Friday, June 11, 2010

There Are Democrats Who May Survive a Wave

By Stuart Rothenberg

Check my House race ratings, and you’ll find about two dozen Democratic seats at great risk. But the truth of the matter is that early ratings are based more heavily than I’d like on district fundamentals than on actual developments in races.

Midterms usually cost the president’s party House seats, so Democrats in the most Republican and conservative districts are particularly vulnerable this cycle. But challenger quality and incumbent records differ from district to district, and those factors certainly affect vulnerability.

Later in the cycle, voters will start paying serious attention to campaigns, and polls will measure voter sentiment about the candidates and about how and why voters plan to cast their votes.

But even now, campaign developments can matter, and some Democratic House incumbents who deserved to be listed among the most vulnerable Democrats of the cycle are looking a little less vulnerable now than they were even a few months ago.

For months now, my colleague Nathan Gonzales has been repeating the same mantra: One or two of the most vulnerable House Democrats are likely to survive anything but the biggest of waves — we just don’t know who they are.

Perhaps it’s time to take a first stab at figuring out who they might be.

While many Democrats running in conservative districts in 2006 and 2008 ran as “independent” candidates, only to later support their party on controversial issues (Reps. Betsy Markey of Colorado and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida are obvious examples), Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick actually has gone out of his way to reject Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (Calif.) agenda on the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.

Still, it isn’t clear that even his voting record — or his endorsement by the Tea Party Express — will entirely mollify conservative (and reliably Republican) voters in his district, which gave Barack Obama 36 percent of the vote in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) only 30 percent four years earlier.

Minnick won the district in 2008 only because the sitting Republican incumbent, Bill Sali, was so personally unpopular that voters apparently were willing to vote for any alternative — even a Democrat.

But Minnick’s re-election prospects have brightened with the nomination of state Rep. Raul Labrador, who defeated Iraq vet Vaughn Ward in the recent GOP primary.

Labrador showed $174,000 raised in his pre-primary report, so while he defeated a much better-funded candidate in the primary and can likely count on support in the general election from the National Republican Congressional Committee in a cheap media market, his weak fundraising numbers raise questions about the quality of his candidacy.

The last Democrat to represent Idaho’s 1st in Congress was Larry LaRocco, who won in an upset in 1990. While it is true that LaRocco was defeated when he ran for a third term in 1994, it’s also true that he won re-election to a second term in 1992. That should give Democrats reason to hope that Minnick can hold on in November.

Alabama Rep. Bobby Bright is another Democrat who would seem to have a decent chance of surviving a good national year for Republicans.

Bright, who spent a decade as mayor of the state capital of Montgomery, won an open seat in a squeaker in 2008, in part because the losing candidate in a tight GOP primary endorsed him.

Like Minnick’s Idaho district, Bright’s 2nd district went heavily for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the last presidential race. Obama received 37 percent in the district in 2008, slightly better than Kerry’s 33 percent in 2004.

In Congress, Bright has established his political independence by voting against the stimulus bill, the health care reform bill and cap-and-trade legislation, though critics note that he held his vote back on the climate change bill until it was clear that the Democratic leadership had the votes that it needed without Bright’s.

Democrats argue that Bright is defined in voters’ minds more as the nonpartisan mayor that he was than as a Member of Congress.

Bright’s Republican opponent likely will be Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby. But Roby was barely forced into a July 13 runoff against self-described tea party activist/businessman Rick Barber, so she’ll have to spend another month fighting for her party’s nomination.

Roby’s May 12 pre-primary FEC report showed she raised just under $440,000, a little less than half of what Bright did.

Even though an early Bright poll showed him well-liked and running far ahead of Roby, Democratic insiders will acknowledge privately that the outcome will be close. The district and national mood remain problems for Bright.

But it’s also true that Bright has steered the right course to have a chance at re-election, and that’s really all that his admirers can expect.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on June 10, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.