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Democrats Recruiting Challengers for Growing Target List

Democrats may be dusting off pictures like this one, of Rep. Sam Graves, center, with Dick and Lynne Cheney;  the party hopes to unseat Graves in 2008 with Kay Barnes.  Voters know Barnes, right, as mayor of Kansas City, Mo.
Democrats may be dusting off pictures like this one, of Rep. Sam Graves, center, with Dick and Lynne Cheney; the party hopes to unseat Graves in 2008 with Kay Barnes. Voters know Barnes, right, as mayor of Kansas City, Mo. (2002 Photo By Orlin Wagner -- Associated Press)

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By Chris Cillizza And Shailagh Murray
Sunday, April 22, 2007

When Rep. Sam Graves (R) won Missouri's 6th District in 2000 with 51 percent, it was assumed that he would be a regular Democratic target. His subsequent reelection percentages -- 63 percent in 2002, 64 in 2004, 62 in 2006 -- show how quickly Graves fell off Democrats' radar.

No more.

Democrats believe they have convinced the outgoing mayor of Kansas City, Mo., Kay Barnes, to challenge Graves in 2008, in one of a handful of early recruiting successes that, national party strategists argue, will allow them to greatly expand the playing field of competitive races that November.

That strategy paid major dividends for Democrats in 2006 as they upset previously safe incumbents in Kansas, California and Arizona, and came mighty close in the GOP strongholds of Idaho and Wyoming. Democrats hope to repeat that game plan in 2008, aided by the continued dismal national political environment for Republicans.

Other opportunities to expand the playing field include West Virginia's 2nd District, where state Sen. John Unger (D) is likely to challenge Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R); Michigan's 9th District, where Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R) could face former state senator Gary Peters; and Ohio's 16th, where state Sen. John Boccieri (D) is seriously considering a bid against Rep. Ralph Regula (R).

A Barnes candidacy would ensure a tight race in the largely rural, northwestern Missouri district. Barnes is finishing her second term as mayor, and on the first day of her congressional candidacy she would be better known than Graves's past three Democratic challengers have been.

The district's electoral history suggests the potential for real competitiveness. Although President Bush won the 6th relatively easily in 2000 and 2004, Sen. Claire McCaskill showed that the district's voters are willing to vote for the right Democrat. After losing the district by more than 20 points in her 2004 gubernatorial race, McCaskill narrowly carried it in 2006 over incumbent Sen. Jim Talent (R).

The Virginia Tech massacre turned the spotlight last week to gun control, a political hot potato that has been dormant in recent years on the national stage. But cross a presidential campaign with the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, and you're going to get a gun debate -- another volatile wedge issue to define the crowded 2008 field.

Two Republicans, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, once were advocates for federal gun control but have recently reversed course. Giuliani said after the shootings that he wouldn't "alter the Second Amendment."

On the Democratic side, the outlier is Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who signed a bill into law to allow concealed weapons. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) earned an F from the National Rifle Association last year but said little last week, other than offering her condolences to the victims and their families in a statement.

Most of the others hold more or less partisan views, ranging from wanting more gun control to less.


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