GOP Comeback Climb Is Increasingly Steep

By Chris Cillizza Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott's resignation announcement on Monday was the latest in a wave of retirements to hit congressional Republicans, making an already difficult 2008 electoral landscape even more complicated for the minority party.

Party officials insist that the retirements -- 17 members of the House and six senators -- are simply the result of individual decisions and not indicative of a broader negative sentiment within the party. "I don't hear a drumbeat that 'We're not effective and I don't like it here anymore,' " said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.).

But with so many lawmakers -- including a large number from competitive states and districts -- heading for the exits, it's hard not to point to the GOP's newfound minority status in Washington, the turnover in party leadership and the perilous political environment heading into 2008 to explain the exodus.

Another surprise yesterday came from Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who was toppled from the speaker's chair by Republican losses in 2006 and had said in August that he would not run for reelection. Hastert revealed that he is leaving Capitol Hill immediately, allowing Illinois to hold a special primary election for his seat Feb. 5.

"The one thing the open seats have in common is that there is no one who can squeeze [an incumbent] into an uncomfortable place to convince them to stay," said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican direct-mail consultant who has worked on dozens of House campaigns. "There was always a cogent and powerful person to say: 'The team needs you.' There is less of that, but it's also unclear that the team needs them."

Regardless of the reasons for the retirements, Republicans find themselves in serious danger of falling deeper into the minority in both the House and Senate in 2008.

Many retirements have come in seats and states that are competitive between the parties. Republican senators' retirements in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico have created races in which Democrats are favored to win next November. The same holds true in the House, where open GOP districts in Ohio, Arizona and Illinois are primed to go to Democrats.

Emboldened by the House and Senate majorities they won last year, Democrats have had almost no retirements. Five members of the House are stepping down or running for higher office in 2008, but none of the vacated seats is expected to be competitive. No Senate Democrat up for reelection this cycle has announced plans to retire.

Republicans also face a daunting financial gap at the congressional level, the likes of which they have not seen in decades. At the end of October, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $29 million in the bank to spend on House races -- roughly 14 times the $2.56 million its Republican counterpart had at that time.

The disparity on the Senate side is smaller but no less significant. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed $23.4 million on hand at the end of October, compared with $9.5 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

"The challenge is that [open seats] spread thin resources even more thinly," said Glen Bolger, a prominent Republican pollster. "Places you'd like to play offense, you might not play because you have to play defense" elsewhere.

Pointing to millions spent on open-seat contests in recent years, one senior Republican strategist was blunt. "Open seats are bought, not won," the source said.

The fundraising differential may be exacerbated on the House side by media costs in several markets in which there are newly open seats. New Jersey's 7th District, which is being vacated by Rep. Mike Ferguson (R), is in the New York City media market -- the country's most costly, with ad time regularly running more than $1 million a week. Another open seat in the 11th District of Illinois is in the expensive Chicago media market.

Expectations coming into the 2008 election were that Senate Republicans faced a difficult climb back to a majority, with 21 seats to defend, while their House counterparts seemed well positioned to win back some of the 30 seats they lost in 2006. On both sides of the Capitol, those expectations have been ratcheted down significantly over the past year.

Not only have Senate Republicans struggled to persuade their own members to hang around for another term, they have also watched as Democrats, capitalizing on the political environment, have scored a series of recruiting successes. After Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) bowed out, former Virginia governor Mark Warner (D) decided to run and is a heavy favorite. In New Mexico, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R) announced his retirement, citing health concerns; Rep. Tom Udall (D), a well-known name in the state, is running and polling shows him with comfortable leads over Republican contenders.

It's in the House, however, where surprise retirements in swing districts have badly crippled Republican attempts to bounce back from 2006.

Despite the growing number of Republican vacancies, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the mastermind behind the GOP's takeover of the chamber in 1994, argued that all is not lost.

"Everyone is focusing on patterns that have little meaning," said Gingrich, insisting that House Democrats are legislating themselves into dangerous territory. "There begins to be the potential for a very interesting and very different 2008 campaign. In that new campaign, the Republican potential to regain a majority would be very substantial."

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