Republicans' House election strategy: Aim for chairmen

By Paul Kane and Chris Cillizza
Thursday, May 13, 2010; A04

At age 78 and after 33 years in Congress, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) has no intention of retiring. He is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, considers himself a farming expert and wants to keep working for the people in his rural western Missouri district.

"I enjoy what I do. I also enjoy campaigning," Skelton said in an interview last week.

Now, Skelton is campaigning harder than at any time in more than a decade. He's one of the targets whom Republicans eyed more than a year ago, when they started recruiting younger candidates to challenge entrenched House Democrats.

In particular, the GOP has gone after half a dozen or more committee chairmen who had not faced stiff competition in years. It is a double-barreled approach: Republicans think the threat of energetic challengers will propel some veterans into retirement, making for easier pickup opportunities. Or, should they choose to run, the Democrats might find themselves with deteriorated campaign skills, making them vulnerable in what amounts to their first tough race in the YouTube era.

Last week, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), 71, announced his intention to retire at the end of the year, leaving a seat he has easily held since winning a special election in 1969. Obey, who declared himself "bone tired," had faced a tough campaign against 38-year-old prosecutor Sean Duffy, who immediately proclaimed that the retirement ensured that "new energy and ideas" would come to Capitol Hill.

Obey joined a list of retirees that includes Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), chairman of the science committee; John Tanner (Tenn.) and Vic Snyder (Ark.), who wield powerful subcommittee gavels; and Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee and is leaving the House after losing a Democratic primary Tuesday.

More than 130 years of combined incumbency are heading for the doors with that quintet.

Although none of the retirees cited their reelection prospects as affecting their decisions, Republicans took the credit. "David Obey was facing the race of his life, and that is why it is understandable that the architect of President Obama's failed stimulus plan has decided to call it quits," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) and his staff crafted the strategy of challenging the chairmen and other veterans along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the GOP's lead recruiter, who has studied past wave elections in which control of the House flipped. Republicans are taking a page from the Democratic playbook in 2006, when they picked up 31 seats and reclaimed the majority.

Retirements were the first plank in McCarthy's plan, with a minimum goal set in December of forcing out 15 Democratic incumbents to put the Democrats' nearly 40-seat majority in doubt. At this point, 17 Democrats have announced plans to retire, and about a dozen of them are considered to be in districts that could swing to Republicans. But 20 Republicans have also announced their intentions to retire or run for another office, leaving open at least a handful of seats for which Democrats could mount serious challenges.

"We're in the realm of the majority. I'm excited, but I don't want to make mistakes," McCarthy said in a recent interview, calling the ability to challenge committee chairmen "a fundamentally different game."

Among the veterans who eschewed retirement, more than a half-dozen face a far more serious challenge than in years past. Democrats say those incumbents will be ready in November.

"They're combat-tested," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Those include Skelton and Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. (S.C.), who is seeking a 15th term despite a serious challenge from state Sen. Mick Mulvaney. Democrats worked hard to get Spratt, 67, to run again because his brand of fiscal conservatism sells well in a conservative Southern district, but Republicans eyed his deteriorating health and recruited 42-year-old Mulvaney into the race.

Spratt filed to run for reelection at the end of March and also announced that he is in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, while declaring that he still had the "energy" for the job.

Skelton has been girding for his fight since last summer.

Currently in his 17th term, Skelton ended March with $1.2 million in the bank, more than twice as much cash as he had at this stage of his 2008 campaign. Republicans are headed toward a crowded and competitive primary Aug. 3.

After voting for climate change legislation last June, Skelton cast a "no" vote on the health-care overhaul in March; Republicans think neither piece of legislation is popular in his rural district.

Skelton said he relishes the fight and never gave much thought to retiring.

"There's so much more to do. There's so much more to do," he said.

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