Politics & Policy

The Political Expendables

A baker’s dozen of potential upsets in this fall’s House matchups.

By some counts, the GOP has a shot at 103 currently Democratic seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year.

You have probably marveled at Florida GOP House candidate Allen West’s speeches on YouTube. You’ve been amused to learn about the offbeat biography of Sean Duffy – MTV reality-show star, world-champion lumberjack, and a successful district attorney. You’ve chuckled at the thought of Jon Runyan plowing through New Jersey Democrat John Adler the way he used to plow through defensive lineman. And when North Carolina’s Bob Etheridge attacked that kid who asked him whether he supports the Obama agenda, you probably noticed how Renee Ellmers answers questions in a pleasant, informative, and non-strangulating manner.

But with so many promising Republican challengers this year, a bunch of potential upsets are flying well under the radar. And with the political environment going from bad to worse for Democrats, it is increasingly likely the night of November 2 will include some winners that almost no one saw coming. If you’re searching for some of these long shots who are looking shorter these days, here is a dirty baker’s dozen of GOP challengers to keep an eye on. They’re underfunded, unrecognized, rarely mentioned, and given no chance . . . and they may just win anyway.

1. Ed Martin vs. Russ Carnahan, Missouri’s 3rd District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: It’s a D+7 district on the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Russ Carnahan won with 66 percent of the vote in 2004. The Carnahan name is supposed to be magic in Missouri politics, and his sister Robin is running for Senate.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Robin Carnahan’s lousy polling indicates that the family name doesn’t carry the weight it once did. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has already declared that Martin is “giving Carnahan the toughest general election campaign of his congressional career.” A recent poll puts Martin within striking distance, 39 percent to 48 percent.

2. Rob Cornilles vs. David Wu, Oregon’s 1st District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Wu, first elected in 1998, won 71 percent of the vote in 2008; the last “serious challenge” to Wu, in 2004, held him to 58 percent. This is a D+8 district.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: The local press notes that President Obama’s approval ratings this district are not great: 50 percent approval, 46 percent disapproval. Cornilles’s campaign conducted a poll of the district and found their man trailing modestly, 40 percent to 46 percent. Like Obama, Wu has been touting the recovery; Cornilles is hitting him for claiming a recovery that the district doesn’t feel and accusing Wu of “mailing five direct-mail pieces at taxpayer expense through the congressional franking privilege.” Cornilles trails Wu in cash, but has raised more than $607,000 and has $256,000 in cash on hand.

3. Scott Sipprelle vs. Rush Holt, New Jersey’s 12th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Holt, elected in 1998, won 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and usually performs around that level.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: For some reason, the DNC felt the need to run ads defending Holt’s vote for the health-care bill. Sipprelle — a Princeton-based venture capitalist — had $490,000 in cash on hand as of June 30 and has committed to match at least the first $1 million in donations to his campaign. New Jersey was a reliably Democratic state until Chris Christie’s win last year; now Obama’s approval rating is even with his disapproval rating — 47–47 in Quinnipiac — and Holt remains one of the most liberal members of Congress. Christie won four of the five counties whose parts make up Holt’s district.

4. Benjamin Lange vs. Bruce Braley, Iowa’s 1st District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Braley won 65 percent of the vote in 2008; in his first bid for this seat, in 2006, he won with 55 percent. Braley is the vice-chair of the DCCC, so that committee will be pretty darn committed to make sure he comes back next January. There will be a third-party candidate, a self-employed gem cutter who describes himself as ideologically close to the tea party.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Lange actually narrowly outraised Braley in fundraising for the second quarter, raising $108,587 compared with Braley’s $106,678. Perhaps even more strikingly, “Out of approximately 400,000 registered voters in the district, only six constituents contributed to Braley’s reelection bid this past quarter, while Lange raised 85% of his funds from constituents inside the district.” The governor’s race appears likely to be a big GOP win; if it is, once and future governor Terry Branstad may have coattails. The Senate race is also likely to be a GOP rout.

There is reportedly a video tape of Braley, the former president of the Iowa chapter of the American Trial Lawyers Association, addressing the national organization in a seminar on how to sue doctors. When Democrats are abandoning their defense of a health-care bill that included no serious malpractice reform, such a video could be highly damaging.

5. Andy Vidak vs. Jim Costa, California’s 20th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Jim Costa hasn’t faced a tough opponent since his first campaign for the House in 2004. He ran unopposed in 2006; he won 74 percent in 2008.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Jim Costa was another one of those ought-to-be safe Democrats who had the DNC running ads in their district, defending his vote for health care. This district includes parts of two cities with astonishingly high unemployment: Bakersfield (15.7 percent) and Fresno (16 percent).

By far, the biggest local issue in this district is water access; a long-simmering dispute about the fish in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and water needs in the San Joaquin Valley led to Costa “declaring war” on fellow California Democrat George Miller. The local press notes he’s been “repeatedly pummeled by Republicans in the valley for not doing enough to get the federal government to ease water pumping restrictions.” Costa’s opponent, Hanford farmer Andy Vidak, is picking up support from local farmers.

With competitive Senate and gubernatorial races, the GOP should have good turnout.

6. Ryan Frazier vs. Ed Perlmutter, Colorado’s 7th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Perlmutter won 63 percent of the vote in his district in 2008, which put him 4 percentage points ahead of Obama. At one point, it looked like the GOP would win Colorado’s Senate and gubernatorial races handily; now the Senate looks like a tough fight, and the governor’s race is an uphill climb that matches the Rocky Mountains.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: The district was designed to be competitive; as recently as 2002, it was the most evenly divided district in the country. The NRCC thinks that Perlmutter’s vote for cap-and-trade will be devastating among locals employed in Colorado’s oil and gas industries. Frazier is young (32), and he is only the second black candidate to run for federal office as a Republican in Colorado. President Obama has been significantly underwater in this state since August of last year.

7. Bill Johnson vs Charlie Wilson, Ohio’s 6thDistrict.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Despite narrow wins by Bush in 2004 and McCain in 2008 in this district, Wilson has won by wide margins. He won 62 percent of the vote in both 2006 and 2008. Before Wilson, the district was represented by Ted Strickland, the current governor of Ohio, from 1992 to 2006. (Note: This is not the Charlie Wilson depicted by Tom Hanks in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.)

Reasons the challenger has a chance: I’ll let CNN set the stage: “Backlash against a stagnant economy and opposition to Democratic initiatives such as health care reform have given an opening to Republican challenger Bill Johnson.” Johnson is attempting to get Wilson to weigh in on issues that are uncomfortable for Democrats — the Ground Zero mosque, whether New York congressman Charles Rangel should resign, etc. Both top-of-the-ticket races — for governor and senator — are looking bad for Democrats in Ohio.

8. Mike Keown vs. Sanford Bishop, Georgia’s 2nd District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Bishop has represented this district since 1992, and has usually won comfortably, with a floor of 54 percent (in 1996 and 2000) and a ceiling of 69 percent (in 2008). It is 48 percent African-American. Obama carried the district, 54 percent to 46 percent. Bishop is on the House Appropriations Committee.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Besides the usual factors of high unemployment and frustration with incumbents, as the NRCC crows, Keown has raised nearly $350,000 — more than any of Bishop’s recent opponents and an exceedingly healthy amount in a relatively inexpensive district in which to buy ads. The incumbent’s campaign skills may be a little rusty: “Bishop’s 2010 campaign got off to a rocky start last Wednesday when Press Secretary Aston McRae fired off a three-page e-mail accusing Keown of budgeting issues while serving as mayor of Coolidge and alleged twice voting for a pay raise while a member of the state House of Representatives. Unfortunately for McRae, the e-mail was sent from Bishop’s congressional office instead of from the campaign, and that’s a no-no. McRae pulled the offending document from Bishop’s website and issued a retraction two days later.”

9. Ilario Pantano vs. Mike McIntrye, North Carolina’s 7th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: McIntrye has won healthily since his first election to this seat in 1996, always netting between 70 percent and 91 percent of the vote.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: This is actually an R+5 district; Bush beat Kerry here 56 percent to 44 percent. Pantano’s first ad features Wilmington attorney and registered Republican George Roundtree declaring, as StarNews Online puts it, that “he considers McIntyre a friend and has supported him financially over the years, but that he can’t do it any longer.” “The country, my grandchildren, my children cannot afford the agenda of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid,” Roundtree says. “Whether you like it or not, Mike, you are tied to that agenda.”

Pantano’s already attracted one surprise guest for two fundraisers: actor Kelsey Grammer.

10. Morgan Philpot vs. Jim Matheson, Utah’s 2nd District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Matheson is in his fifth term, usually knows how to vote for his district, and won with 63 percent of the vote in 2008 — while McCain was carrying his district with 58 percent of the vote. And for what it is worth, this is the least Republican district in Utah.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: In a year like this, any Democrat who represents an R+15 district will have to sweat. The unexpected dismissal of longtime senator Bob Bennett suggests Utahans may be tuning out the traditional arguments in favor of incumbents. Philpot is holding town-hall meetings to contrast with Matheson, who hasn’t held one in years; the NRCC is knocking Matheson as a “phantom Congressman.” Traditionally, a member who holds a district that leans heavily towards the other party makes up for the partisan disadvantage with great personal charisma, constituent service, or bipartisan appeal. This is harder to do when you are disinclined to meet voters in large groups.

11. Theresa Collett vs. Betty McCollum, Minnesota’s 4th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: This is a D+13 district; McCollum won it in 2008 by 37 percentage points.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Upon winning the primary, Collett, a University of St. Thomas law professor,challenged McCollum to four debates. She’s still waiting for a reply. On the stump, Collett makes her points in a crisp, clear, direct style. Outgoing governor Tim Pawlenty is giving Collett some help. Collett is severely underfunded, but McCollum has only $160,634 in cash on hand as of July 21, which is fairly low for an incumbent.

12. Dr. Scott DesJarlais vs. Lincoln Davis, Tennesee’s 4th District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Davis managed to win this seat in what was generally a good year for Republicans (2002), and kept it while Bush was winning Tennessee handily in 2004. Davis is sitting on $472,000 in campaign funds.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: This is one of the most Republican seats in the country to be represented by a Democrat. In 2008, Barack Obama did not win any of the 24 counties that, entirely or in part, fall inside the borders of this district. Davis admits that if he slacks off in his campaign effort, he will probably be defeated. DesJarlais raised nearly $300,000 for his primary fight. In April, a GOP poll showed Davis somewhat vulnerable, with a 45 percent favorable/30 percent unfavorable rating among voters, down from 65 percent favorable/15 percent unfavorable in 2008. In matchups with two prospective Republican nominees, Davis led 44 percent to 33 percent.

13. Dan Kapakne vs. Ron Kind, Wisconsin’s 3rd District.

Reasons the challenger should have no chance: Ron Kind has represented this district since 1996; he won 64 percent of the vote in 2008. He’s sitting on $1.3 million in cash on hand.

Reasons the challenger has a chance: Despite Kind’s wide margins of victory, the district is only scored D+4. A July poll put Kapanke at just six points behind (38 percent to 44 percent). Worse for the incumbent, “only 37 percent believe Ron Kind has performed his job as Congressman well enough to deserve re-election. Fully 49 percent believe it is time for a change and a new person should be elected.” Kind has had some rough receptions at his “listening sessions” in his district. Kapanke, a state senator, has raised $581,000 and has $342,000 on hand, fairly strong numbers.

Of course, all of the above candidates remain underdogs, and one shouldn’t be surprised if they fall short of victory on Election Day. But none can be counted out yet, and they have already made Democrats’ goal of keeping control of the House harder to achieve by expanding the number of races on which the DCCC will have to spend its limited resources. Safe Democrats aren’t extinct, but they are much rarer than they were two years ago.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.


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