By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007
Democrats and Republicans are mounting a fierce battle to shape voter impressions of Congress during August's political lull, convinced that they must define the story line of the 2008 congressional election before voters are swamped by the presidential campaign.
The opening salvo of television and radio advertisements, automated calls and fundraising appeals is unusually intense this early in the election cycle, and it comes just seven months after the Democrats took control of Congress.
But lawmakers, pollsters and Congress watchers say it is not clear whether the Democrats have convinced the public that they can do the job an angry electorate handed them in November -- or whether, once again, all incumbents will be vulnerable next year, regardless of party.
With the presidential campaign sure to dominate news coverage in the coming months, party officials and proxy groups have become convinced that now is the time to frame public opinion and lock up political donors in ways that will carry the parties into the fall.
"There's a limited time period in which to brand the new Congress," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats' campaign arm. "The window will go into the fall, but by early next year, it will be closed."
Last week, the DCCC launched television ads highlighting the accomplishments of the new Congress and radio ads attacking vulnerable Republicans for their stands on Iraq and a Democratic children's health insurance bill. The House Republican campaign committee responded with radio ads attacking Democrats on ethics, taxes and federal spending. And groups allied with the parties have launched their own efforts.
"There's a sense that you can make anybody vulnerable, you can weaken any candidate no matter how strong he appears to be, by starting out early and beating the stuffing out of him," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Congress watcher and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.
The contours of the 2008 campaign have already come into view, and the battle could prove to be a historical anomaly. On the one hand, back-to-back "wave" elections are rare, said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan congressional analyst and the editor of the Cook Political Report. Elections such as the one in 2006 -- which gave Democrats 30 new seats in the House, six in the Senate and control of both houses -- invariably sweep lawmakers to power in districts their party has no business controlling.
Rothenberg called those candidates "driftwood, thrown onto the beach and washed out with the next election." Having 42 freshman Democrats, many of them in Republican-leaning districts, would appear to offer the GOP a target-rich environment. The Cook Political Report this month singled out 13 vulnerable House Democrats, all but one of them freshmen.
But the factors that swept the Democrats to power -- anger at President Bush and distaste for the Iraq war -- have only intensified. The Cook Report also tagged 17 House Republicans as vulnerable, and one of them, Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), as likely to leave.
A memo last week by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling outfit, said that in a poll a generic Democratic candidate for Congress was beating a Republican, 51 to 42 percent. That lead held steady among all education levels, and it was wider among independents and young voters.
"If you look at nothing but the numbers, in terms of mood of the country, the popularity of the president, there's no question the environment has eroded for Republicans since November," said Neil Newhouse, a partner at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.
"But," he added, "that misses the point. The political environment for the '08 election has yet to be settled."
Republicans are hoping that once the party's presidential nominee is chosen, the drag of an unpopular president will fade. And if troops begin coming home from Iraq, the war issue could drop in significance as well.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called that "a prayer, not a strategy," promising that the Democrats will pin Bush to whomever the Republicans nominate. But Republican and Democratic operatives are designing their campaigns as if the political cloud over the GOP will lift by November 2008.
And the mud is already being slung.
Democrats have been using traffic reporters on Florida radio shows to castigate Reps. C.W. Bill Young, Vern Buchanan and Tom Feeney for voting against "lowering seniors' Medicare deductibles and co-payments." The same tactic is being used to tell New Jersey voters that Rep. H. James Saxton "voted against providing health care for 5 million uninsured children," and 12 other Republicans are being rapped for supporting "George Bush's failed policy in Iraq."
An automated phone call, recorded by Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is blanketing Baton Rouge, trying to turn a wave of African American refugees from Hurricane Katrina against 11-term Republican Richard H. Baker.
Republican radio ads are attacking Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.) over ethics allegations that have attracted the attention of the FBI, even though those allegations did not stop Mollohan from winning 64 percent of his district's vote last year. Recent news reports tying the family of Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (Pa.) to a bankrupt company that he had supplied with federal money has yielded another Republican attack ad, though the 12-term Democrat won 72 percent of the vote in November.
National Republican Congressional Committee radio spots have also gone after Indiana freshman Joe Donnelly for giving "union organizers more power to intimidate employees" and for voting "for outrageous pork-barrel spending on peanut storage and transporting tropical fish."
Freshman Chris Carney (D-Pa.) has been accused of supporting "one of the largest tax hikes in American history," and freshman Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) was slammed for "taking over $190,000 from special interest committees and lobbyists" after campaigning to "get lobbyist money and special interest money out of elections."
"Under this NRCC, we made a commitment to going on the offensive at the local level in a way that hasn't been done before," said spokesman Ken Spain. "We're not afraid to point the finger back at them."
Privately, however, Republican campaign strategists remain downbeat. One strategist with close ties to House Republicans agreed that the political environment probably will brighten for his party next year, but by then, it might be too late -- the malaise has severely dampened fundraising and hurt candidate recruitment. The DCCC has a 10-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over its Republican rival, and that is likely to grow.
Complicating the Republican strategy is a number of retirements, as veteran Republicans decide that life in the minority is not worth staying in Washington. Already, former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Reps. Ray LaHood (Ill.), Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. (Miss.) and Deborah Pryce (Ohio) have announced that they will not seek reelection, opening up tempting Democratic targets and leaving cash-strapped Republicans to defend districts they can ill afford to spend money in.
GOP aides said last week that they expect Renzi, whose family business was recently raided by the FBI, to also retire. And Democrats are watching still more targets, including the districts of Reps. Ralph Regula (Ohio) and Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who is preparing a Senate bid if John W. Warner (R) retires.
For Republicans, the Senate could be even worse, even though they need only one more seat to regain the majority. The retirement of Wayne Allard (Colo.) has already given the Democrats a good shot at a GOP seat. Warner's uncertain future has Democrats urging former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner to prepare a bid. And antiwar sentiments are imperiling Republican Sens. John E. Sununu (N.H.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), Rothenberg said.