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House Democrats Expand Playing Field

Much of the debate in Washington these days is over how many seats House Democrats might be able to pick up on Nov. 7. Public polling continues to show widening discontent with President Bush, the war in Iraq and Congress generally.

Some Democratic strategists argue that the party needs to consolidate its gains, spending the vast majority of its money on the 15-20 races where Democrats have the best chance of winning. Others believe the political climate dictates a vast broadening in the playing field and urge expenditures in second and third-tier races in hopes of expanding Democratic gains to 30 seats and beyond.

New spending by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in three House races suggest the latter argument may be winning out. And financial reports made public Thursday reveal that the DCCC raised $14.4 million in September and ended the month with $36 million on hand, a total that allows the committee considerably more flexibility in choosing which races they target over the coming 18 days.

The DCCC went up with ads in Washington's 5th district today that accuse freshman Rep. Cathy McMorris (R) of having "gone Washington...the other Washington." The commercial says McMorris voted to "raid" the Social Security trust fund. "Votes to jeopardize Social Security aren't our values in this Washington," says the ad's narrator.

At first glance, the 5th district, which takes in the vast eastern part of the state, is not a typical Democratic target. President Bush won it 57 percent to 41 percent in 2004, and the district has grown increasingly Republican since George Nethercutt (R) ousted then House Speaker Tom Foley (D) from it in 1994. But McMorris is a freshman, and Democrats believe rancher Peter Goldmark (D) could make a real run at her.

The DCCC is set to launch ads in Minnesota's 1st district and Nevada's 2nd district tomorrow. Both races were considered on the very outskirts of competitiveness until the last few weeks when the continued erosion of Republicans' standing in the polls put them in play.

In Minnesota's 1st, Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) has won better than 60 percent in his last two re-election bids, wins that belie the potential competitiveness of the southern Minnesota district. Prior to Gutknecht's election in 1994, the seat was held by Democratic Rep. Tim Penny, and President Bush carried it with 49 percent and 51 percent in 2000 and 2004, respectively. The Democratic nominee is Tim Walz, a first time candidate with lots of energy but -- until the planned DCCC buy -- not nearly enough money to be competitive with Gutknecht.

Nevada's 2nd district is open as a result of Rep. Jim Gibbons' (R) run for governor. Like Washington's 5th, it is not a traditional Democratic target. Bush took 57 percent here in 2000, and Republicans got their preferred candidate when Secretary of State Dean Heller won the state's August primary. But Jill Derby, a regent at the University of Nevada, is running a surprisingly competitive race. An independent poll done in late September showed Heller with a 46 percent to 43 percent edge -- well within the bounds of competitiveness.

Aside from the DCCC buys in three districts, there is other evidence that even previously safe GOP incumbents are getting a bit nervous. Take Rep. Sam Graves (R) in Missouri's 6th district. In a new ad, Graves touts his own credentials on opposing illegal immigration before attacking his Democratic opponent -- Sara Jo Shettles -- for working for Penthouse magazine. "Sara Jo Shettles: Outrageous Values, Dangerous Ideas," says the ad's narrator.

It's curious that Graves would attack Shettles given that as of Sept. 30, she had raised $94,000 for the race and had a meager $29,000 on hand -- not nearly enough to run any real paid media campaign. It's not Shettles that Graves' is worried about, however. It's the fact that Democrat Pat Danner held the seat from 1992 to 2000 and Bush only carried it with 53 percent in 2000 -- although he improved to to 57 percent in 2004. Graves is, in essence, using the ads to ensure that 6th district voters know that if they want to cast a vote against the president, they will have to cast one for Shettles.

It's important to remember that none of the four races above comprise Democrats' top pickup chances on Nov. 7. In fact, Democrats aren't likely to win any of the four. But the fact that we are even talking about any of these seats is evidence that the playing field has widened, a development that gives Democrats a larger margin for error in the push to win the 15 seats needed for a House majority.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 19, 2006; 9:10 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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