Recruitment Programs Predict Success…Except When They Don’t

by Jessica Taylor March 14, 2013 · 3:15 PM EDT

In a Wednesday briefing with allied groups and reporters, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel emphasized that his party’s struggle to win the 17 seats begins in 2013, as he outlined how Democrats will secure early commitments from top recruits

It’s a mesage his GOP counterpart, new NRCC Chairman Greg Walden, knows well too, and both parties are focusing on recruitment in the off-year to get ready for the critical midterm campaign.

As part of their ambitious plan to put as many as 50 seats into play, the DCCC announced a new “Jumpstart” initiative designed to give candidates more incentive to get into races early in order to be promoted by the committee to potential donors and supporters and have access to other strategic help.

The first list of Jumpstart participants, which is expected to come out in April, will likely include candidates who have already made their decision, including New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia in New York’s 11th District and former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in Colorado’s 6th District. And it could include multiple candidates in primaries, if more than one strong candidate gets into a race.

The Jumpstart program differs, though, from Democrats’ Red to Blue program, where candidates who meet specific fundraising and campaign benchmarks in competitive districts are advanced through the program. But Red to Blue won’t start until next year. The NRCC’s Young Guns program is similar to Red to Blue for promising GOP recruits.

But the same thing is true for both programs -- it’s not simply a recruitment tool or evidence of how competitive a race may or may not be. It’s a way to generate positive, often local, press coverage, and promote races as being “in play” -- even ones the committees may not believe are fully competitive.

It’s important to remember though that the win-loss record from both committees’ programs -- in both 2010, 2012, and previous years -- often aren’t the best predictor of success or failure. Candidates may meet criteria to be on the list, but their district’s DNA and how much the committee eventually spends there are better predictors of success.

And as evidence, both committees’ incentive programs for recruits in targeted races had mixed results in 2012, though Democrats posted a better record as they netted eight seats.

Of the 55 Red to Blue races in 2012, Democratic nominees were successful in 26, or just under the .500 mark. Some of the “Red to Blue” races were actually already open “blue” seats held by Democrats though. Last year the committee said those were races in competitive GOP-leaning areas. Of those, Democrats were successful in three -- Connecticut’s 5th District, Illinois’s 12th District and New Mexico’s 1st District -- but lost their grip on North Carolina’s 11th District.

In 2012, NRCC Young Guns posted a less-than-stellar record of 12 wins and 30 losses. While some repeat Young Gun candidates, like now Reps. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) were successful, some districts were a reach to even be included on the list. Republicans listed some long-shot races (such as Connecticut’s 4th District and Maine’s 2nd District, for example) on that list, though, hurting the committee’s won-loss record.

Many candidates are likely to try again in 2014, with revamped tactics, including Mia Love in Utah’s 4th District and Martha McSally in Arizona’s 2nd District. And as the NRCC noted, one of the biggest pluses they see from the program is the mentoring candidates receive from members. And fundraising and media plans developed by unsuccessful candidates can now be reviewed and improved upon for 2014.

But every cycle is different. In 2012, while the DCCC’s candidate program had a better won-loss record than the NRCC’s, the opposite was true in 2010. In that GOP political wave year, Republicans had an impressive 62-30 record. Meanwhile, Democrats had only two wins in their 26 Red to Blue races.

We don’t know yet what 2014 will fully bring, in terms of the national mood, even though redistricting has shrunk the available playing field. Democrats had notable recruitment failures last time that they must improve on, and Jumpstart could be a way to rectify that early. But as for each side trumpeting how many races they really have in play at the end of the day -- their candidate programs aren’t necessarily the best indicator of success or failure.