In every wave year, the winning party ends up grabbing seats that just a short time before the election were on no one’s radar screen. The most recent example is from 2006, when moderate long-term Republican Jim Leach lost to his Democratic challenger. Since everyone knows this will be a wave year for the GOP, such a situation is likely to happen again.
By definition, sleeper races are unpredictable, but incumbents who lose in these circumstances tend to have similar characteristics. First, they tend to have served a long time and not have had competitive races for years. Incumbents who are used to the perks of D.C. and unused to campaigning have a hard time adjusting to the rigorous pace of a real race. They are also often out of touch with the latest campaign techniques, stuck in their old ways, and resistant to suggestions that they are in trouble or might need to change their approach. This leaves them vulnerable to aggressive, savvy challengers.
Second, they represent districts that are filled with the sort of person who is angriest and likeliest to vote for a challenger from the wave party without knowing anything about that person. In 2006 and 2008, these tended to be suburban voters who had voted for both Kerry and the local GOP rep in 2004; this year, these voters will be Republicans and white-working-class voters who are furious (for somewhat different reasons) at the direction in which the Democrats have taken the country.
This year, there are already so many Democratic incumbents on target lists that it seems futile to search for the sleepers. Nevertheless, here are five incumbents to look out for on Election Night.
Gene Taylor (Mississippi’s 4th). Taylor is a conservative Democrat who represents the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Trent Lott held the seat before running successfully for the Senate. Taylor has been in Congress since a 1989 special election and has rarely been challenged despite the fact that this is one of the most Republican districts in the nation (Bush and McCain received above 65 percent in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 races). Nevertheless, Taylor might be in danger, because this district is dominated by both Republican and white-working-class voters (it’s roughly three-quarters white, with only 18 percent of residents having a four-year college degree). A recent poll showed Taylor up by only four points over his little-known challenger, Steven Pallazzo. The district is in a cheap media market — according to a prominent GOP consultant I queried, the seat is in the Biloxi and Hattiesburg media markets, where a candidate could buy 1,000 gross ratings points (GRPs) for only about $100,000. With no statewide races clogging the airwaves, Pallazzo could quickly get known and take advantage of the national wave.
Peter DeFazio (Oregon’s 4th). DeFazio is another long-time incumbent; he first won his seat in 1986. He since has settled in and hasn’t had a real race in over a decade. He’s under assault now, though, from a moderately well-funded challenger, Art Robinson. Through June 30, Mr. Robinson had raised over $400,000, and he keeps plugging away. A recent poll shows Robinson only seven points behind.
DeFazio’s district is not terribly Republican — Bush got only 49 percent in 2000 and 2004, and McCain lost the district with 43 percent in 2008. But it is very similar in that respect to some other white-working-class districts on this year’s GOP radar screen, such as Wisconsin’s 7th and Illinois’s 17th. That’s because even though this district contains the University of Oregon, it’s otherwise a white-working-class district populated by loggers and other manual laborers. This district is also cheap to run in; most of it falls within the Eugene media market, where $50,000 can buy a candidate 1,000 GRPs. So, historical voting patterns make this seat a reach, but in this election, any Democratic-held seat that is politically marginal and populated by the white working class is potential fodder for a challenge.