Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Rothenberg’s 10 Most Endangered House Incumbents

By Stuart Rothenberg

This is one of the more difficult lists that I have tried to create over the years. Many of the incumbents on this list have proven their political mettle before, and in normal circumstances, they wouldn’t be in all that much trouble. Others find themselves in the sort of hot water that should automatically sink them, but because of unique circumstances, they might somehow survive. Anyway, here is my current list (including only districts likely to change partisan hands), with the more vulnerable incumbents coming first and the less vulnerable Members coming toward the end.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). I’ll be surprised if Ney hasn’t been indicted by the time Election Day rolls around, and if he has any chance of surviving it’s only because the Democrats may nominate Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer, who is a walking political time bomb with his own political and personal baggage. With Ney on the ballot in November, the Republicans will probably lose this district, even though it was redrawn after the 2000 Census to make it reliably Republican. If Ney retires — and he has already filed to run again — the GOP would have a much better chance of holding the seat. Any normal Democrat (attorney Zack Space might meet that test) should beat Ney.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Former House Majority Leader DeLay faces a potentially competitive primary against former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration general counsel Tom Campbell, as well as a difficult general election challenge by former Rep. Nick Lampson (D). Lampson’s record gives DeLay plenty to shoot at, but the Congressman’s history of being admonished by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and his current vulnerabilities certainly give his opponents ammunition.

Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D) has plenty of assets, while Hostettler has barely squeaked by against lesser opponents. And the national political environment stinks for Republicans, if you hadn’t noticed. Once again, the National Republican Congressional Committee will have to pour money into this race to try to save Hostettler.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.). Democrat Lois Murphy drew 48 percent last time. She is back for a rematch, and while Gerlach seems more aggressive in defending himself and attacking her, the environment is much worse for the GOP. Plus, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) will be trying to squeeze every possible Democratic vote out of Southeast Pennsylvania to win a tough re-election bid.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.). Simmons has done everything he could to be re-elected, including playing a role in “saving” the New London Naval Submarine Base from closure. But his district will be difficult to hold in this political environment. Democrat Joe Courtney, who lost to Simmons in 2002 by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, had $450,000 in the bank at the end of December, guaranteeing that he will run a well-funded race. If Simmons survives in this political climate, Democrats may finally conclude that they will never beat him.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.). Wilson faces her toughest opponent yet, Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a visible statewide officeholder. The Congresswoman has turned back spirited challenges before, but the district is so competitive that national dynamics put the Republican at considerable risk. Wilson’s 55 percent win in 2002 and 54 percent victory in 2004 show that she has been solidifying herself in the district.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Shays fits his district very well, except in one way: He shares a party with President Bush. Democrat Diane Farrell drew 48 percent in 2004 and ran the kind of well-funded and credible campaign that Shays hasn’t faced recently. Farrell is back again, and she figures to give Shays fits, in part because he refuses to go on the attack.

Rep. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.). Sodrel beat then-Rep. Baron Hill very narrowly in 2004, by just 1,425 votes out of 283,000 cast. Now Hill, a three-term Congressman, is back, making this the third time in a row that the two men will face off. (Each has won one.) The district leans Republican, but Sodrel is a freshman Republican in a bad GOP environment.

Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.). Democrats regularly underestimate Shaw, a strong fundraiser and a tough campaigner. The former Fort Lauderdale mayor recently had lung cancer surgery, but he seems to have bounced back well. He already has begun to attack his opponent, state Sen. Ron Klein (D), for being a lobbyist. But the district leans Democratic on the presidential level, and Klein ended 2005 with $1.1 million in the bank, to Shaw’s $1.4 million. That assures a major Democratic challenge — and another major test for Shaw.

Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.). Only one Democrat makes this list: freshman Rep. Bean, who knocked off Rep. Phil Crane (R) in a re-match from 2002. Bean was an energetic candidate, but her victory was due primarily to Crane’s weakness. She now represents a solidly Republican district, making her a top GOP target. Bean, who ended 2005 with almost $1.4 million in the bank, is prepared to defend her seat.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 16, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.