As the 2008 campaign reaches the final stretch, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (NRCC) is pulling the plug — on advertising funding for GOP House members whose races seem beyond hope. With many seats to defend and limited cash on hand, House Republicans are being very careful about how they spend their campaign dollars. If only they had been as tightfisted with taxpayer money while they were in charge.
One of the victims is Michelle Bachmann, a freshman congresswoman representing Minnesota’s Sixth District. While cruising to what should have been an easy re-election, her Hardball comments that the media should investigate anti-American sentiment among members of Congress filled her Democratic challenger’s campaign coffers with more than $1.3 million.
The Cook Political Report changed its assessment of the race from likely Republican to toss-up after the flap. The publication’s House editor wrote, “Bachmann’s comments likely changed the complexion of her reelection race overnight and helped to turn the race into even more of a referendum on her.” The NRCC appears to agree, reportedly stopping its ad buys in the district, though Bachmann does still have a significant amount of her own campaign funds.
According to an Associated Press report, Reps. Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Tom Feeney of Florida, and Joe Knollenberg of Michigan have all been left to fend for themselves as well. In none of these cases does the decision seem to have been based on the party’s confidence that the incumbents no longer needed help.
Social conservative leaders are particularly displeased to see Musgrave and Bachmann defunded. “The left is attacking both of these outstanding women because they are true conservatives,” Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council wrote in a letter to NRCC chairman Tom Cole. “They vote pro-life and pro-family.”
More revealing is where the House Republicans are going to spend their campaign money. The Washington Post reported that the NRCC is concentrating on twelve districts. Only two of them are currently represented by a Democrat. Seven of them gave George W. Bush at least 55 percent of the vote in 2004. Indiana’s Third Congressional District, where the GOP is defending incumbent Republican Mark Souder, went 68 percent for Bush four years ago.
The news for House Republicans isn’t all bad, however. Democratic Congressman Tim Mahoney of Florida is reeling as his wife leaves him for living down the standard for personal morality set by his GOP predecessor, the disgraced Mark Foley. Before the sex scandals broke, even polls taken by Mahoney’s Republican challenger showed the Democrat ahead. Now he is trailing by 26 points, winning just 29 percent of the vote.
Democratic Congressman John Murtha, a trusted lieutenant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is also in trouble after remarks suggesting his West Pennsylvania constituents might be racists. One poll found Murtha just four points ahead of his Republican challenger, Iraq war veteran William Russell. The same survey found that 54 percent of voters thought it was time someone else represented them in Congress. Only 35 percent said Murtha should be re-elected.
Another Keystone State Democrat is also at risk of being booted from office. Twelve-term Congressman Paul Kanjorski is trailing Republican Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta. Although the latest polling shows Kanjorski cutting Barletta’s lead in half, it is never a good sign for an incumbent to be winning just 35 percent of the vote.
But Republicans didn’t enter this election cycle facing the same structural disadvantages in the House as they do in the Senate. The Democrats picked much of the low-hanging fruit in 2006. For every Chris Shays Republican left representing a blue district, there is a Brad Ellsworth or Heath Shuler Democrat in a red one. About a third of GOP losses two years ago occurred in Republican districts where the Republican lost due to scandal. With cleaner candidates, most if not all of these seats could have been won back.
House Republicans have also occasionally flirted with winning issues. They are mostly responsible for the “Drill, baby, drill!” chants on the campaign trail. They (at least initially) stood up to their own president and their Senate counterparts on such unpopular legislation as the immigration amnesty and the bailout. Yet they have never seemed interested in putting together a coherent national message, preferring to outsource that job to presidential nominee John McCain. Neither has the House GOP found it easy to recruit top-flight candidates or raise money in this political climate. The need to play defense in so many places erased what might have been.
The Democrats’ potential for major gains in the Senate is well documented. Now Pelosi’s party seems poised to bring down the House as well.