Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rothenberg’s Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

By Stuart Rothenberg

The newest GOP open seat, in Florida, is a perfect example of Republicans’ problems this year. Instead of a safe incumbent running for re-election, the GOP is stuck with a seat vacated by a discredited former Congressman. Democrats now looked poised to pick off at least five open seats, taking them one-third of the way to the 15-seat gain they need to reach a majority.

The first five races on this list look like excellent opportunities for Democrats. The next six range from tossups to races that are slightly uphill for the Democrats. The final one is a long shot, but in this national environment, it can’t be ignored. All 12 of the races currently are held by Republicans, which tells you a lot about the nature of this cycle.

Arizona’s 8th. National Republican strategists did what they could to try to prevent former state Rep. Randy Graf from winning the GOP nomination. When he won the primary, they threw in the towel on the race, believing that he simply is too strident on immigration and too conservative in general to win the seat. Former state Sen. Gabrielle Giffords (D) is now a solid favorite to succeed retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican.

Colorado’s 7th. Republican Bob Beauprez’s open seat also looks headed to the Democratic column. The registration in the district is virtually even between the parties, but the national mood gives the edge to state Sen. Ed Perlmutter (D) over Rick O’Donnell (R), the executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

Florida’s 16th. The seat vacated by discredited former Rep. Mark Foley (R) is a gift to Democrats. Democrat Tim Mahoney can take advantage of voters’ desire for change without having to tear down a (once-)popular incumbent. Mahoney has enough money to make his case, and Foley’s name remains on the ballot even though state Rep. Joe Negron will receive any votes cast for Foley.

Texas’ 22nd. The seat vacated by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) is a mess for Republicans. The consensus GOP candidate, Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, benefits from a huge Republican registration advantage in the district. But that may not be enough to overcome the fact that while her name appears on the special-election ballot — to fill the remainder of DeLay’s term — she’s only a write-in candidate in the general election that will choose the district’s representative for the next two years. The logistical problems of electing a write-in candidate are considerable and make this district a very real Democratic takeover opportunity for former Rep. Nick Lampson.

Iowa’s 1st. Republican Jim Nussle’s open seat definitely is competitive, and attorney Bruce Braley (D) and businessman-restaurateur Mike Whalen (R) are in a competitive fight. But the national Democratic drift is likely to push this seat toward the Democrat.

Ohio’s 18th. Though I haven’t met Democrat Zack Space, I hear he isn’t one of his party’s better recruits. Still, Republican Joy Padgett was just nominated to replace discredited Rep. Bob Ney (R), and Democrats should be able to tie her to both Ney and embattled outgoing Gov. Bob Taft (R). The seat strongly favors a Republican, but Ney really botched this one.

Illinois’ 6th. Democrats continue to be effusive about Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who has a compelling personal story. But state Sen. Peter Roskam (R) also is a strong candidate. The district leans Republican — President Bush carried it 53 percent to 46 percent for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 — so Duckworth still needs a surge against a very able opponent. It’s certainly possible that the Democrat could win, but it won’t be easy.

New York’s 24th. The retirement of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert puts this Republican seat at risk. State Sen. Ray Meier (R) and Michael Arcuri (D), the Oneida County district attorney, both are appealing candidates. The district favors the GOP, but that may not be enough to save the seat for Republicans this year.

Minnesota’s 6th. While Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) runs for the Senate, his party’s nominee for his old seat is state Sen. Michele Bachmann. Democrat Patty Wetterling has name recognition from her race in the previous cycle, and she also has no legislative record to defend. Now, the Congressional page scandal plays into her strength. But Bachmann, an ardent social conservative in a district won by Bush with 56 percent of the vote in 2004, is personable and articulate. Bachmann began the general election trailing by a few points, but this race is still very close.

Florida’s 13th. Rep. Katherine Harris’ open seat is solidly Republican, but a nasty GOP primary and a nominee with some personal baggage gives Democrat Christine Jennings a good scenario for a major upset. Republican Vern Buchanan is a wealthy auto dealer, but banker Jennings has ammunition, such as his earlier business dealings in Michigan, to use against him.

Wisconsin’s 8th. State Rep. John Gard (R) is in a tight race with free-spending allergist Steve Kagen (D). Bush won the district with 57 percent two years ago, so Gard should have the edge. But Democrats certainly believe that this is a district that they can swipe in a “national wave.”

Nevada’s 2nd. Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller won the GOP nomination only narrowly, and he is a solid favorite to hold onto this Republican open seat. But Democrat Jill Derby is a credible candidate who can’t be ignored.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on October 10, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.