Conservative and Republican candidates who sat on the sidelines during the Democratic electoral surges of 2006 and 2008 are jumping into the 2010 midterm elections with renewed confidence after President Obama's first year in office.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who heads the recruitment effort at the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he doesn't have to go looking for candidates anymore. He just has to answer the phone.
"We've got people calling from all over the country, saying, 'I want to run.' People are concerned about the direction of the country," he said. "We've got doctors, farmers, business people — people from all walks of life."
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The class of new recruits, who run the gamut from legislative veterans hoping for comebacks to promising newcomers, has Republican officials eyeing significant gains in the House, Senate and governors' mansions after two disastrous election cycles.
In Tennessee's conservative-leaning 8th Congressional District, for example, farmer and gospel singer Stephen Fincher climbed down from his tractor last year to run against 11-term Rep. John S. Tanner, a Democrat who abruptly announced his retirement plans in early December.
The race is now considered wide open.
"My roots run deep in Tennessee, not politics," said Mr. Fincher, who raised an impressive $300,000 in the third quarter campaigning against the agenda of President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Democratic officials say the Republican talk of recruiting prowess is false bravado to mask the party's persistent problems rebuilding credibility after what they describe as the excesses of President George W. Bush's tenure. Republicans, they say, have not raised enough funds for campaigns to recapture Congress and are competing with the conservative "tea party" movement that doesn't necessarily back the party's candidates.
"It's more quantity over quality," said Democratic political consultant Brian Smoot. "There still doesn't seem to be enthusiasm for the Republican brand."
Still, Mr. Westmoreland, who said he once hoped for a 25-seat House gain, now says flipping as many as 45 seats isn't out of the question.
With Democrats holding a 256-178 edge in the House with one current vacancy, Republicans would need a net gain of 40 seats to retake control of the chamber. In the Senate, Democrats hold a 58-40 edge, with two independents who caucus with the majority.
Senate Republicans are just as confident, boasting viable candidates in the eight tossup races identified by the Rothenberg Political Report, including in Mr. Obama's home state of Illinois and in Nevada, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faces a tough re-election fight.
In Illinois, Rep. Mark Steven. Kirk, considered the Republican Party's best hope, is expected to get the nomination for the Senate seat while Democrats try to choose a candidate to hold the seat of Sen. Roland W. Burris, a Democrat who is retiring. Nevada Republicans are still facing a primary fight, but both of its top hopefuls already beat Mr. Reid in hypothetical polling matchups.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he expects the party to win a majority of the 37 governorships on the ballot in November.
"The Obama administration's huge lurch to the left has scared people, made people concerned about the future of the country and convinced them that 2010 is a good year to run," Mr. Barbour said in an interview. "Frankly, there hasn't been a need for much recruiting, because people have come forward."
But the promising political environment still requires the party to attract strong candidates in winnable districts.
Mr. Fincher, who faces a primary fight for the Republican nomination in Tennessee, is already attacking the national Democratic Party and its leadership.
"I got into this race for Congress because I feel it is time for citizens and patriots, not politicians, to stand up for the values that made this nation great and preserve it for our children and grandchildren," he said. "To do that, we must stop the Obama-Pelosi agenda dead in its tracks."
The Republicans' star recruits include Indiana heart surgeon Larry Buschon, who resisted an urge to run in 2008 but decided this was the year to challenge Rep. Brad Ellsworth, a Democrat, in a district that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain carried in 2008.
In Connecticut, former Rep. Rob Simmons and Linda McMahon, former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment, both lead in polls against five-term Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Democrat.
Republicans also recruited a strong contender in Ohio's gubernatorial race, with former Rep. John R. Kasich leading Democratic incumbent Gov. Ted Strickland by nine percentage points in a Dec. 7 Rasmussen Reports survey.
Democrats insist that Republicans are overselling the strength of their roster as the campaign season kicks into high gear.
"For all the Republican hype, it is completely at odds with reality," said Ryan Rudominor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "They are throwing mud against the wall and seeing what sticks."
Steven A Miller
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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