Smelling Democratic blood in the water, the Republican Party in Massachusetts and beyond is looking in some unlikely places for candidates for this fall's congressional elections.
Republicans, hoping to capitalize on the public's disenchantment with Washington in general and high budget deficits and health care reform in particular, intend to compete for congressional districts that in the past were deemed solidly Democratic.
This movement gained momentum after Republican Scott Brown scored a major upset in Massachusetts in January, winning the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Democratic icon Edward Kennedy for nearly 50 years.
Brown's win has super-charged Republicans in Massachusetts, regarded as one of the country's most liberal states, marking a turnaround from 2008 when Democrats held all 10 of the state's House of Representatives seats and Republicans did not even contest six of those.
"We're not going to let Democrats run unopposed again," said Jennifer Nassour, chairman of the state Republican Party.
The party has found scores of strong candidates ready to run for state or federal office, partly through an on-line recruiting drive, Nassour said.
Lingering economic problems including high joblessness, and disenchantment with President Barack Obama and congressional leadership has the potential to reshape Congress this fall.
The non-partisan Cook Political Report on Thursday said it rates 60 House seats -- 54 of which are now held by Democrats -- as having at least a reasonable chance of changing hands in November.
Democrats hold a 77-seat advantage in the House with two seats vacant.
In late January, Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the stumbling economy meant "80 or 90" Democratic congressional seats could be vulnerable in the fall.
"If we still have 10 percent or 9.5 percent unemployment in September (Democrats) have a long, long campaign ahead of them," Gingrich told Reuters.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
With change in the air, the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is devoted to getting Republicans elected to the House, enjoyed its best fundraising month for years in January, raking in $4.5 million.
The NRCC is continuing its "Young Guns" program started in the 2007-08 election cycle to help promising candidates get their campaigns going in districts where Republicans see a chance to pick up seats.
The program currently targets 64 races in 35 states, from New Hampshire to Hawaii.
New England Republicans, who hold none of the 22 House seats in the region's six states after losing New Hampshire's two seats in 2008, hope to return from the wilderness.
A recent WMUR Granite State poll from the University of New Hampshire suggested that if an election were held this month, both of the state's congressional seats would probably revert to Republicans.
Former six-term Republican New Hampshire Representative Charlie Bass, who lost his seat in 2006, announced this week he will run again, saying, "Democrats in Washington don't understand that government isn't always the answer. It is often the problem."
In Massachusetts, the Cook Political Report lists no vulnerable seats for Democrats, but just as Brown's surge was a surprise, the popular groundswell may be running ahead of political forecasts.
Nassour said Republicans are targeting three of the state's districts where Brown had a strong showing including one held by Democrat Bill Delahunt, who ran unopposed in 2008 and has held the seat since 1997. Delahunt has hinted he might retire and three Republicans have said they will challenge him if he runs again.
One, Ray Kasperowicz, an accountant and navy veteran, calls himself a "citizen legislator" driven by worries about health care reform.
Massachusetts already has a 98-percent insured rate under its own 2006 healthcare reform bill, but worries about a potential costly national overhaul to the health system have energized voters in the state.
The New England example is echoing across the country in many of the seats termed vulnerable by the Cook report.
In Texas, Republicans sense an opening in the seat held by Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards. His district includes Waco and Crawford, where the ranch of former President George W. Bush is located. Several pundits consider it to be the most conservative district in the country to be represented by a Democrat.
No fewer than five Republicans are running in the state's March 2 primary in an effort to take on Edwards in November, including Dave McIntyre, a retired army officer and former dean of faculty at the National War College. He calls Edwards "very vulnerable."
"People thought they could afford to elect a left-of-center congressman who is bringing home the bacon to the district and decided they could do it because of the Republican majority in Congress. That calculation has changed completely."
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