Sabato's Crystal Ball

House 2006: Can Democrats “Hammer” The Gop Majority?

Plus a look at the Feisty Fifteen competitive House races

David Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics May 19th, 2005

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At this point in a midterm cycle, the Crystal Ball would normally lead off its analysis of the House landscape with a discussion about prospects for six year itches, open seats and early money. But alas, we’ve come to accept that nothing’s quite normal in Washington these days–and the fixation of the city’s media and political establishment on the ethics troubles of one prominent House figure is no exception.

If last week’s hastily planned GOP gala-style pep rally was any indication, there now exists genuine concern in conservative circles about the political vulnerability of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Although the “Hammer” has earned his stripes by aggressively and impressively keeping his party in line over the years, it is clear the Texan faces tough battles on two fronts in the run-up to 2006: he must both defend his overseas travels before the House Ethics Committee and defend his increasingly marginal Houston-area seat against a seasoned challenger. (Our use of the word “marginal” must be qualified. Only in this day and age of nearly uniform, landslide House reelections could DeLay’s Houston CD be called marginal–but DeLay’s unimpressive 55 percent in 2004 and a strong 2006 challenger in former Democratic Congressman Nick Lampson certainly allows Democrats to dream a Texas-sized dream.)

One glance at the House Democratic campaign committee’s website reveals (surprise!) the extent of the minority’s determination to inform voters of their representatives’ complicity in “Tom DeLay’s House of Scandal.” But can House Democrats really nationalize the DeLay issue and use the Hammer as a tool for chipping away at the GOP majority in 2006?

Republicans say this is a stale strategy that spelled defeat for congressional Democrats in 2004. In our view, the midterm elections represent a whole new ballgame. Not only is the DeLay matter more serious and prominent in the public mind than it has ever been, but the lack of a top-of-the-ticket presidential election in 2006 grants the actions of Congress a much higher level of media attention right off the bat.

To be sure, at this early stage, congressional Democrats face a substantial dilemma. Turning up the heat on the Majority Leader so far in advance of November 2006 could yield a politically unfruitful early resolution of the issue, either in the form of exoneration by the Ethics Committee or in the form of a leadership resignation or retirement announcement on the part of “Teflon Tom” himself. Without DeLay to kick around, the thinking goes, the House Democrats’ campaign issue matrix next year would probably look an awful lot like those of recent unsuccessful years past.

Overall, whether the Democrats can “hammer” away at the hefty GOP House advantage in 2006 depends on the persistence of both news coverage of Tom DeLay’s ethics troubles and Bush’s unpopularity with regards to the Social Security issue. As we’ve stated in the past, however, a paucity of competitive districts as a result of partisan redistricting means that it would take a national wave of near-1994 proportions to sweep Republicans out of their 29-seat majority.

Keeping this in mind and setting aside the “x factor” of the DeLay issue (and other x factors, such as a possible oil-induced recession or a public revolt about continuing troop deaths in Iraq), here’s what the Crystal Ball is paying attention to at this early stage, a “mere” 536 days away from Election Day:

The Three R’s of Congressional Elections (from the standpoint of the off-year)

Retirements and other generators of open seats: So far, three members of Congress have announced plans to retire (all from relatively safe seats), and we’ll doubtlessly see more calling it quits in the coming months. The bigger open seat generator at this point, however, seems to be gubernatorial and senatorial ambitions: 36 governor’s mansions and 33 Senate seats are up for grabs in 2006. The idea of a jump from Capitol Hill to Statehouse has proven irresistible to marginal district incumbents like Bob Beauprez (R-CO), Jim Nussle (R-IA) and Democrat Ted Strickland (D-OH). And watch for a potentially close fight in Minnesota’s Sixth District, where GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy is giving up his House seat to run for Senate. In general, open seats tend to present the best opportunities for out-of-power party pickups in midterm years.

Recruitment: A party’s chances in midterm elections are perhaps best defined by the quality of candidates they recruit to run in competitive seats. The 2006 candidate recruiting war between the national party committees is well underway, and a verdict should be clear by the end of the year. So far, the GOP can tout its successful wooing of National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville into the race for Vermont’s At Large seat. On the Democratic side, watch for an upcoming decision in New Mexico’s First district, where state Attorney General Patricia Madrid is considering a House bid.

Redistricting: Recent enthusiasm for mid-Census reconfiguration of congressional districts must please professional political cartographers, who suddenly find themselves employed for entire decades! The impact of a new districting scheme in Texas was felt acutely last year, and a likely new map in GOP-controlled Georgia threatens to give two white Democratic incumbents tough races in 2006. To a lesser degree, it’s possible the re-redistricting craze could change lines in California, where Democrats currently enjoy a 13-seat lead in the state congressional delegation.

Counting Down the House: The “Feisty Fifteen”

Over the coming months, the Crystal Ball will be keeping a close eye on fundraising totals and the Three R’s of House Midterms to see which races become “Dirty Thirty” material. At this early stage in the game, though, we can identify fifteen districts particularly likely to host hard-fought barnburners in 2006. So as a sneak preview of next year’s Dirty Thirty, we’ve unveiled our outlook on the “Feisty Fifteen” currently competitive contests:

(IN ORDER OF CURRENT COMPETITIVENESS)

  1. Texas 22 (DeLay) – A Taste of His Own Medicine?

    First, take the fact that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay vastly outspent a little-known, Dean-supported Democrat in 2004 and received only 55 percent of the vote. Next, consider that since then, reports of his lack of adherence to House ethics standards have saturated his Houston-area district’s media market and that his favorability ratings have plummeted in polls of his constituents. Finally, take into account that a former Texas Congressman who used to represent 20 percent of DeLay’s current district has decided to run against him. What do you have? A contest that still favors DeLay, but one that just conceivably could result in the biggest upset of 2006. DeLay doesn’t yet have the smell of death about him, and the territory is mighty tough for a Democrat to win. But surely it is no more inhospitable to Democrats than the district won by redistricted Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards in 2002. DeLay is going to have to work hard, and spend his time and money at home rather than around the country for other members of his caucus.

    Democrat Nick Lampson’s recent decision to oppose DeLay in 2006 met with the jubilation among Washington Democrats who have their minds set on exacting revenge for the GOP’s 2004 takeout of another congressional party leader named Tom. And for Lampson, an upset of DeLay would be payback for DeLay’s role in bringing about the mid-decade redrawing of district lines that resulted in the loss of the Democrat’s Galveston-Beaumont district. If indeed the “Hammer” lost in 2006, he would likely be a victim of his own creativity. In the 2003 redrawing process, he collegially agreed to take on a few more Democratic precincts in exchange for boosting GOP chances elsewhere. Still, DeLay remains the nominal favorite until and unless disaster strikes in the courts or the Ethics Committee. Moreover, as House majority leader, DeLay can easily raise all the money he needs to wage a breathtakingly vigorous defense of his seat.

  2. Indiana 9 (Sodrel) – Move Over, Bloody 8th

    While national Democrats have always spent freely on their lackluster recruits in GOP Rep. John Hostettler’s Southwest Indiana 8th District, they have not always anticipated strong competition next door in the traditionally Democratic Southeast Indiana 9th, which is why Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Baron Hill lost his seat to trucking company owner Mike Sodrel in a razor-thin surprise upset last year. Several weeks ago, Hill announced his intention to win back the seat, and this time around, national Democrats will likely be concentrating their Indiana resources here. But the chief political landmine for Hill remains his problematic vote against the Federal Marriage Amendment, which handed Sodrel a campaign issue last year. In addition, Sodrel is now the incumbent, with the presumption of reelection that Hill had throughout his congressional career. Expect this protracted race to get down and dirty.

  3. Illinois 8 (Bean) – It’s Bean a Fun Ride, But Can She Last?

    Let there be no mistake about it: Democratic freshman Rep. Melissa Bean was elected to Congress last year because of former GOP Rep. Phil Crane’s giant missteps. And in Illinois’s wealthiest and most Republican district, Bean needs all the lucky breaks she can get if she wants to win reelection in 2006. She’s been well aware of the target on her back from day one and has been fundraising accordingly, but Republican banker David McSweeney and possibly other GOP candidates will soon be setting out to prove that she’s representing this district on borrowed time. Currently, it’s a tossup, though as with Indiana 9, incumbency matters. A favorite New Yorker cartoon of ours had one professor confiding to another, while pointing to a third, “there goes Professor Smith, whose weak scholarship is balanced by his mighty tenure.” The congressional equivalent here is,”there goes Congresswoman Bean, whose weak political position is balanced by her mighty incumbency.”

  4. Ohio 6 (Strickland – Open) – Calling All Blue Dogs

    With moderate Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland’s recent entrance into the gubernatorial contest, Ohio Democrats have an embarrassment of riches in the field of 2006 candidates for governor, especially compared to situations in past years. But now they also have an extremely marginal open House seat to defend in the Southeast Ohio hills. Democrats must run a blue dog centrist if they hope to retain this famously blue collar district, and State Sen. Charlie Wilson looks like an early favorite for the party nod if he wants it. Republican State House Speaker Chuck Blasdel is also taking a look at this race, which at this point has all the makings of a pure tossup.

  5. Connecticut 2 (Simmons) – BRAC to the Future

    Three-term GOP Rep. Rob Simmons has been a fixture on the national Democratic target list since he unseated Rep. Sam Gejdenson in 2000, and former Norwich city councilman Jim Sullivan came closest to taking the eastern Connecticut district back last year. Although typically a moderate, scandal-free, three-term incumbent would have little difficulty winning reelection, Simmons’s outlook for 2006 took a hit last week with the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendation that New London Sub Base should be closed. The 2002 Democratic nominee, Joe Courtney, has declared a bid for the seat and will doubtlessly try to keep the base closure issue prominent in the public mind through 2006, but for now, Simmons remains a slight favorite.

  6. Colorado 7 (Beauprez – Open) – This Field Looks Like a Denver Omelette!

    GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez was the winner of the nation’s closest House race for a 2002 open seat, and he expanded his margin significantly in 2004. Now that he’s running for Colorado’s top job, this highly competitive seat–an extremely rare sight anywhere in the nation–in the northern Denver suburbs promises to host a very close contest in 2006. Early entrants include Jefferson County Treasurer Mark Paschall and state education official Rick O’Donnell on the GOP side and former State Rep. Peggy Lamm (sister-in-law of former CO Gov. Richard Lamm) and State Sen. Ed Perlmutter on the Democratic side.

  7. Georgia 3 (Marshall) – Will Mac Be Back?

    As soon as the ink of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature dries on a new, pro-GOP Georgia districting plan, expect national Republicans to begin to make their 2006 play for this seat. Although former Macon mayor and Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall has twice defeated GOP Bibb County official Calder Clay for this central Georgia seat, he has done so in a very heavily gerrymandered district. In a new district with weaker Democratic performance, Marshall would be vulnerable to a challenge from popular former GOP Rep. Mac Collins, who has reportedly missed serving in Congress since unsuccessfully mounting a Senate bid last year. Marshall is an able politician, and a survivor, but his survivor skills will be put to the ultimate test in a battle with Collins.

  8. Louisiana 3 (Melancon) – Battle in the Bayou

    Conservative Democrat and former sugar executive Charlie Melancon (pronounced mel-AN-sun) won a squeaker of a December Louisiana runoff over Bell Executive Billy Tauzin III, the son of the retiring senior congressman, in this Southeast Louisiana district. This proved once again that rural Pelican State voters prefer country charm over establishment credentials. Given Melancon’s tiny margin of victory, the GOP is bound to mount a competitive race against this House freshman in 2006, though the field has not yet sorted itself out.

  9. Iowa 1 (Nussle – Open) – The Hawkeye Hot Seat

    GOP Rep. Jim Nussle’s long-awaited bid for governor has left this Democratic-leaning Northeast Iowa district open, but the challenge for Democrats will be finding a quality general election candidate. Former State Sen. Bill Gluba has contested this district twice before, unsuccessfully, and is vying for his party’s nomination in 2006, but Democrats might be wise to recruit from their strong bench of local legislators, including State Rep. Cindy Winckler. On the Republican side, State Rep. Bill Dix, consultant Brian Kennedy, and hotel owner Mike Whalen compose the early field.

  10. Vermont at-Large (Sanders – Open) – It’s Raining Candidates

    Self-professed socialist and Independent/Progressive Rep. Bernie Sanders is running for Senate, so Vermont legislators on each side of the aisle are lining up for the shot to win one of the Green Mountain State’s three tickets to Washington. National Republicans are bullish on the chances of National Guard Gen. Martha Rainville, who recently declared her GOP affiliation and her interest in the seat, but she’d have a tough primary on her hands if popular Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie were to jump into the fray. Likely Democratic contenders include State Senators Matt Dunne and Peter Welch and former State Sen. Peter Shumlin. Whoever emerges on the Democratic side will have the advantage in November 2006, though a race against proven vote-getter Dubie would be especially competitive.

    Incidentally, in one of the oddities of American politics, the handful of states like Vermont that have just a single U.S. Representative (seven states total) always have pitched battles for an open seat. After all, it’s a statewide election, the equivalent of a U.S. Senate contest, with one distinction: The House winner is more special than the senators. He or she has the House floor alone in representing the state’s interests, while the two senators inevitably become rivals, jockeying each other for credit and status within their legislative chamber.

  11. Florida 22 (Shaw) – Sunshine Showdown

    Democrats are hoping that 13 is GOP Rep. Clay Shaw’s unlucky number: after 13 terms representing a marginal South Florida district, Shaw has another very competitive race on his hands in 2006, this time against Democratic State Sen. Leader Ron Klein. Shaw faced a scare in 2000, winning reelection by less than 1,000 votes against State Sen. Elaine Bloom, but 2002 redistricting carved him more favorable turf and the veteran remains the early favorite to win a 14th term, rumored to be his last.

  12. Colorado 3 (Salazar) – Rocky Mountain Rematch?

    The brothers Salazar were some of the few Democrats with reason to celebrate the results of the 2004 election, as Ken Salazar was elected to the Senate and John Salazar was elected to the House from this sprawling western Colorado district. More recently, area Republicans have grumbled (only half-convincingly) that some voters were confused as to which Salazar they were voting for here in 2004, and they have vowed to take back this GOP-leaning district. Water official Greg Walcher has not yet indicated whether he will seek a rematch, but regional GOP Chair Scott Tipton has announced his candidacy. The early edge goes to Salazar (John, that is).

  13. Louisiana 7 (Boustany) – Incumbency’s a Nice Boost

    Surgeon and Republican Rep. Charles Boustany won this seat with a larger than expected majority in last year’s December runoff and was the recent recipient of a fundraising visit from Vice President Dick Cheney. Still, should former Democratic Rep. Chris John seek to reclaim this Southwest Louisiana district he gave up last year to run unsuccessfully for Senate, expect a fierce fight in Cajun Country.

    However, we again stress (as we did for Indiana 9) the often overriding importance of the “I” (for Incumbent) next to a House member’s name. That one capital letter can act as a sturdy column buttressing a campaign. Could challenger Boustany have beaten Incumbent John had John run for reelection instead of the Senate seat in 2004? Not on your life. But the “I” has been stripped from John, and added to Boustany, and even John’s eight years of previous House incumbency may not balance Boustany’s two years of current House residency. The psychology of an electorate’s slavish support for incumbents is worth a good PhD thesis.

  14. New Mexico 1 (Wilson) – Madrid to Washington?

    Although there have been rumblings of a possible Senate bid by GOP Rep. Heather Wilson, this seems highly unlikely, and Democratic hopes of winning this Albuquerque-based, Kerry-majority district rest entirely on the shoulders of popular state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, who has not yet indicated if she will run for the seat. Even if she runs, Wilson has proven she is no stranger to close races and so she remains the favorite.

  15. Texas 17 (Edwards) – Can Chet the Survivor Win Again?

    Texas’s 17th District may be home to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, but GOP State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth came about 8,000 votes shy of knocking off Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards in this reconfigured Waco-based seat last year. The politically talented Edwards was the only one of five targeted Texas Democrats to win enough crossover support to survive pro-Republican redistricting in 2004, and Republicans will have to find a stronger candidate to win here in 2006. What does not destroy an incumbent like Edwards strengthens him. On the other hand, with so few truly competitive House districts, both parties have tens of millions to spend in the handful of close battles, so Edwards will likely be hard pressed again, if not in 2006, then soon enough.

David Wasserman is a senior intern and writer for the Crystal Ball. Larry Sabato is the Crystal Ball’s creator and the director of the U.Va. Center for Politics.