First Time’s a Charm

By Charlie Cook

December 19, 2006

One of the great things about post-election conferences is that even those of us who watch American politics full-time can gain insights into why the election turned out the way it did.

Along with Democratic consultant James Carville and Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, I hosted such a conference on December 12 at Northern Virginia Community College. And I heard some things that have caused me to re-evaluate my view of what type of candidate is best equipped to challenge a congressional incumbent.

History tells us that the best congressional challengers have already won elective office. Experienced candidates are more likely than the uninitiated to understand the fundamentals of a strong campaign, especially organization, strategy, and fundraising.

Experienced candidates tend to have a better grasp of the issues, and to know how to effectively articulate their message and stay on it. This doesn't mean that first-time candidates can't do these things and can't win, just that experienced candidates usually do them better.

In 2006, Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and his team moved heaven and earth to get experienced candidates to run. But many of the blue-chippers, the experienced would-be candidates, were not convinced that it would be a good Democratic year.

As a result, Democrats ended up with many more first-time congressional candidates -- or people who had run before but had never won, or people who had never won a tough race -- than they would have liked. To be sure, some first-timers, such as Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, turned out to be surprisingly good candidates.

At the conference, Jonathan Poe, the National Republican Congressional Committee's deputy political director, argued that the Democrats' large number of novices was precisely the problem for the GOP in many races. Unlike experienced candidates, the first-timers had scant voting records or other experiences that their opponents could use as fodder for negative ads.

Republican incumbents and the NRCC thus had to resort to far less effective and convincing attacks. In many cases, the attacks simply didn't work. Either by design or by luck, the Democrats' presumed liability of lacking experienced candidates turned into an asset this year. Poe's counterpart on the panel, DCCC Executive Director Karin Johanson, wore a smile that couldn't be missed.

Also on that panel, Poe drew laughs from Democrats and groans from Republicans when he referred to September 29, the day the scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and congressional pages erupted -- the day the bottom really did drop out for the GOP -- as "Foley Friday."

Earlier at the conference Republican pollster Neil Newhouse turned to Democratic counterparts Harrison Hickman and Stan Greenberg and complained that no matter how many thousands of gross rating points of negative ads the GOP candidates and campaign committees dumped on the heads of Democratic candidates during the campaign, they just didn't work.

Newhouse had made that point to me before the election, and he summed it up this way: Unlike 1994, when Republicans swept to power, in 2006 it was Democrats who were wearing Teflon and Republicans who were wearing Velcro. Democratic attacks were sticking to Republicans, but GOP attacks often slid right off the Democrats.

Many outsiders might be surprised at how little these consummate professionals disagreed about the election dynamics. On the four-person pollster panel, Republicans Newhouse and Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group, and Democrats Hickman and Greenberg brought well over a century of combined professional political experience and expertise.

None of the Republicans were in denial, and none of the Democrats claimed an overreaching mandate. This was an extraordinary year, but not one that the experts dismissed as simply an anomaly. Republicans know they have problems that need addressing, and Democrats know that the election was not a sweeping endorsement of everything that everyone in the party wants to do.

By Charlie Cook

December 19, 2006