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The Hunt for Willing Volunteers

Diane Farrell is the Democrat who last November held longtime Republican Rep. Christopher Shays (CT-04) to the lowest winning percentage (52 percent) of his career.

She was in Washington recently to check in with top House Democrats and fundraisers. She's hesitant to commit to challenging Shays a second time, despite the district's movement away from the GOP.

Farrell's reluctance is a prime indication of the difficulty that House recruiters from both parties are likely to have heading into the 2006 midterm elections.

For House Democrats -- 15 seats shy of a majority -- recruitment trouble could make it very hard to increase the small number of Republican-held seats that will be truly in play.

Farrell, a Westport selectwoman, started the 2004 cycle as a decided underdog. After all, she was going up against a well-liked, eight-term Republican in a district with such wealthy, rock-ribbed Republican towns as Greenwich and Darien. But, like so many former GOP strongholds in the Northeast, Shays's district is starting to come loose from its GOP moorings. Al Gore carried the district by 10 points (53 percent to 43 percent) in 2000. And the intense polarization that marked the 2004 campaign raised the possibility that a partisan wave might sweep away incumbents whose party was no longer a good match for their districts.

Farrell raised an impressive amount of money and was a smart, poised, and attractive candidate. Meanwhile, Shays, who had not had a serious challenge since first winning his seat in 1987, signaled his unwillingness to run a hard-hitting campaign against Farrell. Telling The New York Times that he would rather lose than run a negative race, Shays fought off efforts by national Republicans to attack Farrell.

In the end, of course, Shays squeaked by, holding on to his base in Fairfield County, where he outperformed President Bush by about 7 points.

Despite her 2004 loss, Farrell is one of the strongest challengers her party could field in 2006. That's because Shays reportedly wants to run the same sort of unaggressive campaign as he did last time. And this time, Farrell would have the benefit of running in a "six-year itch" midterm election, when the party of the president tends to lose House seats. Add that Shays is likely to have to vote on several hot-button issues, including overhauling Social Security, and he may be more vulnerable than in 2004. But the moderate Shays will undoubtedly get plenty of opportunities to highlight his independence from Bush and the House Republican leadership.

Farrell is concerned about the difficulty of unseating an incumbent, especially in a nonpresidential year. Her worries are not entirely unfounded. Turnout in Shays's district, especially in the Democratic bastion of Bridgeport, has been very volatile. In that blue-collar city, which gave Farrell 70 percent of its votes, almost twice as many voters turned out in 2004 as did in 2002, a midterm election year.

Like every other potential House challenger, Farrell also must be dispirited by incumbents' incredibly high re-election rate. In the past two cycles, 99 percent of incumbents have won. So, even some of the strongest potential challengers have to ask themselves whether they'd be better off waiting for a seat to open up.

Shays remains popular and would not be easy to beat. While his district is indeed trending away from the GOP, it's unclear whether its Democratic wave is cresting or still building.

Despite the history of sixth-year elections going against the president's party, a lot of would-be Democratic challengers are likely to look at the incumbent re-election rate and the tough fundraising road ahead, then take a pass on 2006. According to a study of competitive House races in 2004 by Gary Jacobson of the University of California (San Diego), incumbents spent, on average, more than twice as much as challengers ($1.6 million versus $700,000). And last year's victories by supposedly vulnerable incumbents, including Democratic Reps. Jim Matheson of Utah and Dennis Moore of Kansas, and Republican Reps. Anne Northup of Kentucky and Heather Wilson of New Mexico, took many of the most obvious targets off the map for House recruiters.

This means both parties will have to encourage would-be challengers to consider running in districts that don't appear very promising. That makes the recruiters' task all the more difficult.

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