Politics & Policy

The Other Vulnerable Incumbents

Republicans can win some Dem seats.

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Every few days, the number of House seats the Democrats are expected to win over from Republicans seems to go up another dozen or so. This summer a House takeover seemed like a tall order; but the confident predictions have grown from 20 to 30, to current predictions of anywhere from 40 to 60 Democratic pickups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program now includes 73 seats.

#ad#To hear some tell it, there’s no such thing as a vulnerable Democratic seat this year.

But the cheerleaders of the Democratic-tsunami theory may be overlooking these inconvenient truths, but here are seven House races you should keep an eye on:

Georgia’s Eighth District: Democrat Jim Marshall vs. Republican former Rep. Mac Collins. Both of these Georgia Democrats have looked vulnerable enough to warrant presidential visits in the final days of the campaign. Marshall’s task is complicated by the fact that his district has been redrawn to make it more Republican. Under the new lines, 60 percent of the district voted for Bush in 2004.

Collins is an old pro at House races and the region; he’s served six terms in the House before stepping down to run, unsuccessfully, for Zell Miller’s Senate seat in 2004.

Georgia-based conservative blogger Erick Erickson says he “heard from several people on background that they expect to call GA-8 for Mac Collins.” I would be surprised if anyone was counting chickens before they hatch in this race, because dislodging an incumbent is always a challenge. But this is obviously a very, very good pickup opportunity for the GOP.

Georgia’s Twelfth District: Democratic Rep. John Barrow vs. the Republican he ousted in 2004, Max Burns. Barrow’s win was one of the few Democratic House pickups of last cycle, one Republicans argues was a fluke. About 5,000 people attended a rally with President Bush Monday.

This race has marked by a tax debate in recent days. Barrow has been hitting Burns all over the local airwaves with an ad that accuses the Republican of wanting to raise taxes by creating a national sales tax. But Barrow ignores the fact that Burns wants to scrap the entire income tax, a fairly important detail.

Even conservatives who like Barrow are griping that the ad is tremendously dishonest, and sounds silly once the other half of the story is told. Nearby GOP Rep. Jack Kingston has a good ad saying “his friend Max Burns” would never raise taxes, privatize Social Security, etc.

Like Collins, Burns has run a successful race in this district before and obviously has no problems with name recognition, or matching up with the district’s values.

One RNC source said, “I think we get at least one in Georgia; I think Burns is up.”

Mac? Max? Mac and Max?

General Georgia notes: There’s a gubernatorial race this year, where incumbent Sonny Perdue — who had a huge upset in 2002, knocking off Roy Barnes. Purdue is a lock to win, but he needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff. Former Democratic governor Zell Miller is now doing ads for Perdue. A strong Perdue campaign might help Republicans.

Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in this state were good enough rendered an 11-point lead for Democratic Sen. Max Cleland meaningless in 2002.

Illinois Eighth District: Incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean vs. Republican Dave McSweeney. A fascinating race, under most pundits’ radar screens. A few polls showing McSweeney down big now appear to be outliers; it’s a close race, with the Chicago Daily Herald putting Bean only up 3 percent.

First-termer Bean is bringing in big guns like Barack Obama and former President Clinton. But McSweeney’s not exactly scrounging for support; he’s hosted fundraisers and rallies with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney; U.S. Sen. John McCain, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The most recent filings show McSweeney with a slight money advantage. Bean spent about $2.2 million from July to October, with not much to show for it in the polls.

Bean won her seat by four points, as Kerry was cruising to a big win in Illinois and Barack Obama was crushing Alan Keyes. This year, unpopular Rod Blagojevich will probably be reelected as governor, even though he’s polling well below 50 percent. Democratic turnout in Illinois will probably be down from 2004.

One other wrinkle: There’s a third-party candidate, and it’s not the usual Green or Libertarian. Bill Scheurer, running in his self-created Moderate party, got 8 percent in a recent poll, and he’s received money from several prominent labor unions vexed with Bean: the Teamsters, United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, and UNITE. The term “Ralph Nader” is starting to get thrown around. Maybe, just maybe, Scheurer takes away enough votes from Bean for McSweeney to emerge the winner.

Indiana Seventh District: Democratic Rep. Julia Carson vs. Republican Eric Dickerson. This is a weird one. On paper, Rep. Julia Carson shouldn’t be that vulnerable in her district, which is most of Indianapolis, with some suburbs. She was first elected in 1996, and while she’s polled not-so-great in previous cycles, she usually wins by a comfortable enough margin. Dickerson has almost no money, and his name recognition is probably mostly people mistaking him for the former great Indianapolis Colts running back.

But the 68-year-old Carson has had some health issues. One poll conducted by one television station had her up 5; another done earlier by another station had Dickerson up 3. One also has to wonder if the pollsters stayed inside the lines, or strayed into neighboring (mostly Republican) districts. The Indianapolis Star called the district “a terrain where polls go to die” and “a toss up.”

Can Dickerson do it? Well, even the polls showing Carson ahead give her a very modest lead, and she might be due for a stumble. You have to wonder about an incumbent Democrat polling so badly in what has to be the worst year for Hoosier Republicans in many a moon. The GOP is obviously putting enormous resources into the state’s get-out-the-vote efforts. If they’re at the top of their game, Dickerson might be one of the night’s big upsets.

West Virginia First District: Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan vs. Republican Chris Wakim. Nobody’s polling in this district, except the new guys, Constituent Dynamics/RT Strategies, who put Mollohan up 10. Mollohan is dogged by scandals that make William Jefferson and Cynthia McKinney look like model citizens. Wakim’s had big-name GOP help with his fundraising and rallies from guys like Vice President Cheney, Laura Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. The RNC dumped $76,000 into the race earlier this month, and Wakim already had a $70,000 cash-on-hand advantage over Mollohan. Those amounts may sound modest, but they’ll go further in West Virginia than in many other states. I generally am doubtful about challengers in West Virginia, and Wakim could have used a serious challenge to Robert Byrd at the top of the ticket. Still, the state is trending red; it will match the GOP’s latest newer-and-even-more-improved get-out-the-vote efforts up against the not-to-be-underestimated Byrd machine.

Iowa Third District: Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell vs. Republican Jeff Lamberti. Oddly, there hasn’t been a nonpartisan poll in this race since September 12. But Lamberti has actually outpaced the incumbent in the most recent fundraising cycle. Then Bush visited last Thursday, and raised another $400,000. Lambert’s well-stocked for a last push, and Bush narrowly carried the district, and the state, two years back. If the Republican GOTV effort is worth a few points, they might be counting the votes in this district well into the night.

Vermont-at-large seat: Democrat Peter Welch vs. Republican Martha Rainville for Bernie Sanders’ old seat. The home state of Howard Dean, Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, famous party switcher Jim Jeffords, and Ben and Jerry obviously doesn’t spring to many people’s minds as fertile soil for Republicans. Yet Rainville is a distinguished resume and professional aura as the nation’s first female adjutant general, and has proven herself to be, at the very least, a solid candidate well-matched with the state. In a year with a less stiff anti-GOP wind, she would have a really solid shot at Vermont’s lone House seat. She may turn out to be like John Thune, where a strong campaign and close defeat this time around persuade national party leaders she’s worth backing in another campaign in the not-too-distant future.

The Vermont race has been as close as three points in September, recent ones are showing it in the 8- to 10-point range.

Now, obviously, the Republican challengers in these races are not shoo-ins. All seven might win; all seven might fall short. In 1994, Democrats knocked off no incumbent Republicans in the House, Senate, or governor’s races. But in 1974, another sweeping year, four Democrats lost their House seats while their party was surging nationally.

But each one of these seven that wins increases the Democrats’ “Magic Number” by one. And a 15-seat pickup that is difficult in a normal year might turn into 17 seats, or 19 seats, or, if it’s a really wacky year, 22 seats. And honestly, if the Republicans are winning these races, they’re going to successfully defend a lot of toss-ups.

 – Jim Geraghty, who writes the “TKS” blog on NRO, is the author of Voting to Kill. 

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