Party recruiters lead charge for ’06 vote
By Bradley C. Bower, AP
Democratic candidate Lois Murphy, left, speaks with Mary Hediger during Murphy’s campaign rally at Bryn Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on February 19. Murphy is running for Pennsylvania’s 6th District congressional seat in a re-match with Rep. Jim Gerlach.
By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Just two months after she lost a 2004 House race near Philadelphia by 2 percentage points, Lois Murphy got a call from the Democratic congressman in charge of 2006 races: Would she like to try again?
The second time, knowing what was in store, Murphy says, “the decision was a little harder.” Did she think she could win? And were her husband and young daughters up for another grueling campaign? By spring she had her answers: yes and yes.Her decision was a small early victory in the Democrats’ drive to break the GOP’s 12-year hold on the House of Representatives: She already had shown she could raise money and draw votes.
Long before anyone casts a vote, recruiting can determine the fate of a party. The goal is a strong candidate in every winnable race, but recruiters often fall short.For example, Republicans dominate Florida government but were unable to find a strong challenger for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. And Democrats have House candidates that analyst Amy Walter of the non-partisan Cook Political Report calls “not top tier” in some districts where close splits in the 2004 presidential vote suggest GOP incumbents might be vulnerable.
The competition is intense. Recruiters often target the same people — Republicans and Democrats tried at various points for ex-Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler, now running as a Democrat for a House seat in North Carolina. And there’s no single formula for persuading someone to run.”It’s an individual decision,” says Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the GOP House campaign committee. “The big mistake is if you act as if there’s only one tool in the toolbox,” adds Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., Reynolds’ Democratic counterpart.
Potential Democratic candidates have heard from former president Bill Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and other VIPs. They’ve talked to moms and dads in Congress about how they balance family and public life. Their husbands and wives have received calls from spouses in the Democrats’ “spouse program.” People who decide to run sometimes get a thank-you cheesecake from Eli’s, in Emanuel’s Chicago district.Reynolds scorns Emanuel’s open approach. The public record, he says, shows Emanuel failed to land 35 people in 22 districts. “I don’t tell the world what I’m trying to do,” Reynolds says. “I go do it.”
Emanuel readily concedes “more failures than that. You don’t bat 100% in this business. But we’ve put more people on the field than ever before.”While polls suggest 2006 will be a bad year for Republicans, Reynolds says that’s had “absolutely zero” impact on recruiting. Like the Democrats, he has congressional moms, dads and grandparents to discuss family matters. Unlike the Democrats, he has the firepower that comes from controlling the House, Senate and White House. Hot prospects meet the House speaker and majority leader, the national party chairman, maybe the White House political director. “We certainly want to do a red-carpet treatment,” Reynolds says.
Persistence pays off for both sides. Republican House recruiters approached Ralph Norman, 52, a real estate developer from Rock Hill, S.C., for a 2004 race against Democrat John Spratt. But he ran for state House instead, and won. When they approached him again for 2006, he said yes. He now had legislative experience and his youngest child had left for college. ‘It was a good time for me,” he says.Among the qualities prized by recruiters in both parties:
•Name recognition. People such as Shuler and Minnesota House candidate Coleen Rowley, the ex-FBI 9/11 whistle-blower and Time magazine person of the year, are well known even before they run ads.
•Military experience. Iraq war veterans in House races this year include Democrat Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and Republican Van Taylor in Texas. There’s also a former National Guard adjutant general, Republican Martha Rainville in Vermont.
•Proven cross-party appeal. Craig Foltin, 38, mayor of Lorain, Ohio, was heavily recruited for a House bid because he is the only Republican in more than 10 years to win an election in his city. The national mood did not bother him. “In Lorain,” he says, “it’s always a sour climate for being a Republican.”
•Political commitment. Betty Sutton, 42, Democrat, a labor lawyer and former state House member, worried about giving up her income and health benefits in order to campaign. But she had been railing about national problems daily at the breakfast table — so when unions, feminists and party bigwigs came courting, “it was a put up or shut up moment.”
•Prior experience. The GOP scored with two former House members running for seats in Georgia. Democrat Lois Murphy, 43, a lawyer near Philadelphia, opted for a rematch after drawing 49% of the vote against GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach in 2004. She says she realized her daughters, aged 13 and 9, “got just as much positive out of the campaign as negative” in 2004: They learned “very basic human values” about working for what you believe in.
A major concern in both parties is “will I ever see my kids?” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who has a toddler and 7-year-old twins, often advises Democratic prospects about how she balances her life. “I don’t sweet-talk them,” she says.She relies on friends and family and organizes her own time to the minute. She even leads her daughter’s Brownie troop. “I started the troop and I scheduled the meetings on Monday, the day I’m most likely to be home,” she said by phone as she watched her kids eat ice cream in the Weston, Fla., town square.