GOP hopes voter anger is non-partisan

Republican strategists hope a volatile electorate will save the party from congressional losses in 2008 that appear possible due to a string of setbacks.

Democrats hold clear edges in raising money, limiting retirements and deflecting public anger.

In the latest sign, the party’s House campaign committee said Wednesday it has about $25 million to spend on targeted races next year; its Republican counterpart is in debt.

Facing such news, the GOP’s top House strategist summoned reporters to his campaign headquarters to put the best possible light on matters.

In short, said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., people are angry at lawmakers and the Democratic-controlled Congress in general, and massive fundraising will not save Democratic incumbents from voters’ wrath.

Voters “are in a firing mood,” said Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. When urging potential candidates to run, he said he tells them, “You ought to run against all of Washington, D.C., and that includes us.”

The anti-incumbent mood may doom some GOP members, he said, but it poses a bigger threat to the party in charge.

The Democrats’ response?

“He’s spinning so fast he might take off,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They claim everybody doesn’t like anybody,” he said, “but they doesn’t explain why they are falling so far behind in key measures,” such as fundraising.

Van Hollen said his committee raised $16 million from July through September, and has more than $25 million on hand when debts are accounted for.

Cole’s committee declined to release its third-quarter summaries, but last month it reported having more debt than cash on hand.

“Right now we’re in a race with ankle weights on,” Cole said. “It’s called debt.” The committee’s debt was considerably higher a few months ago, he noted.

In 2006, Democrats gained 30 House seats, taking control after 12 years in the minority. Some Democrats see 2006 as a warm-up for 2008, when public anger at President Bush and the Iraq war will drive party gains even higher.

Cole, a veteran campaign strategist, disagrees. Tuesday’s special election in Massachusetts, where Democrat Niki Tsongas won by a smaller margin than some expected, was encouraging, he said.

“It shows that just running against the president, or running a 2006-model campaign, is not going to make it in 2008,” Cole said.

Van Hollen said Tsongas’ 6 percentage-point margin was respectable for the district. He predicted Bush’s unpopularity will haunt Republican lawmakers who have stood with him on Iraq, children’s health spending and other issues.

Polls show deep public disenchantment with Congress. Even though Democrats control the House and Senate, however, disapproval ratings for GOP lawmakers run higher than those for Democrats, a sign of Bush’s impact on fellow Republicans.

Analysts say it may be difficult for Democrats to increase their 33-seat House advantage next year because few obvious opportunities remain. As Cole noted, 61 House Democrats represent districts that Bush carried twice, whereas eight Republicans are from districts that Bush lost in 2004.

But a dozen House Republicans have announced retirement plans, and Cole said there will be more. Several are from districts that Democrats believe they can win.

Only two House Democrats, in Colorado and Maine, have announced plans to leave, and both are running for the Senate.

Because incumbents enjoy such big political advantages, limiting retirements is crucial in most cases. But Republicans have urged some scandal-scarred colleagues to step down in hopes of saving their seats.

For example, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., is under federal investigation in a lobbying probe, and his likely Democratic challenger has 10 times more campaign money on hand. While Cole declined on Wednesday to endorse Doolittle’s re-election bid, a California colleague went farther.

“Certainly the polling shows that he’s in a difficult position, and I do think it would be best if he didn’t seek re-election,” Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., told The Associated Press.

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.