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Republicans aim to take out future Democratic stars

By Aaron Blake

When the conservative-leaning American Future Fund reserved $800,000 worth of ads in Rep. Bruce Braley's (D-Iowa) district last week, heads -- or at least our collective head -- turned.

Many pointed to the ad as evidence that independent spending is taking on a new life this cycle -- targeting heretofore impregnable incumbents.

And, that's likely right. But, there may also be a bit of gamesmanship at work as it relates to Braley's political future.

Ask strategists from both parties about the strategy behind the Braley buy, and the answer you get is close to unanimous: Republicans are trying to take him out before he has a chance to grow into the Democrats' next Senator-in-waiting. And, even if they can't beat him this year, they want to bloody him for future -- and bigger -- campaigns.

It's little secret that Braley has his eyes on a statewide campaign -- preferably a run at Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) seat if Harkin, 70, retires in four years.

"That's why you're seeing outside groups target him," said one GOP operative in the state. "This guy's for real, and there's a real chance he could be the next senator from Iowa."

The source expressed concern that a candidate like Braley, with an attractive profile and solid credentials, could lock down the Senate seat for decades to come.

Braley is far from the only potential Democratic statewide star being heavily targeted this cycle in hopes of slowing their momentum for future runs. Leading that list are Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, who may challenge Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) next cycle, and Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who is likely to go after Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Braley, Giffords and Murphy all have plenty in common: they are relatively young (only Braley is over 40), they are ambitious, and they have fundraising potential and political acumen that label them as formidable. They also happen to have won marginal districts in 2006 that Republicans are anxious to win back this cycle.

Only Giffords is considered a top target -- losses by either Murphy or Braley would signal something very bad for Democrats on Nov. 2 -- but the punches landed this cycle will reverberate for cycles to come.

While bloodying rather than beating Murphy, Braley and Giffords may well be Republicans' goal this cycle, there are a number of other rising Democratic stars who face the very real potential of seeing their political rise stunted badly in four weeks time.

Such may be the case for the likes of Reps. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) -- or even for candidates who have previously run for statewide office (and may do so again), like Reps. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and Ben Chandler (D-Ky.).

Herseth Sandlin, Hill and Patrick Murphy are thought to be particularly vulnerable in the current environment, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has placed ad buys against all three.

The NRCC may not be as concerned with taking out a future statewide candidate (its concerns are more immediate and narrow), but state parties, local Republicans and, increasingly, independent groups have extra incentive in some cases like the ones mentioned above.

Targeting a rising star is nothing new -- and not unique to Republicans.

The best recent example came in Nevada in 2006 and 2008 when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) personally recruited a former staffer and then a state legislator named Dina Titus to take on Rep. Jon Porter (R) in the state's swing 3rd district because he knew Porter was plotting a 2010 Senate run against him.

Reid's plan worked as Titus defeated Porter, relegating him to "former member of Congress" status and all but eliminating his hopes of taking on Reid -- an honor that eventually fell to former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle.

Few politicians are as crafty -- and we mean that lovingly -- as Reid. But, large-scale Democratic losses could wind up being a political setback for Democrats, not just in the coming Congress, but for several campaign cycles in the future.

By Aaron Blake  | October 5, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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