Thursday, September 07, 2006

Democrats Poised to Take Control of the House

By Stuart Rothenberg

In a recent edition of my newsletter, I dissected, analyzed and evaluated dozens of districts in the fight for the House of Representatives and concluded what many of us have been assuming for weeks — Democrats are poised to gain 15 to 20 seats, giving them control of the House.

The 15- to 20-seat range, of course, could change — in either direction — as voters focus on the upcoming elections and district or national polling shifts. Campaigns matter, as do national events. Because of that, some Democrats who today seem positioned to win GOP seats could lose, just as some currently safe Republican seats could fall.

In 1994, nobody thought Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.) was at all vulnerable until Republican polling in October found challenger Michael Flanagan leading the veteran Ways and Means chairman. And Democratic incumbents such as Kansan Dan Glickman and North Carolinian David Price didn’t seem all that vulnerable until the ballots were counted and they had been defeated.

But all of those caveats shouldn’t obscure the fact that Democrats clearly are favored in seven seats currently held by Republicans — four open seats (including the Texas district of former Rep. Tom DeLay) and three seats in Indiana — and that 10 other Republican seats, including two each in Pennsylvania and Ohio, are no better than tossups.

Another seven Republican seats are only slightly tilting toward the GOP. Adding up the Democrats’ best opportunities, the party has a good shot at 24 Republican seats, and that number doesn’t include long-shot races that likely will develop in a big Democratic wave — the Rostenkowski/Glickman seats of 2006.

In previous “wave” years, the party benefiting from the partisan wave took the overwhelming percentage of tossup contests, and I expect that to happen again this year. In other words, don’t expect tossups to break evenly between the parties.

The Republican outlook in Indiana, a generally red state in presidential elections but much more competitive downballot, is horrible. Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) appears to be about as popular as bird flu, and he isn’t making it any easier for his party’s Congressional incumbents.

Democrats have three credible opponents for GOP Reps. Chris Chocola, John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel, and all three Republicans currently are running behind their Democratic opponents. Freshman Sodrel may have the best chance of surviving, given the Republican nature of his district and the fact that his opponent, former Rep. Baron Hill, already has been voted out of office once.

As expected, Ohio is looking very attractive for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Deborah Pryce, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, is in very serious trouble, and Rep. Steve Chabot (R) is in only slightly better shape. Republican prospects in retiring Rep. Bob Ney’s district seem uncertain at least until the special mid-September primary, but at least the GOP now has a fighting chance to hang on to that district.

Pennsylvania also looks like a potential windfall for Democrats.

Three Republican Keystone State incumbents from the southeast — Reps. Jim Gerlach, Curt Weldon and Michael Fitzpatrick — and one from the northeast — Rep. Don Sherwood — are in serious trouble. Democratic efforts to capture a number of Western Pennsylvania GOP-held districts seem not to have born fruit, but that’s little succor to national Republican strategists.

Connecticut remains a place where Republicans are on the defensive, but it’s also a good place to see if the party’s three incumbents can localize their contests enough to hold off strong Democratic challengers.

Given where other allegedly vulnerable Republican incumbents are, Rep. Christopher Shays looks surprisingly strong in his re-match against former Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D). And while GOP Reps. Nancy Johnson and Rob Simmons are in very difficult races, each has earned a reputation as a very strong campaigner. Both fit their districts well, and in a normal year both would win. But 2006 isn’t a normal year.

Elsewhere, Republican Reps. Clay Shaw (Fla.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Charles Taylor (N.C.), Geoff Davis (Ky.) and Thelma Drake (Va.) face extremely tough challenges. Some of them may win, but the odds of all of them surviving are small. Shaw and Wilson have survived tough tests before, but their previously demonstrated skills and appeal could be overwhelmed in a Democratic wave.

Veteran Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) ordinarily might fall into the same category, and early polling suggests that she is only even or slightly behind challenger John Yarmuth (D). But Yarmuth, a publisher and columnist, is an opposition researcher’s dream, and Northup normally runs one of the best campaigns every cycle.

Are there any places where Democrats may not catch a wave that they once expected to build? Try upstate New York.

So far, there is precious little evidence that the Democrats’ “perfect storm” — which is based on Democratic landslides in the state’s races for governor and the Senate, as well as President Bush’s low poll numbers in New York — is helping many Democrats in upstate New York.

The 24th district remains a bit of an oddity, a place where each party insists its candidate is ahead. Incumbent Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) is retiring, and both District Attorney Michael Arcuri (D) and state Sen. Ray Meier (R) are appealing. The district leans Republican, and Democrats seem a bit too optimistic for my taste.

Elsewhere in the state, Republican Reps. John Sweeney, Jim Walsh, Tom Reynolds and Randy Kuhl all deserve to be favorites for reelection until district-level polling shows their Democratic challengers have a chance to overtake them. So far, there is no evidence of that.

And in Washington’s 8th district, freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R), who narrowly won two years ago and faces a well-funded Democrat this year, looks unexpectedly formidable this late in the cycle. Voters still remember him in his role as King County sheriff and so far seem disinclined to free him because of the sins of the Bush administration.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 5, 2006. Copyright 2006 Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.