While most members of Congress have spent August in their districts, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland has also visited Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, even Illinois and Iowa, recruiting candidates to help the Republicans gain House seats in 2010.
No one, including the third-term congressman from Coweta County, is predicting a new GOP majority just yet. But Republicans will gain nothing from next year’s campaigns — or from a health care debate that’s costing Democrats dearly — if they can’t line up good candidates now.
If anyone understands this imperative, it’s Westmoreland. He spent years helping the GOP end a near-permanent Democratic majority in Georgia’s Legislature.
“When I became the Republican leader in Georgia,” Westmoreland said this week, “I asked, why have we been in the minority for 130 years? And part of it was, the candidates we were recruiting — not that they weren’t good candidates — but they probably didn’t have the local ties, they weren’t from the right part of the district, maybe they’d just moved in, whatever.”
To change that, Westmoreland recruited by first listening to key constituencies: doctors, teachers, chambers of commerce. Then he went to work on sometimes reluctant recruits.
“Those that you have to … convince that it’s the right thing to do, they make the best candidates,” Westmoreland said.
Now that he’s a vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee trying to help overcome a national Democratic majority, his approach is the same. For his latest trip, his team identified about 25 prospects across 11 potentially winnable districts, and then met them.
“We’re just making sure we’re able to look ‘em eyeball to eyeball, see them in their environment, let them see us and ask all their questions about the mechanics of Congress and what would happen if they were to be elected,” he said.
“Most of ‘em are just fresh faces. I think in some of these districts, just having a fresh face and giving the people an opportunity” is the key.
Nine of those 11 districts are held by Blue Dogs, self-described fiscally conservative Democrats. (”How conservative are those candidates when the average one votes with [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi 97 percent of the time?” Westmoreland asks, not unreasonably.) But persuading voters to dump even a fairly conservative Democrat for a Republican will be a district-by-district battle.
“In some places, the Blue Dogs are as strong as could be. There’s no way Republicans are going to take over the district,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, which next month will unveil its first nationwide projections for the 2010 elections.
Sabato cited his own district in central Virginia, where a Republican incumbent lost by just 727 votes last year, as one where the GOP might be able to win back a seat. Conversely, Mike Ross (D-Ark.) “couldn’t be stronger and will be re-elected, even though [John] McCain had a landslide win in his district,” Sabato said.
“You have to look at the individual districts,” he added.
Taking a good look at the districts as well as the candidates is why Westmoreland has been traveling so much, with plans to hit a half-dozen other states in the Midwest and Southeast soon.
“I guess the biggest shock came to me from Iowa, because that’s where we got to meet the most people,” Westmoreland said. “People are mad … and it’s not just the health care issue,” but also the cap-and-trade bill for reducing CO2 emissions.
“I think if you had to judge what’s going on in this country in a blue state like Iowa,” he said, “I’d say the Democrats have the wind in their face.”
Note: Kyle Wingfield will begin blogging daily later this month. Commenting on this blog will open then.