The NRCC put out a list of its seven top targets for 2014 on Wednesday, and I've gotta wonder if they're getting a little lazy, as it's basically a list of the seven Democrats with the reddest congressional districts based on 2012 presidential numbers: Ron Barber, John Barrow, Ann Kirkpatrick, Jim Matheson, Mike McIntyre, Collin Peterson, and Nick Rahall.It does seem lazy. If my math is correct, there are nine Democratic members of the House who represent districts where Barack Obama trailed Mitt Romney. The NRCC has made their initial target list wholly from that group.
However, even at that, there is something else about the NRCC list that seems a little bit odd.
Even if they are, indeed, in nominally red districts, why make a run at veterans John Barrow and Collin Peterson? Barrow and Peterson have run, and won, with frequency in their respective districts.
Furthermore, why would the NRCC elect not to target the two other Democrats who won in pro-Romney districts? Especially when the pair in question happen to be rookies on the Hill (Texas' Pete Gallego and Florida's Patrick Murphy)? One of the most revered pieces of conventional political wisdom in House elections is that the clearest path to defeating an incumbent can be found in the first re-election bid. After that (barring sharp changes in redistricting or scandal), they become much more elusive targets.
The answer, perhaps, might lie in a closer examination of the 2012 presidential election results.
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Viewed through that lens, some of those targeted districts make a little more sense.
Consider, for example, Nick Rahall (WV-03). There are persistent rumors that Rahall is mulling a Senate bid, and a cursory look at how his district has changed makes it easy to see why.
It is no secret that President Obama is not popular in the Mountaineer State. But the erosion in Rahall's southern-tier 3rd district is nothing short of staggering. The district went 56-42 for John McCain in 2008. That alone would be a daunting statistic for a Democratic officeholder. In 2012? Obama's modest support in the state, and the district, absolutely cratered. The district went for Mitt Romney by a 65-33 margin. That is an 18-point collapse in four years.
The erosion is not limited to Barack Obama, however.
In 2004, which was hardly a splendid year for the Democrats, Rahall demolished his Republican challenger, Rick Snuffer, by a 65-35 margin. In 2012, a damned good year for the Democrats, Rahall faced Snuffer for the second time. But this time around, the margin had dropped from 30 point down to just 8 points. Granted, Snuffer spent quite a bit more cash in 2012, but he was still outspent 3-to-1 last year.
Rahall's flirtation with the Senate may very well be predicated on the suspicion that his district is rapidly getting away from him.
He might not be alone, of course. There are candidates in both parties that are in districts where the terrain is not only bad for them, it may well be getting worse.
Take, for example, a man who may well the most endangered Republican in the House: California veteran Rep. Gary Miller. Miller was spared in 2012, when the state's "top two" primary saw a raft of Democratic candidates split the vote, leaving two Republicans (Miller and state legislator Bob Dutton) in the top two. Miller easily dispatched Dutton in November, but has to be looking at 2014 with a tremendous amount of trepidation. In a year when President Obama's lead in California slipped by only two percentage points, CA-31 was incrementally more Democratic in 2012 (57-41) than it was in 2008 (56-41). Most districts in America tightened, as did the nation, between 2008 and 2012. The 31st district actually was a bit more Democratic. Miller is in deep doo-doo.
Speaking of California, one has to wonder if Democrats, after a recruiting failure in the Central Valley last year, will snare some resources to make a bid for the seat of freshman Republican David Valadao. The Fresno-area 21st district, which Valadao won with relative ease in 2012, was a district that Mitt Romney lost badly in 2012 (55-44). Indeed, this was a rare district where President Obama performed markedly better in 2012 (O+11) than he did in 2008 (O+6).
Comparing the 2008 and 2012 presidential numbers, in fact, might explain the inclusion of Collin Peterson on the NRCC's initial list. The Minnesota 7th, located in the primarily rural northwestern/western part of the state, turned Republican rather sharply this cycle. Between the two elections, Minnesota as a state only shifted in the GOP's direction by two points (from Obama +10 to Obama +8). This district, meanwhile, shifted a rather auspicious seven points (from McCain +3 to Romney +10).
Of course, it is also possible that the NRCC is just playing a little mind game with the veteran Democrat, who is among the more conservative members of the caucus. Peterson will be 70 years of age on Election Day 2014, and will be wrapping up his 12th term in the House. He has not had a serious challenger for his seat since he survived the 1994 GOP wave election with 51 percent of the vote. Putting him on the target list might be an effort to coerce an early retirement.
Of course, presidential election numbers don't always tell the whole story. Consider Peterson's fellow Minnesota native: Michele Bachmann. Bachmann's district is the reddest district in the state of Minnesota, with Mitt Romney beating Barack Obama in the 6th district by 15 points. However, that matters little, and it does so for a very simple reason: Bachmann is simply batshit crazy. Even as Mitt Romney was easily winning the district last year, Bachmann was desperately clinging to a 50-49 squeaker over Democratic hotel developer Jim Graves.
Given that fact, there is absolutely no reason to think that the DCCC won't try to keep recruiting candidates for this district. Bachmann's antics, it is now clear, defy political or ideological gravity. We already saw that in Florida this year, where Democratic newcomer Patrick Murphy dispatched GOP lightning rod Allen West, despite West repping a district that had shifted several points in the GOP's favor between 2008 and 2012 (from O+3 in '08 to R+4 in '12).
Who is the best candidate to join Bachmann on the target list, despite being in a nominally red district? How about freshman Republican
Santa Claus Kerry Bentvolio? Even as his 11th district went 52-47 for Mitt Romney (after narrowly tilting to President Obama in 2008), Bentvolio actually lost a special election for a partial term in the House to an unknown Democrat named David Curson, who spent all of $34,000 in the effort (Bentvolio did beat Democrat Syed Taj 51-44 in the battle for the full term). One has to believe that Bentvolio, who earned a reputation as a tea party devotee and something of a loose cannon, will find himself safely ensconced on the DCCC list of prospects, even if his district is not by any stretch a pro-Obama district.