Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Neophytes Handed Congress to Democrats

Charlie Cook posts a note from an interesting political conference - one where representatives of the House Democratic and Republican Campaign Committees talked about why the election turned out the way it did. Apparently there was agreement that for this year at least, conventional wisdom was wrong; first-time candidates were an asset to the Democrats:

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.

A good point, but I'm not sure how useful it is. The preference for an experienced candidate is likely to hold in all but big anti-incumbent elections. In rare cases like 2008, when voters are so heavily predisposed to support a challenger, it might be better to have no record to attack. But it's hard to predict during which elections those will be one year out - when much of the 'recruiting' is done.

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