Buck Up, Democrats
A spate of House retirements in the South is casting a pall over Dems' 2010 chances. But the situation may not be as bad as it looks. Benjamin Sarlin looks at how the races are shaping up.
Retirements are rarely good news for a party's chances in congressional elections, and a handful of impending departures of incumbents in red states has Democrats on the defensive.
Four of the most recently announced retirements have come from Democrats in Southern states—Representatives Bart Gordon and John Tanner in Tennessee and Marion Berry and Vic Snyder in Arkansas—taking away the advantages of incumbency in potentially hostile territory in 2010.
But the situation isn't quite hopeless: Solid Democratic recruitment and fundraising could help minimize the damage, and Republican takeovers in these four districts are by no means sure bets.
“They might be better off with a candidate who works and really wants it.”
The toughest slog for Democrats will be the effort to keep the seat held by Gordon, a conservative Democrat whose district has elected only one Republican since 1871, but has drifted toward the GOP in recent years. Its residents voted for Senator John McCain over President Obama 62 percent to 37 percent. Making matters worse, Democrats have yet to find a credible candidate.
• Peter Beinart: Democrats, Don’t Despair "Basically that seat is moving off the table," said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's just become a very Republican district."
The other Tennessee district is another story, however. Tanner leaves behind a deeper Democratic bench led by State Senator Roy Herron, who left the governor's race to run for the House seat instead. Since announcing his candidacy, Herron has raised an eye-popping $675,000 in about a month, including $250,000 from a personal loan to his own campaign.
No less an authority than Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney told The Daily Beast that Herron was not to be trifled with.
"I'm not going to underestimate the guy," Devaney said. "He's probably a good candidate for them, sort of a Clintonian type. He has some charisma."
Republicans have been encouraged by strong fundraising so far from one of their own candidates, a gospel singer and farmer named Stephen Fincher, who has put up more than $600,000 in the last two fundraising quarters. While Fincher is new to politics and at a disadvantage in terms of name recognition, his outsider status could be a plus, in that Herron's long voting record would provide opportunities for effective attacks.
"I think [Democrats] chances of holding it are pretty good unless the Republicans come up with a candidate who is more formidable," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a public policy and education professor at Vanderbilt University. "I think right now the candidates they have are relatively unknown. Of course, if you have unemployment at 11 percent next September, those bets are off."
In Arkansas, the Democratic field is still settling in the races made competitive by the retirements of Snyder and Berry, but the Republicans have yet to put themselves in a position to take advantage.
In Berry's district, Republicans do not have a strong candidate ready out of the gate. The only candidate who emerged in the weeks before the retirement announcement was agriculture TV reporter Rick Crawford, who had $38,000 in cash on hand by September 2009.
On the Democratic side, Berry's chief of staff, Chad Causey, is considering a run, which could help Democrats capitalize on the retiring congressman's popularity, and a number of experienced state legislators also are being floated as potential contenders. While McCain handily beat Obama 59 percent to 38 percent in the district, the state has split its congressional and presidential votes in recent elections. Berry's seat hasn't been held by a Republican since the 1870s.
"It's extremely likely a Democrat will hang on to that seat," said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.
Rothenberg rates the seat a "toss-up" but said recruiting might be a strong factor.
"I'm sure Republicans would like to get someone with some proven political savvy and skill," he said.
Snyder's seat could turn out to be a heavyweight match, with a number of big names potentially lined up on the Democratic side. Unlike Berry, Snyder was facing a serious challenge before he announced he was leaving from former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin. Democrats are hoping to tie Griffin to his previous work as an aide to Bush adviser Karl Rove, where he gained a reputation as a practitioner of partisan dirty tricks.
On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter is reportedly " seriously considering" a run, and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark also has been floated as a possibility.
According to Rothenberg, the possibility of recruiting one of those candidates gives the Democrats a better chance of holding the seat than if Snyder had stayed in the race.
"Snyder didn't like to raise money and he was more liberal than many candidates," he said. "They might be better off with a candidate who works and really wants it."
The national environment is likely to be difficult for Democrats in 2010 and, as the Senate race in Massachusetts proved last week, there are no sure bets, even in states that are considerably more liberal than Tennessee and Arkansas. But solid recruiting and fundraising just might save Southern Democrats from a total wipeout.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.