Upcoming special elections for Democratic-held seats in Pennsylvania-12 (May 18) and Hawaii-01 (May 22) are giving us some insight into the House race landscape heading into the fall.
1) The DCCC Isn't Afraid To Cut Its Losses. On Monday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced that it would not be "investing additional resources" beyond the $350,000 they'd already put into the special election in Hawaii-01. Not long ago, the idea that a campaign committee would essentially forfeit a seat -- especially one that holds such symbolic value as President Obama's childhood district -- would be unthinkable.
If Republicans can't win the only district in the country that voted for both Kerry and McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall?
But in this case, it's a pretty smart strategy. First, it allows the DCCC to pin the blame for a loss on parochial local politics. Next, it puts pressure on GOP nominee Charles Djou and the National Republican Campaign Committee to keep up the spending. After all, now that the expectation has been set for a Djou win, anything less would be a total disaster. Some of the conspiracy-minded among us are wondering if this public display of detachment isn't really a head fake designed to lull Djou and his team into complacency and lure outside groups in to help the Democrats.
More important, it suggests that Democrats are in triage mode. With just $26 million in the bank and 40-50 seats to defend, they're going to have to leave a lot of bodies on the gurneys if they want to save their majority. Of course, saying no to a challenger is one thing, but cutting off money to an incumbent will be the ultimate test of fiscal discipline.
2) Outsourcing Is A Four-Letter Word. Polls continue to show that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congress are about as popular as athlete's foot. But thus far Republicans haven't been able to turn this into a winning message for the GOP in Pa.-12. Despite the NRCC's attempt to tie former John Murtha staffer Mark Critz to Pelosi and the health care vote, there's little evidence that it's getting much traction.
Meanwhile, Democratic attacks on Republican candidate Tim Burns as a "millionaire businessman" who supports outsourcing jobs seem to be sticking. This may be the year of the "outsider," but there's a difference between an outsider and an awkward fit. And in this blue-collar district, where jobs are the biggest issue, any charge of shipping jobs overseas is going to be taken very seriously.
In fact, if Critz and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., win their elections next week, their demagoguing of the outsourcing issue will deserve a lot of credit. Expect to see lots of other Democrats comb through the business records of their opposition, looking for any opportunity to label opponents as anti-worker or pro-outsourcer.
3) All Politics Is Local -- Unless It's Not. In a nutshell, however, the Pennsylvania race is a test of which profile is more problematic in a blue-collar, swing district: a businessman who wants to ship jobs overseas or a Pelosi-loving Dem who won't denounce his party's plans for socialized medicine.
A Critz win might seem to suggest that Republicans can't simply nationalize their way to victory in November. The caliber and quality of the individual candidates and campaigns matter, too. Of course, that was the same argument Republicans made in the summer of 2006 when they narrowly held onto to California-50 in a special election. They would, of course, go on to lose 30 seats and their majority just a few months later.
4) The Pressure's On, Pete. In some ways, Pa.-12 seems to be a must-win for Republicans. After all, if they can't win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall? Republican donors and members cut NRCC chairman Pete Sessions a lot of slack after the losses in New York-23 and -20. Will they be as forgiving if he comes up short once again?
The bottom line, though, is that it's always dangerous to read too much into the results of a special election. More important, it's always much easier to localize a special election than one held in the fall. And this is why, despite what happens in Pennsylvania and Hawaii, the GOP still has the upper hand this fall.