GOP Sets Sights on House Power Brokers for 2010

October 16, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), David Obey (D-Wis.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.) are among the congressional Democrats facing 2010 challenges. (house.gov) Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), David Obey (D-Wis.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.) are among the congressional Democrats facing 2010 challenges. (house.gov)

Eight years after leaving the Missouri House of Representatives, Vicky Hartzler found herself praying for America. Her congressman, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had supported most of President Barack Obama’s agenda, including cap-and-trade legislation. Hartzler and her husband, who sell farm equipment, asked the Lord what they could do.

“Through prayer we were just crying out for our nation,” Hartzler told a small group of supporters at the How To Take Back America conference in St. Louis last month. “And I just felt like God said — you! It’s time! You’re sitting here, in one of the most Republican districts in the country that’s held by a Democrat. You’re sitting in a district that’s being led by a man who, right now–he’s a good man, but whether he’s lost his way, or gotten older, or I don’t know what it is, he’s voting with Nancy Pelosi 98 percent of the time.”

Image by: Matt Mahurin Image by: Matt Mahurin

In September, Hartzler jumped into the race against Skelton. She has joined four other Republicans, including State Sen. Bill Stouffer, in the first real challenge Skelton has faced since he was elected in 1976 — he won 66 percent of the vote last year. All of them share a rationale. If 2010 is a decent year for Republicans, then Skelton, whose rural district gave the McCain-Palin ticket 60 percent of the vote, could go down. And if any Democrats deserve to lose next year, it will be the powerful committee chairmen who are shepherding the party’s agenda through Congress.

Skelton is only one of the entrenched Democrats with hands on the congressional purse strings whom Republicans are looking at for possible, long-shot 2010 upsets. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee whom Republicans call the author of the stimulus package, is facing well-funded opposition for one of the few times in his 40-year congressional career. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the controversial chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, is looking at his third consecutive deep-pocketed challenge since his opposition to the Iraq War made him a high-profile enemy of Republican activists. And on Thursday, Sen. Harry Reid (R-Nev.) launched his first, incredibly early TV ads of the 2010 cycle after a series of polls showing the Senate majority leader losing to lesser-known Republican challengers.

“There’s plenty to go after if you’re running against the Dave Obeys of the world,” said George Nethercutt, a former congressman from Washington who famously defeated then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994. “He’s been there for 40 years–you can ask, what has he done? We’ve got a huge debt, and that’s a winning argument for a Republican candidate.”

Republican strategists are balancing their enthusiasm for races against entrenched Democrats, portraying them as signs of Democratic problems while not quite predicting victory.

“Running against an entrenched incumbent is always an uphill battle,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay, “but being entrenched in a reckless and unpopular Democrat-controlled Congress is providing more disadvantages than it used to. Not only will these high-ranking Democrats have to defend the flawed policies of their party, they will be spending significant resources against their credible challengers that may otherwise have gone to other races.”

Over the last few months, as the national picture has brightened for Republicans, the NRCC has hyped races like this as evidence of Democratic weakness. In an interview with Human Events, NRCC chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) said the party would have “tier one” opponents for Obey and Skelton.

Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report agreed that Skelton’s race presented a possible GOP opportunity. But he poured some cold water on the party’s chances in Wisconsin. “If you asked Sessions 70 times, he’d say 70 seats are ‘tier one,’” said Gonzales.

Sean Duffy, the party’s leading recruit against Obey — who won his last race with 62 percent of the vote — is willing to believe Sessions. A one-time star of MTV’s reality series The Real World, now a district attorney in Obey’s district, Duffy told TWI that he’d raised $140,000 for the third quarter of 2009, more than half again as much as Obey’s last challenger raised for the entire 2008 election cycle.

“I got into this race because my wife and I were wringing our hands and asking: What can we do?” said Duffy. “When Rep. Sessions says this is a targeted race, that makes us feel like we’re not crazy.”

Duffy’s campaign is aimed right at Obey’s position in Congress. Instead of promising to deliver the same funding that Obey has, Duffy is rousing conservative voters — whom he believes will turn out in record numbers in 2010 — by saying he’d vote to cancel any stimulus funding left over in January 2011. “The government needs to live within its means, just like my own family live within our budget,” said Duffy. He dismissed the idea that a surge in government spending has mollified the effects of the recession.

“Dave Obey believes that,” said Duffy. “But give me an example of when that’s worked. I haven’t seen where that’s worked. If it did, that would be the economic plan for countries all around the world.”

Obey’s district, unlike Skelton’s, usually goes Democratic at the federal level; the Obama-Biden ticket defeated McCain-Palin by 14 points there. Murtha’s southwestern Pennsylvania district, however, was the only one in America that voted for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 and McCain-Palin in 2008 — narrowly, both times. In 2008, Bill Russell ran against Murtha, raised more than $3 million, and briefly garnered national attention after Murtha said his district might reject Obama because it was a “racist area.” But according to Russell, that moment helped Murtha survive an upset, ultimately collecting 58 percent of the vote.

“Once that happened, the Democrats flooded into the race,” Russell said. “They had a great get-out-the-vote program — ACORN was registering thousands of voters.”

In 2010, Russell is challenging Murtha not so much on his war stance, and not so much on his unfolding ethics scandals, although he said “when you have someone under constant investigation, his influence is waning.” Russell is talking about how Murtha “can’t control his temper” and how he supported the stimulus, which Russell claims is “destroying the economy.” On the war issue, Russell takes credit for Murtha’s lack of visibility.

“He knows that I will hammer him if he doesn’t support the troops,” said Russell. “Otherwise, he’d be voting like Nancy Pelosi asked him to.”

Democratic strategists, for now, are writing off Republican attempts to promote these races. Skelton’s campaign manager Ken Morley, who managed the successful 2008 gubernatorial bid of Gov. Jay Nixon (D-Mo.), said that his “Republican counterparts are good at talking this up,” and argued that any attempt to portray Skelton as partisan or out of touch will be undercut by his support for the war in Afghanistan.

“These highly effective committee chairs have long-standing relationships with the communities of their districts that go back years, which is why they are re-elected handily every time,” DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said. “Republicans are clearly grasping at straws targeting these members, but we wouldn’t stop them if they’d like to throw away their money.”