These Days, Campaign Season Lasts Full Congressional Term

In drawing a good number for freshman room assignments, Ohio Rep.-elect Zack Space had the opportunity to grab prime real estate in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill.

But in one of the Democrat's first truly big decisions since the grueling midterm election, he chose a nondescript office with no view in the Cannon House Office Building, he said, because 50 years ago it housed a young Rep. John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts.

"It gives me goose bumps just to talk about it," Space told, adding that he hoped that Kennedy's spirit, and his conviction that the political system could be reinvigorated, would rub off on him. "That's precisely what we need right now."

Political experts say while Democrats have come into Washington on a wave, they will need more than good vibrations to make theirs a long-term majority, in part because most freshman Democrats in the 110th Congress hail from the most competitive districts in the country. Their seats are anything but guaranteed.

That means they have to start running for office — almost immediately — to ensure in 2008 that their elections in 2006 weren't flukes.

"Obviously, I am going to be conscious of it. Any member who said he wasn't thinking about it wouldn't be entirely truthful," said Space, who won the seat vacated by Republican Bob Ney.

Ney was forced to resign in November after pleading guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and making false statements related to the Jack Abramoff scandal.

"I feel like I can't get behind in terms of maintaining a campaign — whether it is fundraising or getting out and staying in touch with the district. I want to maintain an organization, I don't want to get lax," said Democratic Rep.-elect Ed Perlmutter, who won an open seat in Colorado's 7th District, arguably the most competitive district in the country.

Perlmutter said he wants to maintain the "good will" his campaign generated in the district and prove himself to the voters. "It's an exciting time for me," he said.

As David Moon, spokesman for FairVote, formerly the Center for Voting and Democracy, points out, Democrats won big in Republican districts this year. But in 2008, the GOP will be out for blood and considering 61 Democratic incumbents will be trying to protect seats in Republican-leaning districts — 33 of which are considered heavily Republican — a good argument is being made for what political scientists now call "the permanent campaign."

"If you are in one of these districts you will want to start raising money immediately to fend off the inevitable challenge," said Moon. "It's merely a survival tactic."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 93 percent of the House races and 67 percent of Senate races that were decided by Nov. 9, the candidate with the most money won.

Freshmen Rep.-elect Joe Sestak, the Democrat who beat 10-term Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon, said he is unmoved by inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom that says he has to start sweating hard soon for his re-election. He said he believes that putting an honest foot forward will gain him more ground with his new constituents than plotting his next political maneuver.

"Whether I had to campaign again in two or five years, I intend to do the same thing, I intend to live everywhere in that district, speak at town halls, speak to election officials on both sides of the political aisle. I've already reached out to a union that supported my opponent," said Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who nonetheless hasn't slowed down since Election Night.

"I already reached out to Republican leaders. I want them to know I meant what I said – that we need a coming together to resolve some of the problems we face here," he said.

Rep.-elect Bruce Braley, who won Iowa's 1st District in an open seat race — the first time a Democrat has won the seat in 30 years, said his focus is on the first days of the new Congress rather than re-election.

"I do feel pressure to hit the ground running but from the perspective of trying to reform government," Braley said. "I am fairly confident the work schedule is going to be vigorous,"

But Braley acknowledges that his district will continue to be competitive — it has more independent voters than Republicans or Democrats.

"I also plan to be in the district as often as I can. All of that plays more into how you are going to keep your support than anything else," he said.

Perlmutter, too, said constituent services and delivering on campaign pledges earn long-term support.

"Part of what I am really focused on is developing a responsible office that deals with the problems of the people in the 7th District," he said. "That's how you solidify support: being a good congressman and cutting through the red tape of the federal government."

But while these freshmen are enjoying the honeymoon, others say it will be up to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to engineer the next two years to ensure that the more vulnerable Democrats are buffeted. She can do that by giving freshman key committeeships and opportunities to shine for the home districts, said former Texas Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, who lost a tough re-election battle in 2004.

"One of the choices Pelosi has to make as speaker is whether to follow [former GOP House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's lead," Frost said.

Gingrich helped usher in the 1994 Republican Revolution, in which a wave of Republican reformers ousted the 40-year Democratic majority. Frost said Gingrich then made sure that members from safe districts stepped aside to help the vulnerable members, all for the benefit of a long-term majority.

In terms of voting, Pelosi can make it so vulnerable members can "get a pass" on votes dealing with sensitive issues, Frost said. For example, freshmen and swing district representatives can vote "with the district" on hot button issues, even if it means breaking with the party for the benefit of re-election.

"There's a fairly common expression: Anyone can get elected once. The question is whether they can get re-elected," he said. "There are always accidental congressmen who can only get elected once. The party wants to minimize those accidental congressmen."

Space said he is already reading columnists "who are opining my vulnerabilities," but he's not dwelling on it. He said he knows he will not make any friends by trying to please everyone and he is aware that fundraising and getting re-elected are part of the game.

But his proscription for now is simple and optimistic: "If I do my job right, I will be re-elected."