Politics & Policy

Twenty Candidates Who Need Help

For some GOP challengers, victory is just barely within reach.

In late July, my discussions with Republican strategists and conservatives who were closely watching the 2010 House races yielded a list of “The Underfunded 20”: GOP challengers who had favorable conditions such as a conservative-leaning district, or strong issues to run on, but who needed enough cash to ensure their chances of victory weren’t swept away by a deluge of negative ads.

Mid-September is a good time to revisit that list, salute a few candidates for improving their standing, remind folks of the ones who still need help, and spotlight another handful who could be on the verge of key victories.

Many campaigns will bristle at any analysis that suggests they don’t need additional funds, but there’s a lot of momentum behind Rick Crawford in Arkansas’s 1st district, Cory Gardner in Colorado’s 4th congressional district, Adam Kinzinger in Illinois’s 11th district, Randy Hultgren in Illinois’s 14th district, Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania’s 11th district, and Rob Hurt in Virginia’s 5th district. This isn’t to say all of these races are foregone conclusions or even easy GOP wins, but all have received good polling news in recent weeks and are sliding down the “needs help now” scale. A strategist closely watching the races in Illinois made the argument that Bobby Schilling’s surging bid against incumbent Phil Hare in that state’s 17th district — now classified a toss-up by most race-watchers — probably will come down to the district’s political environment and anger over high unemployment, rather than the spending race. (If you listen carefully, you can hear Schilling supporters cry, “Hit the donate button anyway!”)

Here are the 13 members of the original Underfunded 20 who still belong on a list of important GOP challengers who need every bit of help they can get:

Martha Roby, Alabama’s 2nd district: The DCCC released a poll showing Democratic incumbent Bobby Bright ahead by nine percentage points; on the other hand, this is Alabama, and the district has an R+16 rating on the Cook Partisan Voting Index. One of Bright’s ads emphasizes that he voted against Obamacare and will “repeal what’s wrong with it,” but he hasn’t signed on to legislation to repeal Obamacare, nor has he agreed to support defunding Obamacare. Also, he’s running on his “conservative values” and insisting he “stands up to Nancy Pelosi,” but he voted to make Pelosi speaker, and, come January 2011, he’s another vote to keep her speaker.

David Harmer, California’s 11th district: There aren’t a lot of competitive House races in California; Charlie Cook calls this race the state’s one true toss-up, as the district is one of the few where Republican and Democratic voters are registered in roughly equal numbers. Other race-watchers are starting to put this one in the “toss up” category as well, and the American Action Forum poll put Harmer ahead of incumbent Jerry McNerney by a point.

Jackie Walorski, Indiana’s 2nd district: The American Action Forum poll had Walorski down by only two percentage points, but in an environment where so many GOP challengers are overtaking entrenched Democratic incumbents, it would be nice to see a little more oomph in her poll numbers. Incumbent Joe Donnelly is one of those sad, desperate Democrats, the kind who seems to think that if he runs commercials hitting against Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama enough, voters will forget which party he’s in. He also seems to think that if he wavers on voting for Pelosi, this fairly conservative Indiana district will trust him.

Larry Bucshon, Indiana’s 8th district: This ought to be a friendly district for Republicans, but Bucshon faces a Democratic non-incumbent, Trent Van Haaften, who is running as a “tough prosecutor who will take Hoosier values to Washington.” This is the seat currently held by Democratic Senate candidate Brad Ellsworth; it would be a shame for Republicans if another moderate-sounding Democrat beat a doctor driven into politics by Obamacare.

Todd Young, Indiana’s 9th district: This is the district represented by Rep. Baron Hill, who banned cameras from his town-hall meetings because “usually the films that are done end up on YouTube in a compromising position.” The comment, of course, ended up on YouTube. Young has an effective ad on that. GOP challengers in all three of these Indiana districts should get a bit of a boost from Dan Coats’s winning the Senate race by a wide margin. A poll in June showed Hill vulnerable but Young still a bit behind.

Andy Barr, Kentucky’s 6th district: This will probably be one of the first swing districts called on election night, because Kentucky’s polls close so early. Ben Chandler is another Democrat who’s running ads that “don’t identify him as a Democrat. They barely admit that he sits in Congress, focusing instead on his stint a decade ago as Kentucky’s attorney general.” He seems to think he can overcome public opposition to the stimulus by constantly referring to it as the “recovery act.” Democrats released an internal poll showing Barr down 14, but GOP-commissioned polls showed a closer race. Barr should get some top-of-the-ticket help if Rand Paul wins the Senate race by a wide margin, which many polls foresee.

Alan Nunnelee, Mississippi’s 1st district: As noted earlier this year, Nunnelee has some strong winds at his back — an R+14 district with relatively inexpensive media markets — so incumbent Travis Childers will help answer the question of whether a rural Democrat can escape the political consequences of making Pelosi speaker. Childers is the one running that inane ad claiming his opponent violated a 2010 promise to not raise taxes by raising taxes in 1997. Before Childers is sent back to the future, he should be sent back to the private sector.

Joe Heck, Nevada’s 3rd district: A recent poll put Democratic incumbent Dina Titus narrowly ahead, but the race remains within the margin of error. But the poll was taken after Titus spent a ton on negative ads hitting Heck; if he can counter her attacks and get his own message out, Heck has a . . . well, a heck of a chance in this district, which was hit hard by Nevada’s economic and housing troubles.

Chris Gibson, New York’s 20th district: This is one of a half-dozen competitive races in New York State, but there are odd, ominous numbers for Gibson in the new Siena poll: Incumbent Democrat Scott Murphy is leading 54 percent to 37 percent. If the poll is to be believed, the stimulus is quite popular in this corner of New York. But Gibson is starting to get his ads on the air, and should have some demographic advantages in this district.

Renee Ellmers, North Carolina’s 2nd district: The North Carolina Strangler, a.k.a. incumbent Democrat Bob Etheridge, is hitting Ellmers as extreme; she’s responding with an ad that hits him for not taking a position on the Ground Zero mosque. Subsequent ads are likely to focus on jobs and the economy. Ellmers has some reason for cheer; Americans for Job Security plans to spend $800,000 on ads hitting Etheridge for runaway spending.

Mick Mulvaney, South Carolina’s 5th district: A lot of factors currently look good for Mulvaney, including the fact that incumbent Democrat John Spratt didn’t want any cameras at their debate. But Mulvaney’s internal polls show a tied race, so clearly this one isn’t in the bag just yet.

Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s at-large district: Most polls from earlier this year showed Noem galloping ahead of her Democratic incumbent opponent, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. But Rasmussen’s latest showed the Democrat leading by 2 percentage points, a surprising revival. South Dakota Democrats couldn’t even find a candidate to run against Sen. John Thune, so the GOP has no excuse for not winning this seat.

Morgan Griffith, Virginia’s 9th district: While elsewhere in Virginia the GOP’s Robert Hurt appears to be trouncing Democratic incumbent Tom Perriello, state legislator Griffith is having a tougher time against longtime incumbent Rick Boucher. The NRCC helped pay for a poll and is spending money on both positive ads for Griffith and negative ads against Boucher, who is sitting on a ton of cash. An early September poll put Boucher ahead 50 percent to 40 percent. Boucher’s now getting bad press for his campaign’s buying an SUV.

Here are seven GOP challengers who didn’t make my previous list of 20, but who could use a quick infusion of funds, volunteers, resources, and buzz:

Paul Gosar, Arizona’s 1st district: A poll commissioned by the American Action Forum showed Gosar leading Democratic incumbent Ann Kirkpatrick 47 percent to 41 percent. Democrats think that by opposing the Obama administration’s lawsuit against the state’s illegal-immigration law, they have sufficiently inoculated themselves against public outrage over the suit. But as in so many other red states, Democrats in Arizona won competitive districts in 2006 and 2008 by posing as independent moderates unassociated with the liberal fringe; that pose is unlikely to play so well this year.

Dave Schweikert, Arizona’s 5th district: The AAF poll showed Schweikert leading Democratic incumbent Harry Mitchell 50 percent to 44 percent. But Schweikert wants to keep his ads on the air, and needs an influx of funds to make it happen. The DCCC recently canceled scheduled ad buys in Arizona, claiming their incumbents were doing fine. Either that, or they’ve been left for dead under the Democrats’ triage.

Steve Southerland, Florida’s 2nd district: Southerland is hammering Democratic incumbent Allen Boyd on the high unemployment in the district, and the NRCC has spent $36,000 on ads hitting Boyd. The Democrat faced a surprisingly stiff primary challenge from a state senator, in which he eked out 51 percent in the primary.

Daniel Webster, Florida’s 8th district: Webster is taking on Alan Grayson. The incumbent Democrat has made some outlandish public statements, but he’s wealthy and self-funding, so the GOP challenger is almost guaranteed to be outspent. This district is nominally Republican, so an incumbent whose tone and style is so wildly out-of-step would usually be in deep trouble by now. Demonizing his opponent with enormous amounts of attack ads might be Grayson’s last card to play in this race; Webster will need the resources to counter the inevitable last-minute accusations. A Grayson-commissioned poll put the incumbent ahead, 40 percent to 27 percent and the remaining 33 percent “other” or undecided, but some in the district are skeptical of those results.

Vicky Hartzler, Missouri’s 4th district: Incumbent Democrat Ike Skelton is going extremely negative, extremely quickly: “His campaign fliers declare him ‘A Soldier’s Congressman.’ His TV ads feature testimonials from the mother of a Marine. And he accuses his Republican opponent of not supporting the troops.” Skelton votes with Democrats 94.6 percent of the time, and supported TARP and the stimulus. Skelton has represented this region since 1977, but this is an R+14 district and Republican Roy Blunt should win the Missouri Senate race by a wide margin, perhaps creating coattails for Hartzler.

John Koster, Washington’s 2nd district: This race is a bit of a surprise, but the challenger is running hard and appears to have a strong get-out-the-vote effort in place: “Koster outpolled Larsen by 298 votes in the August primary and last week earned recognition from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which paves the way for party financing in the general election. Koster has raised almost $500,000, still far below Larsen’s $1.1 million but enough to boost Koster’s profile nationally.” Unsurprisingly, Larsen is running attack ads accusing Koster of wanting to cut Medicare; the Republican will need the resources to refute those accusations and refocus the race on his preferred issue, runaway federal spending.

Jaime Herrera, Washington’s 3rd district: Already, huge amounts of money are being committed to this race: “The National Republican Campaign Committee, upping the ante in the closely watched 3rd congressional district race, confirmed last week that it will spend $900,000 on TV ads in the Portland media market to support state Rep. Jaime Herrera. The ads will air from Sept. 24 to Oct. 21. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it had reserved $650,000 in air time for TV ads backing Democratic 3rd district candidate Denny Heck. Those ads won’t begin airing until Oct. 5.”

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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