Democrats Look for Vulnerable Republicans to Humiliate in 2012

Democrats are sharpening their swords ahead of the next congressional session, looking to target vulnerable Republicans who could either be picked off in 2012 or at least caricatured so that they become liabilities for their party.

Basically, it's payback time.

After Republicans routed Democrats in November by ousting moderates in GOP-friendly territory and turning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi into political kryptonite for her caucus, the election losers are mapping a strategy to reverse the tide in two years. They want to halt in their tracks GOP ambitions to build an absolute majority on Capitol Hill over the course of two elections.

Rep. Steve Israel, incoming chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicted in an interview Sunday that voters will have "buyer's remorse" come next year. Just as Republicans did after their 2008 thrashing, he cast the looming political battle in terms of simple math -- Republicans are taking up space in more than 60 districts that voted for President Obama, he said, and Democrats just need 25 seats to retake the House.

"We know that there are 61 that have a Democratic presence," Israel, D-N.Y., said. (That number is actually 62, the DCCC later clarified.)

More On This...

By that reading, Democratic odds sound pretty good. However, party chiefs will still need to convince voters that they've learned their lesson on overspending -- something Republicans have been repenting on for the past two years. Also, Democrats have a disadvantage in that GOP-heavy state legislatures will be redrawing congressional districts this year based on the results of the 2010 Census.

So Democratic strategists are starting early to cast Republicans as special-interest-driven sell-outs.

One Democratic source told the party would be pursuing an "all-of-the-above approach," targeting vulnerable members via online campaigns and also local Democratic leaders tasked with spreading the bad word about the occupying force known as the Republican Party.

"There are opportunities beyond those 62, but the fact that there are 62 gives you confidence that this will be a short majority," the source said.

While 62 Republicans are moving into Obama-carried districts, the best targets for Democrats will be those who also carried those districts by narrow margins last year. And if they're freshmen, that makes them even better quarry.

Republicans who fit all three criteria include Jon Runyan, who won New Jersey's District 3 seat by a 3-point margin; Charlie Bass, who won New Hampshire's District 2 seat by a margin slightly over 1 point; Blake Farenthold, who won Texas' District 27 seat by a margin that was less than 1 point; and Ann Marie Buerkle, who won New York's District 25 seat by a margin even smaller than that.

The GOP made historic gains in November, but that just means more territory to defend.

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said the GOP has learned its lessons about leadership style and probably won't demonstrate the kind of brash behavior over the next two years exhibited by Tom DeLay when he was House speaker -- rather, House "hammer."

But Bonjean said Republicans will still be at risk in 2012 if they don't make measurable progress on spending cuts and jobs creation, regardless of the fact Democrats control the Senate and White House.

As on the House side, he said Republican senators in Democratic-trending territory will surely be targeted. No. 1 on that list, he said, would be Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown.

"They have a target on Scott Brown's back, because he took over Ted Kennedy's seat and Democrats would love to have that back," he said, though he noted Brown has strived to forge a bipartisan reputation since taking office a year ago.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already gone after Brown, releasing a statement last month accusing him of blocking a bill that would have funded a shipbuilding project, and in turn imperiling "500 good-paying engineering and manufacturing jobs."

The DSCC also has fired early warning shots at John Ensign, the Republican Nevada senator who admitted to having an affair with a former campaign aide and then announced he would run for reelection in 2012 anyway.

While Bonjean said John Boehner, the incoming House speaker, probably won't make as good a bogeyman for Democrats as Nancy Pelosi did for Republicans, analysts say prominent Tea Party Republicans like Kentucky Sen.-elect Rand Paul will.

Though Paul and most of the class of 2010 are not up for reelection for another six years, any gaffes on their part could be used to make the Tea Party movement look bad along with the GOP as a whole. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Paul could easily become a target depending on what he says.

He said Rep. Hal Rogers, another Kentucky Republican, could also be in Democratic sights as he takes over the House Appropriations Committee. Despite a new GOP pledge to ban earmarks, Rogers has secured millions of dollars worth of them for his district throughtout his 30-year career in Congress.

"If any pork gets in the budget, he could become a symbol of hypocrisy," Sabato said.

Then there's Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. Though he won reelection in November by more than a 30-point margin, he could be cast as a symbol of GOP overreach if he uses the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to clog up the business of government with a glut of hearings.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the incoming No. 2 on the oversight committee, has warned Issa not to go on any witch hunts once he's in charge. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who was vying for the job Cummings eventually got, said after the election that Issa is just plain "reckless."

Issa said on "Fox News Sunday" that the "enemy" is not the GOP, it's the "bureaucracy," and he pledged to focus on that issue in the next session.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee is battling confidence with confidence, describing the new GOP majority as something that won't go away any time soon.

Chairman Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican congressman, said in a statement shortly after the election that he would fight for a "lasting and productive" majority. He described the dozens of new GOP members as assets, not weak links, and pledged to "stay on offense."