The GOP's list of 70 House targets debunked


It’s a game both parties play: pretend that this will be the year you go on the offensive in places where your candidate is, in reality, as likely to win American Idol as the November general election. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) dutifully played their part on July 31, sending an e-mail to friendly political action committees outlining 70 purported U.S. House “targets” for 2010 (see table here). Last week, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions even suggested that as many as 80 Democratic districts could be in play this cycle. Perhaps the NRCC was trying to live up to that proclamation when it released this overly optimistic (and overly lengthy) list. More likely is that the list is something of a charade; a calculated gambit which the GOP hopes will lead to two major benefits.

First, it could scare the opposition into expending resources in places they have very little hope of competing. This end was pursued in the presidential race last fall when Barack Obama’s team feinted at states like Montana, North Dakota, Georgia, and Mississippi. For his part, John McCain’s camp even argued they could be competitive in California. Obviously, if these efforts had succeeded in forcing Democrats to spend time and money in California or Republicans to spend their resources in Mississippi, it would have been quite a coup. In the congressional contest of 2010, the GOP is on the offensive in an effort to focus Democratic money and manpower on incumbent retention instead of pick-up opportunities of their own. At the same time, they hope this ploy will spook some of the incumbents they name, who may in actuality be safe, into hoarding their hard-earned cash instead of donating it for use in other races where it would have more impact.

The second reason to exaggerate electoral chances is to excite potential donors. At the national level, GOP allies and supporters will be more willing to contribute to a cause if they think it will give them a shot at retaking the House in 2010, a goal House Minority Whip Eric Cantor put forth in April. Republicans in the House would need 40 seats to make that dream a reality, so putting out a list of 70 seats provides a veneer of realism for the claim that retaking the chamber is within arm’s reach. The distribution list of the NRCC e-mail underscores this point, as it was sent to PACs which the GOP counts on for donations that grease the wheels of their campaign machinery. They hope a sunny report will induce these PACs to fork over the cash needed to realize this potentially self-fulfilling prophecy–although there is a trade-off, as Cantor’s remarks demonstrate the inherent contradiction between firing up the base and setting low expectations.

District by district, attaching the label “targeted race” to a candidate’s fundraising pitch adds a level of respectability to those efforts, suggesting the endorsement of the national party establishment and their evaluation that an upset win is possible. Without this endorsement, potential donors are likely to look at many of these House candidates as hopeless underdogs and a waste of their money. With the NRCC stamp of approval, finance directors across the nation can call their race “one of this cycle’s top contests” and tell donors that the sage soothsayers in Washington have faith in their candidate. The NRCC’s Democratic counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), took a similar course in 2008, issuing a list of 59 GOP-held targets before capturing less than half that number of seats. Since a list of 59 or 70 names costs the same (i.e. almost zero) as a more modest (and more accurate) list, it is no wonder party committees on both sides of the aisle gravitate towards this tactic year after year.

The Crystal Ball‘s message for political watchers (and donors) is clear: don’t be fooled! Of the 70 seats on the NRCC list, the number of districts that have an actual possibility of witnessing a competitive race is 55 at most. The number of seats that will eventually end up in the Republican column will be even fewer than that. To understand why, let’s delve into the list itself.

Top to bottom, the NRCC’s target list contains some bona fide opportunities alongside a healthy serving of wishful thinking. Around a half-dozen names on the list represent true toss-up districts where Republicans have a 50-50 shot of coming away with the seat. Another 15 or so could be GOP pick-ups under the right circumstances, while many more are long-shots, but shots nonetheless.

Still, beyond the few low-hanging fruits, the numbers do not look very favorable for the GOP. Nine of the Democratic representatives on the list had no Republican opponent last year, and another 15 won with 60 percent of the vote or more. In fact, just 24 of the 70 targeted incumbents garnered less than 55 percent of the vote in 2008, which represents the widely-accepted threshold for a “competitive” race. Also worth noting is the terrain on which these battles will be fought. Over half, 36 of the 70, are races that will take place in Blue districts where Obama defeated McCain in 2008. While Obama’s popularity has already cooled off, a trend that could very well continue into 2010, it is tough to imagine Republicans pulling off this long of a string of upsets in enemy territory.

Furthermore, of those races on the NRCC list, only three are open seats with no incumbent to defend them (although, admittedly, more incumbents could step down). Since, even in the past two volatile election cycles, incumbent House members have been reelected 94 percent of the time, targeting 66 sitting representatives is an unlikely recipe for success. Even some of the heavily Republican districts being targeted, which otherwise might be seen as easy pick-ups, are home to very entrenched congressmen, from Marion Berry (AR-01) and Ike Skelton (MO-04) to Earl Pomeroy (ND-AL) and Rick Boucher (VA-09).

Overall, the list shows the difficulties the NRCC faces in its attempt to take back the House in 2010. While the GOP is almost assured to pick up seats next November, putting 70 Democratic seats into play and retaking the House, at this point, are more pipe dreams than realistic goals.