would probably be Politics1.com, TheGreenPapers.com, and (of course!) RealClearPolitics.com.

Just why is Politics1 so great? There are many reasons - but today's reason is that Mr. Gunzberger is actually keeping track of who is thinking about running and what those potential candidates did for a living before they decided they might want to be called "The Honorable." I don't know how he gets that data together. Quite frankly, I don't want to know. But Gunzberger has an impressive dataset that covers all 435 House contests - so we can indeed get a sense of how many qualified candidates are either running or thinking about running for Congress.

We can use this data to answer the following question: how many Democratic seats have or might have qualified Republican challengers, and how many Republican seats have or might have qualified Democratic challengers?

I came out with 33 Democratic seats and 54 Republican seats. So, the Democrats seem to be more ambitious in their attempts to challenge Republicans. Democrats are either challenging or might be challenging about 26% of Republican-held seats. Republicans are either challenging or might be challenging about 14% of Democratic-held seats.

Now remember that this is just one metric. It is important not to overinterpret the data - so before I do interpret things, I am going to list all of my caveats. First, many important metrics have not yet become available to us - so our ability to draw inferences about the 2008 House contest remains limited. Second, we canl get a better picture of things when we start to use multiple metrics at once - which I have not done. For instance - how many qualified Democratic challengers are there in Republican-held districts that lean to the left? This can make a difference. There are three qualified Democratic challengers in Nebraska - but the single qualified challenger in Delaware is probably worth more to the DCCC. Relatedly, while the GOP has fewer qualified challengers - 75% of their qualified challengers are trying to win back seats the Democrats won in 2006. This means that they are running against freshman, who tend to be more vulnerable than more senior members of the House.

Third, remember that this metric itself has limitations. Above all, it is probably an overestimate of the final number of competitive seats - as some of these candidates who might run end up not running, we should see these numbers fall. Fourth, in many instances - qualified challengers are facing unqualified challengers in party primaries. Just as happened in NH 01 last year, the candidate with prior electoral experience can lose to the candidate without such experience. As that happens, these numbers would change, too.

With my caveats - or as my dad would say, my "CYA" clauses - now in place, here is how I would interpret these numbers. Like contributions to the Hill committees and retirements, I think this metric has real analytical value even though it is still early. Above all, it is an indication that Democratic "elites" - those who actually run for Congress - are feeling more bullish about 2008 than their Republican counterparts. And this bullishness - if it holds - might translate into a real horse race advantage for the Democrats, as they are able to offer real challenges to more seats next year. A party is better able to take advantage of the public mood if it has candidates who know how to win elections. Right now, the Democrats are on track to have more such candidates.

Update: At 4:30 PM EST today, I added an addendum to this column - thanks to a very intelligent email I received from a reader named Sean, who runs myelectionanalysis.com. Read it here.

-Jay Cost

Expect More Retirements

There seems to be a constant stream of Republican House member retirements in the last few weeks. We can probably expect news like this to continue for a while.

Back in August, I argued that this is due to the "peril of the minority." Almost all Republican members of Congress are used to being in the majority. They are now in the minority, which is a much less pleasurable position. Fewer staffers, smaller offices, diminished power to set the agenda, and so on. The incentives for members to remain in Congress have decreased. If the GOP had a reasonable expectation of recapturing the majority next year - they would probably be able to retain some of the members who are retiring. However, at this point nobody seems to have that expectation.

Meanwhile, the prospective costs to remain in Congress seems to be increasing. Namely, President Bush's continued low job approval number means that the political climate favors the Democrats. Republican members of Congress can therefore expect a greater chance of a tough race next year - and, accordingly, they can expect a greater chance of a loss, which is the one thing that all members most fear.

What happens when costs go up and benefits go down? People start selling! And so, a good number of GOP retirements were to be expected this cycle. The question for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is whether it can keep retirements to a minimum. Another pressing question for the NRCC is whether it can persuade members from marginal districts who can win if they don't retire to stay on board. It's one thing for Rick Renzi or Jerry Weller to retire. Both of them have problems that make them liabilities next cycle. The big task for the committee is whether it can keep members who can win if they stay on board, but whose departure means the seat becomes more competitive. So far, they have lost a few such members. How many more will they lose? That is the big question.

-Jay Cost

On the GOP's Recruitment Problems

A follow-up to yesterday's piece. If a party's political perils induce marginal members of Congress to step down rather than seek reelection, it also makes it much more difficult for the party to find a quality candidate to replace them.

The following is from Mike Allen's Politico playbook:

'Republicans scrambled to find a candidate for one of the nation's most competitive congressional districts Thursday as Rep. Deborah Pryce, nearly a casualty of the 2006 Democratic surge, announced that she would not seek a ninth term. Also announcing that he will not run for re-election in 2008 was Rep. Chip Pickering, a six-term Republican from Mississippi. Pryce, once the most powerful Republican woman in Congress, beat Mary Jo Kilroy last year by 1,062 votes out of 220,000 cast. Democrats are backing Kilroy, a Franklin County commissioner, in 2008. Republicans could have trouble finding a top-flight candidate for an open seat in the district. Former Attorney General Jim Petro, now a lawyer in private practice, said Thursday that House GOP leader John Boehner and others had approached him about running for the nomination. He said he would decide whether to get back into politics within two weeks. ... State Sen. Steve Stivers, another Republican mentioned as a possible replacement for Pryce, said Wednesday he had no interest in the job. ... Next year's race had already attracted the attention of outside groups, and phone calls targeting Pryce, mainly for her support of President Bush and the Iraq war, hardly took a breather after last November's election. Bush issued a statement Thursday thanking Pryce for her commitment to reducing taxes and strengthening the country's national defense.

Isn't it funny how the top two prospects for the GOP in OH 15 are just so-so about a seat in Congress? I can assure you that their reluctance is not because they don't want one. I am sure they would. So, why are they hesitant? Consider the reaction to the announced retirement of Charles Pickering in MS 03. This is Stuart Rothenberg, writing in Taegan Goddard's Political Wire.

Republicans are likely to retain the Mississippi Congressional District being left open because of the retirement of Rep. Chip Pickering, but that doesn't mean that Mississippi 3rd District voters won't see a competitive campaign.

Contrary to initial reports, Pickering will not resign his seat. Instead, he will serve out his term but not seek reelection. GOP insiders describe the district as overflowing with potential Republican candidates and expect a multi-candidate primary.

Where the GOP is guaranteed a win in the general, the party is going to have to beat back candidates with a stick.

What's the difference? Things are not looking as rosy in OH 15 as they are in MS 03. Thus, top-tier candidates are not interested in running in the former district, but they are in the latter.

Candidate recruitment is thus one of the biggest ways that national political forces affect local House races. Top-tier candidates are strategic. They do not want to run if they think they are going to lose. When the political winds are blowing against their party, they demure. When they are favoring their party, they run. This is what creates an imbalance in quality candidates - as the political winds are usually blowing in one party's direction. So far, we have seen indications that the Democrats are recruiting better candidates than the Republicans - which is an early indication that, at the least, they are well positioned to retain their majority.

This seems to be most true for the GOP in the Senate. Chris Cillizza writes today:

At this still-early point in the '08 cycle, it's hard to overlook the dearth of top-tier Republican candidates in potentially competitive Senate races. The best recruit on the board for Republicans at the moment is Bob Schaffer, a former congressman who is running for the Colorado Senate seat being vacated next year by Wayne Allard (R). Schaffer has a base in the state from his time in Congress and also has a statewide race under his belt.

The GOP cupboard is all-but-bare elsewhere. No serious candidate has emerged in Louisiana, South Dakota, Iowa or Montana -- states carried by President Bush in 2004. Extenuating circumstances are to blame in several instances: In Louisiana, the state's 2007 gubernatorial race is dominating the state's political world, while in South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's (D) recovery from emergency brain surgery has put the contest on hold. The national political environment isn't helping either, as President Bush and the war in Iraq continue to drive down Republican numbers.

Even so, the lack of "A" recruits is worrisome for a party that must defend 22 Senate seats in 2008. In order to avoid a landslide next November, Republicans must play offense in a handful of Democratic-held states. There is still time for Republicans to land major recruits, but the early returns are not promising.

This surely is a consequence of the negative political environment that Republicans are anticipating. Top-tier candidates Republican for the Senate are assessing that next year is not a good year for them to try to advance their political careers - and thus are not running.

-Jay Cost

The Peril of the Minority

Being in the majority in Congress provides one with a lot of perquisites. Some of them seem relatively small in the grand scale of things - like larger staff for majority members. However, these benefits can be of great consequence. Taken together, they add up to an advantage at the ballot box - the majority has the power to perpetuate itself.

There are many items that facilitate this power, probably the greatest of which is the capacity to set the agenda. That enables the majority to offer legislation that is politically beneficial to it. For instance, if it offers bills that unite its side and divide the other side, it can position itself well for the next election. This is also the case in the committees - which, of course, are controlled by the majority. On top of these very significant powers, the majority gets more staff, and nicer offices.

Yep - being in the minority stinks, especially when you are used to being in the majority. That's the worst way to be in the minority - to go there having been in the majority for most (if not all) of your congressional career. You get used to the perquisites, and now that they're gone, you're left wondering if this is worth it. Maybe you should retire...

This is what is concerning the Republican leadership these days. Now that the party is in the minority, and it looks as though it will be difficult (to say the least) for them to reclaim the majority next year, they fear that a large number of dispossessed Republicans will retire. Retirements yield open seat elections, which are more likely to be fought over the issues of the day, and which are more likely to have quality Democrats as candidates.

Those probably most likely to retire are minority members of the party with a long tenure in the majority and with the expectation of a tough race in the next election. Why should they run again? They might lose, which would be an awful way to end their congressional careers. And, even more importantly, they do not have all that much to look forward to if they win. They're used to the majority position, after all. For these types of members, there are lots of risks and precious few rewards. These types of retirements are particularly perilous for the minority party - as they almost assuredly give the majority party an advantage in picking up the seat.

This is why it must be disappointing news today for the Republicans to learn that Deborah Pryce is going to retire. Pryce is a fifteen year veteran of the House. And she fought one hell of a race last cycle to hold her seat in the face of a tough challenge from Mary Jo Kilroy. You'd have to put her in the same category as Chris Shays and Jim Gerlach - both of whom survived the Democratic triumph through sheer grit and determination. Ditto for Pryce, who rightly characterized that race (if memory serves) as a "knife fight." Hard, smart work kept her in Congress even as the Democrats were picking up seats as diverse as CT 02 and KS 02.

And now she's retiring. That is unfortunate for the Republicans. They probably would have lost OH 15 without Pryce on the ballot last year. And, the political winds will have to shift at least a little bit to give them a better than 50% chance of holding the seat now.

Pryce's departure indicates that the majority and minority positions are both, in their own ways, self-perpetuating. The minority party often has a hard time inducing members to run for reelection, thus endangering their already too-few share of seats. The retirement of Deborah Pryce is a case in point, and a severe blow to the GOP.

-Jay Cost

Why Spend Money Now?

This story from CQ Politics struck me:

Despite frequent statements by President Bush and his political allies that U.S. troops are making progress in the Iraq war, the conflict remains highly unpopular among most Americans. A CBS News-New York Times poll conducted July 20-22 showed 69 percent of respondents disapproved of Bush's handling of the war, and 66 percent said the war was going somewhat to very badly.

And Democratic strategists for the 2008 congressional elections clearly believe Iraq is an issue that works to their party's benefit -- as underscored by radio ads, calling for a "new direction" in Iraq, that the Democrats' national House campaign organization is running during the August congressional recess in 12 districts represented by Republicans who are being targeted for defeat next year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on Wednesday began airing radio ads during "drive time" in the 12 districts. These include Connecticut's 4th, where veteran Republican Rep. Christopher Shays narrowly survived tough races in 2004 and 2006 against Democrat Diane Farrell in which the incumbent's support for Bush's Iraq policy was a central issue.

Reid Wilson covered this yesterday at the RCP Blog, noting that the NRCC is spending money as well.

What's going on here? Is this not ridiculously early? Well - yes and no.

Yes insofar as these ads are not going to be what convince people to vote for the party running them.

But the answer is also no. Congressional contests only become competitive when challengers emerge who can make them competitive. They can raise funds, they can put together a quality campaign organization, and they can offer the public a well-crafted message.

Unfortunately - in my opinion - there is only so much the party can do in this regard. The party can offer lots of help to candidates who have reached a certain threshold of competitiveness. However, the limitations of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act make it so that they cannot make a non-competitive candidate competitive.

And so, recruitment is incredibly important. The parties need to find candidates who can do a good bit of the campaign prep stuff on their own. They are both working very hard right now to induce candidates who could make a quality run to run. This is harder than it sounds. Lots of candidates run just for the hell of it, or to promote an issue, or something like that. But quality candidates run because they want to win. And if they think they cannot win, they will not run. This is why the Democrats had many more quality challengers than Republicans did in 2006. Quality Republican challengers decided to refrain because they wanted to win, and they assessed that 2006 was not a year for them to win.

These ads can serve both parties' recruitment interests. What these ads do is soften up these incumbents' approve/disapprove numbers. Both parties can then take private polls and show them to would-be challengers, arguing, "Look at these numbers. And this was just after a few thousand bucks on radio ads. Imagine what we could do to him/her next year!" This will make quality challengers more likely to get into the race because they'll start to think that victory is more likely.

And for the races in which the parties have already recruited a quality candidate - the ads can help in fundraising. The polling taken after the election can be shown to would-be donors as a way to convince them that the party's candidate can win if they just write that nice check.

-Jay Cost

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

The Hill Committees at the Five Month Mark

Recently, the FEC reported the fundraising activities through May 31 of the six national party committees.

The DCCC has raised $26 million, the DNC has raised $25 million, and the DSCC has raised $18 million, for a total of $69 million.

The Republicans have raised $72 million all told. The RNC has pulled in $40 million, the NRCC $23 million, and the NRSC just $9 million.

Once again we see what we saw earlier this month - the NRSC is lagging well behind its Democratic counterpart. Some of this is undoubtedly from the fact that there are 22 Republicans incumbents who are drawing money to themselves and away from the NRSC. But, as I argued, not all of this is explicable by that. In particular, the Senate Republican committee seems to be lagging in individual contributions - pulling in only $6 million. This might be a sign of structural problems at the committee.

While the RNC has out-raised the DNC, pulling the GOP ahead of the Democrats, this is a presidential year - and we thus should not expect as much coordination between the national committees and the two congressional committees. The national committees will be busy working on the presidential election.

This, then, is a sign that the congressional Republicans are - overall - lagging relative to the Democrats. Exactly what does this mean? Over at The Fix, Chris Cillizza argues the thinks that this spells major trouble for the GOP, noting the following:

Remember that all four of the congressional committees are first and foremost about incumbent retention. In order to get members to raise and donate money to the committees, the organizations must show a commitment to defending incumbents no matter the cost. Witness the millions the DCCC poured into four lost cause races in Texas in 2004 -- simply because the races all featured incumbents and it was impossible for the party to walk away from them even though the races were probably unwinnable no matter how much money is spent.

So, while Republicans' financial positioning seems likely to limit their ability to do much beyond protecting their incumbents, Democrats seem on pace to expand the playing field thanks to their financial edge.

I think there is a great deal of truth here. It is fair to say that there is an incumbency "bias" at the Hill committees. Endangered incumbents are given more aid than challengers with similar prospects of victory. The Hill committees are prepared to support incumbents even when all seems lost. Compare the NRCC's response to AZ 08 and IN 08 last cycle. They pulled out of the former the moment that Randy Graf won the nomination, but they supported John Hostettler to the bitter end. Mr. Cillizza makes a great point as to why this is the case. The Hill committees must show loyalty to endangered incumbents so as to enjoy the support of the members of the caucus, who are able to transfer their own campaign cash to them. Incumbents are advantaged in a different way, too. Safe incumbents can count upon a good amount of committee contributions, even if they are not endangered. Challengers who are as likely to lose as incumbents are to win do not get that kind of cash.

However, I do not think this justifies Mr. Cillizza's characterization of the "congressional committees (as) first and foremost about incumbent retention." Recent research has shown that, while there is a slight pro-incumbent bias in the NRCC and DCCC, both are remarkably strategic in their giving patterns.

For instance, in the year that he cites - 2004 - total expenditures (direct contributions, coordinated expenditures, and independent expenditures) by the NRCC for incumbents totaled $13.9 million. The same amount for non-incumbents totaled $36.7 million. Thus, the NRCC spent more on challengers than on incumbents. The story is the same at the DCCC. In 2004, it spent $9.1 million on incumbents, and $27.3 million on non-incumbents. Most of the difference between the two is due to coordinated expenditures and independent expenditures. While many safe House incumbents get a few thousand dollars from the NRCC or the DCCC, each party is much more strategic with its independent expenditures and coordinated expenditures. (Typically, direct contributions only account for a tiny portion of total party spending - just 1.1% in 2004 for each House committee.) What is more - most of the congressional campaign committees' non-financial resources are dedicated to non-incumbents because they are the ones who lack connections to donors, campaign professionals, &c.

Generally, the way I view the congressional campaign committees (the subject of my dissertation) is as Temple University's Robin Kolodny does in her excellent book on the subject, Pursuing Majorities. Their principal goal is to pursue a majority for their caucus. By pooling the "Washington resources" of the caucus party together, they solve a collective action dilemma for each member, who would be made better off to be in a majority but who cannot bear the costs of attaining it. While it is true that there is a not insignificant "incumbency bias" that can skew this goal - this nevertheless is each congressional campaign committees' major goal.

One might say that the congressional campaign committees as strategic pursuers of majorities that are "saddled" with a slightly higher-than-normal aversion to risk. They generally put the money where it will make a difference, but they nevertheless tend to believe that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" more than most of us do. Thus, they slightly over-fund incumbents with direct contributions.

So, Mr. Cillizza thinks that these fundraising discrepancies mean trouble for the Republicans in their pursuit of majorities. I think he might be on to something, but I think he overstates the point.

Another point. It is important to note that the NRSC is the outfit that is really in trouble. The NRCC is not nearly as worse off. It is inappropriate - in many regards - to lump these two committees together, which Mr. Cillizza does in his piece, and which many are inclined to do as well. The Senate and House Hill committees should be understood as independent entities. They have separate goals. Sometimes they coordinate. Sometimes they do not. Both will occasionally help the other out to maximize contributions or coordinated expenditures to particularly endangered incumbents. Both will also presumably coordinate messages. But each committee is autonomous. And so, I am not sure that lumping the two GOP Hill committees and comparing them to the Democratic committees offers maximum clarity. For, if we separate them out, we see that the NRSC is in much worse shape than the NRCC. The NRCC and the DCCC are about even in that regard for the cycle. This is not a great sign for the NRCC, which historically outraises the DCCC - but there is a great difference between its position vis-a-vis the DCCC and the NRSC's position vis-a-vis the DSCC.

-Jay Cost