MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The battle for control of Congress won't be decided until next November, nearly a year from now. But now is the time when both parties are trying to wine and dine their potential standard-bearers for the 2006 elections. NPR's Mara Liasson has been observing the process of candidate recruiting. She filed this report.
(Soundbite of phone call)
Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois; Chair, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): Hey, Jim. It's Rahm. Good, buddy. How you doing?
MARA LIASSON reporting:
In the offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the chairman, Rahm Emanuel, is on the phone.
(Soundbite of phone call)
Rep. EMANUEL: Well, a number of folks, they were just waiting for somebody of your caliber to run.
LIASSON: These days, Congressman Emanuel has been busy trying to convince Democrats to run for the House. Today, however, Emanuel is congratulating Jim Marcinkowski, a former CIA agent who has decided to challenge incumbent Michigan Republican Mike Rogers.
(Soundbite of phone call)
Rep. EMANUEL: So let's just get the papers filed, and then we can also work then--start working on the announcement. All right, fabulous.
LIASSON: Emanuel's job is to find the strongest Democratic candidates he can to take advantage of voters' dissatisfaction with the Republicans.
Rep. EMANUEL: The mood in the country about the policies that Republicans have put in place is pretty sad. You'd have to have some circuit-breaker events that are outside of what we see in front of us that would change those feelings. They don't want a Congress member who's going to rubber-stamp the president's policies. They want an independent voice, and they want a new set of priorities.
LIASSON: A circuit-breaker event--another terrorist attack, for example--is beyond the control of either party. But if Republicans are playing defense this year, there are plenty of obstacles they can put up to block the Democrats. New York Congressman Tom Reynolds is Emanuel's counterpart at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He's recruiting candidates, too, but his first job is to deny Democrats targets of opportunity. And since it's easier to pick up a seat when there's no incumbent running, Reynolds tries to get Republicans to stay put.
Representative TOM REYNOLDS (Republican, New York; Chair, National Republican Congressional Committee): Generally, I want to minimize retirements. I've suggested to my colleagues, `You worked hard for the opportunity of having a Republican president, a Republican Senate and a Republican Congress. Stay and enjoy it a while.' So I want them to seek re-elections.
LIASSON: Reynolds has done a good job of keeping Republican retirements down. So far there are only 13 seats left open by a retiring Republican, and only two of them are in Democratic-leaning districts. Ask Reynolds about the anti-Republican mood in the country and he says it's not important.
Rep. REYNOLDS: As we're sitting down with candidates, there's not a discussion about all the other aspects of the political world. Whatever the presidential atmospherics are, when it comes down to a congressional race, they're won on issues back home. And we build our races from the ground up. There will not be a national air war coming from the NRCC--which means some large single issue, last time done by this committee in 1998; we actually lost seats.
LIASSON: In 1998, Republicans tried to make Bill Clinton's impeachment a national issue and it backfired. But this time some Democratic challengers say national issues will matter. Democrats consider New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid one of their top-tier challengers. She's running against Republican incumbent Heather Wilson to represent New Mexico's 1st Congressional District. Madrid says people in her state are concerned about the war in Iraq and gas prices.
Ms. PATRICIA MADRID (Attorney General, New Mexico; US Congressional Candidate): I think 2006 is going to be a watershed year for Democrats coming to Congress and the US Senate, because we are going to be part of this tide. Yes, I want to be part of it. I want to be part of this historical event where our voices are going to be heard once again.
LIASSON: The party also has high hopes for state Senator Charlie Wilson, who's running for an open seat in Ohio's 6th District. Ohio is considered one of the most competitive states next year, in part because the Republicans there have so many troubles, including an extremely unpopular governor. But Wilson thinks Democrats need more than just an anti-Republican mood.
State Senator CHARLIE WILSON (Democrat, Ohio; US Congressional Candidate): Well, Governor Taft and the Republican administration in Ohio have had lots of things that have shown as corruption and difficulties. But I don't think that's enough to mean that it's a great opportunity for Democrats. I think we have the wind at our back, but I think the people want solutions. They're not going to vote in Democrats just because the Republicans have had problems.
LIASSON: If Wilson can't count on the national atmosphere to help him win, his likely opponent, Republican state Representative Chuck Blasdel, is hoping he will succeed in spite of it.
State Representative CHUCK BLASDEL (Republican, Ohio; US Congressional Candidate): I just intend to run my campaign as to who I am and, you know, what I believe in. And where that falls in line with the national party, that's just the way it's going to fall out. The reality is at the end of the day, they're not running against George Bush or Bob Taft; they're running against Chuck Blasdel, and I'm the guy they're going to have to beat.
LIASSON: Democrats will have to beat a lot of Chuck Blasdels in open seats and a lot of Republican incumbents if they are to control the House again. Amy Walter, who tracks House races at The Cook Political Report, says Democrats will need more than just good candidates.
Ms. AMY WALTER (The Cook Political Report): The way to look at this is you put a whole bunch of people out into the ocean with surfboards, waiting for that wave to come. If the wave doesn't hit, a whole bunch of people are stranded on the beach. If it does, maybe you get just the number you need into office.
LIASSON: For Democrats next year, that number is 15 net pickups, a big number, says Amy Walter, considering the last time either party picked up that many seats or more was 1994.
Ms. WALTER: This is the best political climate Democrats could ask for to recruit candidates in, no doubt about that. But are we seeing candidates coming out of the woodwork today? The answer is no. Now we've seen a couple of candidates, especially high-profile candidates, who've emerged in the last couple of weeks. Still, the numbers benefit Republicans.
LIASSON: At this point, the number of competitive seats is still low enough to help Republicans because Democrats have only managed to find candidates to make about 30 races competitive. It's still early; most state filing deadlines aren't for another couple of months. But to have a shot at winning back the House, most analysts agree that by March, Democrats will need about 50. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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