I recently had the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion (on background) with a source at the National Republican Congressional Committee, regarding the state of their planning for 2010. My strongest impression is that this is a team of professionals that has learned the lessons of the last few cycles and who are doing a good job setting the table for a strong cycle. No party committee can shape the environment for the 2010 election; all they can do is get the largest number of strong candidates in the largest number of winnable seats. I believe the NRCC is doing this very well so far.
My source stresses that they have shifted their overall approach. Rather than making it an overriding priority to protect the seats they now hold, they are focused on expanding the playing field. Their general approach when looking at unfriendly districts is no longer to say 'that's a district we can't win,' but to ask 'how does a Republican win that district?' After all, if House Democrats can take away seats with a strong Republican tilt, why can't the GOP return the favor? This leads to candidates like Charles Djou: a member of the Honolulu City Council, who is running for the open seat left by Neil Abercrombie, who's running for Governor of Hawaii. The seat clearly tilts Democrat (D+7), but with Democrats looking at a hotly-contested primary shortly before the general election, a good campaigner like Dijou might manage a win.
This 'expand the field' approach also leads to candidates like Sid Leiken. Leiken is the Mayor of Springfield, Oregon - the largest city in Oregon's Fourth Congressional District. Leiken is currently running against longtime incumbent Pete DeFazio, who sits in a district with a slight Democrat tilt. DeFazio would not normally be considered vulnerable, but recruiting Leiken guarantees a strong effort - and one which could be helped if the national mood favors the GOP. Further, DeFazio is considering a gubernatorial bid; if he makes the jump, the GOP will have a very formidable candidate in an open seat race.
And since the effort is to compete in as many districts as possible, the NRCC is no longer so quick to write off candidates with challenges. If a possible candidate has problems raising money, or faces other obstacles to entering a race, that person is more likely to get special attention - often from a sitting Republican in Congress. If a potentially-strong candidate can be 'fixed,' that's the top priority.
The overall effort is to put as many boats in the water as they can, make sure the sails are properly set, and wait for the wind. A light breeze will still bring some Republicans home. But in a stiff wind, you could see dozens make it to the promised land.
Overall, the NRCC now has a list of over 80 Congressional districts where it's working to put strong campaigns in place. That's above and beyond the seats currently held by Republicans. In all of those districts the Committee has identified several possible candidates, and is working to identify the best one and encourage him or her to get into the race. In many districts, strong candidates are already running; in some of them, strong candidates are still under the radar - building their campaigns before formally declaring.
The recruits themselves are hard to pigeonhole. They include the usual list of State Representatives and Senators. But there's a conscious effort not to discount non-traditional candidates. The NRCC is looking at former professional athletes, school board presidents, philanthropists, businessmen and women, radio hosts, and others. They're also looking very closely at the geography of each district; sometimes the trick to beating an incumbent is not the candidate per se, but finding the right candidate from the right part of a district. That might mean finding a candidate from the opponent's hometown, to sap votes in the Democrat's base of support. It might mean finding a candidate from the 'swing' portion of the district. That's being considered on a district-by-district basis.
The top Democrat targets include Betsy Markey (CO), Alan Grayson (FL), Walt Minnick (ID), Frank Kratovil (MD), Carol Shea-Porter (NH), Harry Teague (NM), Steve Driehaus (OH), and MaryJo Kilroy (OH). For each of these seats the Committee has a well thought-out and achievable plan for knocking off the incumbent. After these primary targets come several dozen more seats where the Democrat is definitely beatable. After that come dozens more races where the opponent is tougher, or there's no 'right' candidate yet, or where conditions haven't yet come together to mount a strong challenge. Naturally, the lists will get tweaked on a regular basis until election day, 2010.
I'm not going to go into specifics to any large degree, but the level of organization and the quality of the candidates is very impressive. For example, one Republican currently preparing to run against Rep. Debbie Halvorson is Illinois ANG member Adam Kinzinger who was recently profiled by our own Warner Todd Huston here. Kinzinger is an American hero, and seems well-prepared for the race.
One last point that cannot be overlooked: the degree to which Speaker Pelosi is becoming well-known nationwide, and is becoming a drag on Democrat candidates is significant. In one seat held by a targeted Democrat incumbent, Pelosi's name is recognized by 80 percent of voters - and nearly 60 percent have a negative impression of her. And this poll was taken before she went to war with the CIA. Pelosi seems likely to become a significant drag on Democrat candidates next year. At best, she'll be forced to stay out of districts where she might otherwise help; at worst, she may be the anchor that brings Democrat candidates down.