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By Jay Cost

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

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

On Split Ticket Voting

The Argus Leader had an interesting article about split ticket voting in South Dakota. This is an anomaly I have noticed before. Why does such a staunch Republican state like South Dakota (or North Dakota, for that matter) vote Republican on the presidential level, but Democratic on the congressional level?

This is a species of a general question that has intrigued scholars over the last few decades. The reason is that Republicans, through the postwar era, have won more presidential elections - but by and large the Democrats have dominated Congress.

David Kranz notes the following about South Dakota:

South Dakota voters usually support Republicans for president. Only four times have voters here backed someone from another party. William Jennings Bryan, running as a populist and Democrats Franklin Roosevelt (on two occasions) and Lyndon Johnson defeated Republican nominees here.

So, do Republican Senate candidates running in a presidential election year benefit from the state's lopsided support for the GOP presidential candidate?

Since (1960), South Dakota has chosen a president and elected a Senator in the same year seven more times through 2004. (snip)

So what happened here in those eight years in which presidential and Senate races were on the same ballot?

Republicans were supported all eight times for president. Democrats won the Senate race four times. Republicans won the Senate race four times.

How to explain this?

Larry Sabato offers the following:

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, tells me that he has seen trending since the early 1970s toward voter independence in such situations.

"Since then, voters have been increasingly willing to split their tickets. An example? None better than South Dakota," he said.

He uses 1972 when Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was the Democratic Party nominee for president against Republican President Richard Nixon. McGovern was unable to carry his own state, but Democrat Second District U.S. Rep. James Abourezk ran for the Senate and defeated Republican state Sen. Bob Hirsch, filling the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Karl Mundt.

"We frequently see it because voters in America are increasingly independent and don't trust any political party fully. They don't want to give all of the political power to one party," he says.

Sabato calls it "a healthy American instinct" that plays out well here.

I think Sabato is on to something here, but the reality is more complicated than what is implied. First off, we have to distinguish between partisan voters who defect to incumbents (i.e. vote for the incumbent who is in the opposite party of themselves), partisan voters who defect to challengers, and pure independent voters. The latter category has been in decline in recent years - at least in Senate elections. Furthermore, partisan voters are, and have long since been, extremely loyal to incumbents of their party. The difference is in partisan defections to incumbents - these have always tended to be much higher, but even this has generally been in decline in the Senate since the 1990s (though 2006 might have seen a jump in the number). So, split-ticket voting is more complicated than a simple mistrust of the American parties. After all, voters tend to vote their party preference when the incumbent is of their party.

Of course, this is not to say that I disagree that party decline, in some fashion, explains at least part of split-ticket voting. I think it does. My point is simply that it is more complicated than this snippet makes it seem. If we are going to explain split ticketing by reference to party decline, then we will almost assuredly have to bring the unique role that incumbents play into the conversation.

Kranz offers another perspective:

Betty Smith, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, sees this as another indicator that riding presidential coattails doesn't have much impact on voters

"It is a long history of South Dakotans electing Democrats to federal office and Republicans to the state offices," she said.

The state's conservative nature shows up during presidential elections, but voters here have a different criteria in the Senate races, she said.

"Congress and the Senate make decisions where some liberality can be an advantage to the state and to the taxpayers. South Dakotans are pretty smart when they make decisions. It is not a one-size-fits-all choice."

This is an idea that several scholars have advanced over the years. It's the idea of issue ownership. Republicans "own" certain issues that play well on the presidential level. Democrats "own" issues that play well on the congressional level.

Relatedly, others have argued that split ticket voting might be understood as strategic voters looking to create the precise mix of policy output from government. With a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, you yield a government that is moderately conservative - which might be quite appealing to the voters of South Dakota. Of course, this implies that voters have high levels of political information. They'd have to know which party controls Congress, what the likely outcome would be with divided government, whether that policy outcome suits their preferences, the likelihood that their vote will achieve their preferred result, and so on. This is a pretty hefty informational prerequisite. Many voters would not be able to make decisions like this because they do not know enough about politics.

The bottom line is that, while I would like to give a clear cut and simple explanation for split ticket voting, I can't. I don't know what the answer is. There are a lot of theories, none of which work perfectly well, all of which have their problems. I'd guess that split ticket voting is probably due to some combination of the decline of partisanship and the desire for policy balancing/issue ownership.

-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

What's Going On at the NRSC?

I would like to comment on the First Quarter numbers that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) reported a few weeks ago. Many people were surprised at the relatively disappointing take of the GOP's Senate organization. The NRSC pulled in only $9.1 million in the First Quarter of 2007. That is a little less than half of what its Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), raised.

Why the disparity between the two organizations? Many analysts argued that the NRSC's money problem is due to the fact that the GOP is obviously in bad shape in the Senate. This, I think, is at least partially true. However, the exact causal mechanism behind this "bad shape" (for lack of a better term) is a little bit more subtle than many have appraised.

Part of the reason for the disparity might be that potential donors are refusing to donate to Republican candidates for the Senate because they are dispirited. In other words they think the party is doomed to lose in the next cycle, and so they do not feel like pulling out their checkbooks. This, unsurprisingly, was the argument of DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer, who told The Washington Post after the numbers were released, "The support for Democratic candidates and ideas is enormous and is propelling us to a big lead in fundraising." This might be true. However, there is more to it than this.

Another reason for the disparity is that Republican donors are choosing to give money to individual incumbents rather than the NRSC. As of the end of the First Quarter, the Republicans were defending 21 seats in the next election - almost twice as many as the Democrats. What is more, most experts expect 2008 to be a rough year for Republicans. This means that there are a large number of Republican incumbents who are actively worried about reelection. It is they, I suspect, who are partially depressing NRSC fundraising figures because they are crowding the market for dollars. Donors who wish to help the GOP cause in the Senate are more likely to give to incumbent members than they are to give to the NRSC. This is the case for two reasons.

First, it makes sense in our candidate-centered campaign environment. Republican incumbents are qualified candidates who know how to run winning campaigns. While it is true that the NRSC can and does offer assistance to incumbents, it is also true that one can expect an incumbent to know how to spend campaign dollars efficiently. And thus, it is the best use of money to give it to incumbents rather than the organization that will help the incumbents. The only way the party is able to aid candidates without legal limits is through independent expenditures, which are inefficient because the party cannot coordinate with the candidate. Thus, Republicans who wish to help Norm Coleman are better off contributing directly to Norm Coleman than they are contributing to the NRSC, which will spend on his behalf but without his consultation.

Second, Republican incumbents are interested in getting as much money as they can as soon as they can. They are thus actively attracting donors to their organizations. This kind of persuasion should not be understated. Republican incumbents are high profile individuals in the party. They are quite able to attract donors with relative ease. So long as most donors have in their minds a set amount they are inclined to give at any point in time - we can expect that, as they are pulled toward incumbent candidates, so they are pulled from the NRSC.

I do not really expect the NRSC to close the entire gap between the DSCC and itself. The logic of contributing to candidates rather than the CCC remains solid all cycle; endangered incumbents tend to crowd out the market for dollars all cycle. As new donors start to contribute, they will naturally gravitate to Republican incumbents rather than the NRSC - just as current donors are gravitating. So long as the GOP is playing defense in the Senate in 2008 - which I would say is darn close to certain - I imagine the NRSC will be the runt of the CCC litter.

Does this explanation account for the entire gap between the NRSC and the DSCC? No. It accounts for a portion of it, but not all of it. If we add the NRSC's receipts to the receipts of all GOP Senate incumbents, we find that the GOP Senate has raised about $23.6 million. The DSCC plus Democratic Senate incumbents have raised $29.4 million all told (not including the millions John Kerry transferred from his presidential committee). So, we have about a $5.8 million difference - as opposed to the $9.1 million that separates the DSCC and the NRCC. This difference increases to $7.6 million when we include the high profile Democratic challengers who are already in active pursuit of Senate seats, namely Al Franken and Katrina Swett. Thus, we have explained about $1.5 million, or 16.5%, of the total difference between the NRSC and the DSCC in this election cycle.

So, what explains the remaining gap? It might be that Republican donors are, as I like to say, dispirited. They think the party is going to lose, and they do not feel like contributing. This might be true.

Might there also be some "institutional" problems at the NRSC? Maybe. A lot of analysts, myself included, wondered if Elizabeth Dole might have been part of the NRSC's problem in the last election cycle. Is it possibly the case that the organization at the NRSC is inferior, and that even with her out and John Ensign in, it still has some problems? Maybe. I am not privy to any kind of information to allow me to make a determination. I will say that the DSCC has beaten the NRSC in fundraising in the two cycles since soft money was banned. That might be a sign that the DSCC has adapted to the post-soft money environment more efficiently than the NRSC.

One factor that might explain much of the remaining gap is that the DSCC has a large debt that it is endeavoring to retire. At the end of the last cycle, the DSCC had $6.6 million in debt, while the NRSC had only $1.3 million. As of the end of the first quarter of this cycle, the NRSC had paid down its debt and the DSCC had paid down a little over $1 million. It might be that the DSCC's greater debt induced it to begin fundraising earlier.

It is hard to say just much each, if any, of these explanations account for the remainder of the gap. One thing is for sure. Charles Schumer might have been partially correct, but he was also spinning the numbers at least a bit.

-Jay Cost