By Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; A01
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.Targeting GOP seats
Democrats have tried to construct a firewall from large-scale losses by targeting nearly two dozen GOP incumbents, including Reps. Dan Lungren (Calif.), Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) and Lee Terry (Neb.). Van Hollen touted John B. Callahan, the mayor of Bethlehem, Pa., as a "candidate we tried to persuade to run in 2006 and 2008" who has now agreed to challenge a Republican incumbent from eastern Pennsylvania. Democrats will also benefit from the departures of GOP incumbents in Delaware, suburban Philadelphia and suburban Chicago where Obama ran very strongly last November.
But several highly touted Democratic recruits have recently nixed challenges to Republican incumbents. Sitting state legislators planning bids in Kansas's 2nd District and Ohio's 2nd District have pulled back from those races, more content to stay in their jobs than run in what looks to be a difficult environment.
Democrats' dreams of adding to their 60-member Senate caucus have also evaporated -- giving way to an acknowledgment that despite five open seats on the Republican side, a loss of several Democratic spots is more likely.
"You see that in the number of people who are interested in running," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "We've got four or five people running in New Hampshire, candidates popping up all over the place, and candidates that we have really, really encouraged to get in."
Those candidates include former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, who is running her first campaign, challenging Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Arkansas state Sen. Gilbert Baker, who is hoping to compete against Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). Fiorina and Baker must first emerge from primaries that strategists at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee believe will be ideological contests that will damage the GOP victor's prospects in a general election.
But Republicans are just happy to have candidates fighting for the opportunity to take on Boxer and Lincoln, both of whom coasted to double-digit margins in 2004. In targeting once safe incumbents, Republicans are borrowing from the playbook of Emanuel and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the duo who led the Democratic campaign committees in 2006 by finding candidates who fit the local culture even though they seemed like long shots at first blush. "The number one reason for our success in 2006 and 2008 -- more than our financial advantage -- was our ability to recruit great candidates," Schumer said recently.
House Republicans have targeted several longtime Democratic House members sitting in swing seats, hoping that the prospect of a serious race will lead them to consider retiring or that their political skills will have grown rusty since their last real challenge. Democratic Reps. John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Vic Snyder (Ark.) will face their toughest contests in recent memory because of GOP recruiting that has put credible candidates in each of the races.
Democrats say that their recently announced retirements were personal decisions, not made because of the changing political environment, but there appears to be at least some evidence to the contrary. Six-term Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), whose past three elections were each won by more than 10 percentage points, commissioned a poll while he was mulling over whether to run this year. The data, according to a source briefed on the results, showed that Moore would face a very tough road to reelection. He announced in late November he will not run.The cash quandary
A big GOP problem could be money. The National Republican Congressional Committee, overseeing House races, had just $4.3 million in its account at the end of November, hardly enough to mount an offensive in many Democratic districts. But Democrats are suffering their own fundraising woes: Van Hollen's DCCC may have a 4-to-1 edge in finances over the NRCC, but he has 50 percent less cash than at this stage of the 2008 campaign, when Democrats spent freely on ads attacking GOP incumbents.
Now that DCCC cash will be spent almost exclusively on defense. So Republicans are banking on candidates who can tap their own networks to find the money to take on Democrats, people like Stephen Fincher.
Running a farm that grows cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat, Fincher also leads a family singing ministry that has performed more than 2,000 times in the past decade. Yet he is expected to show more than $600,000 raised at the end of December, a large take for any candidate over four months, let alone a newcomer. Even so, with Tanner out, the race is looking attractive to other Republicans, and Fincher got a challenger this week.
Fincher declined an interview request during his mid-December trip to Washington. After meeting with GOP leaders, he toured the Capitol with McCarthy, who stopped in Statuary Hall to show the Tennessean the secret whisper echo that has delighted tourists for decades.
Said McCarthy: "This guy embodies the spirit of what I think this election is going to be about."