GOP casting wide net in effort to recruit 2010 hopefuls

By Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010

The Republican road to redemption may well begin in Frog Jump, Tenn., where a gospel-singing farmer with no political experience is running for Congress.

Without any staff, Stephen Fincher raised $300,000 in September and delighted GOP leaders, who believed they had finally found a credible challenger to Rep. John Tanner (D). Then things took an even better turn for the party: On Dec. 1, Tanner announced he would not run for reelection in 2010. Two weeks later, Fincher, 37, visited Washington for the first time in his life, to get together with GOP leaders eager to meet the newcomer who helped push a 21-year incumbent into retirement.

For a beleaguered Republican Party, Fincher's candidacy is part of a recruiting renaissance following back-to-back elections during which the national political environment was tilted badly against it. In races for the House and Senate, Republicans have found credible candidates that range from intriguing first-timers such as Fincher to ambitious politicians such as California state Assemblyman Van Tran, who took a pass on previous entreaties to challenge Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) but is ready now.

The Grand Old Party still has its share of problems. Polls show that its brand image is damaged and that its campaign committees are lagging far behind their Democratic counterparts in the race for cash. In some Senate contests -- Kentucky and California, for example -- establishment-backed Republicans face primary challenges from conservatives advocating anti-government sentiments. Those primary fights reflect a broader disconnect between party leaders in Washington and the Tea Party grass-roots activists who Democrats believe will limit GOP gains in 2010.

But the double-digit unemployment rate nationally, a spate of high-profile Democratic retirements and sagging approval ratings for the Obama administration have Republicans dreaming big about the 2010 midterms, leading to talk of a wave election cycle that would seriously dent the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and threaten their hold on the House.

The key, at this stage, is to recruit enough candidates and put them in place to take advantage if the current continues drifting to the right.

"You get enough people on their surfboards, you send them in the right direction and see how many can get to shore. If the wave is big enough, we get there. But if you don't have them out there and you see the wave coming, it takes too long to paddle and try to turn around and catch it, so you've gotta be prepared," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the colorful Republican cheerleader in charge of recruiting.

McCarthy says that Republicans have already recruited 77 top-tier candidates and that they are sure to surpass their goal of 80 for the 2010 elections.

Democrats remain publicly confident that they will remain in charge of the Congress for the last two years of President Obama's term, but they are bracing for losses. Tanner was one of four House members who in the past six weeks have announced plans to retire, all from seats that were won with ease but are now likely to be hotly contested. The Democratic pickups since 2006 -- 54 in the House, 15 in the Senate -- have left them few Republican seats to challenge this time.

"We've not had more difficulty [recruiting] but we have had a smaller playing field. There is less hospitable territory in which to compete," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Gone is the bravado of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who a year ago in his farewell address to his House Democratic colleagues predicted that 2010 would resemble 1934. That year, for the third consecutive cycle, Democrats picked up seats as the public rallied behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."

Instead, the Rothenberg Political Report is predicting that "substantial Republican gains now look almost inevitable." In the House, Rothenberg, an independent handicapper, considers 47 Democratic seats and just 14 GOP seats as competitive. Republicans need a net gain of 40 to take the majority.

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