Sabato's Crystal Ball

Better Watch a District!

Lest parties pay the price for snoozing in sleeper races come November

David Wasserman and Larry J. Sabato, U.Va. Center for Politics February 17th, 2006

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With upside-down congressional approval ratings showing few signs of rising from the depths anytime soon, 2006 promises to be one of the more volatile (and dare we say, anti-incumbent?) House election cycles in recent memory. So looking ahead to November, how best might Democrats and Republicans prepare to face this specter? For starters, we suggest each side begin by taking a page out of Comedy Central notable Stephen Colbert’s playbook: take good, hard, looks at all kinds of House districts right now.

The constant possibility of new theaters of battle being opened by scandal, retirement, or other factors certainly means that parties “better know their districts.” But before party insiders start canceling their Cook Political Report subscriptions in favor of tuning in to the Colbert Report, we would caution that predicting 2006 House race volatility beyond that of recent cycles doesn’t amount to saying very much. Since 1994–and especially since 2000–federal election years have experienced both low levels of competition and notoriously few instances of upsets by challengers.

Still, each federal election year we usually see some surprising outcomes on election night in districts that had eluded pundits’ pre-November radar screens. Whether it’s simply an unexpected close call for a veteran incumbent, such as GOP Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson’s 50 to 49 percent squeaker over Democratic newcomer Charlotte Koskoff in 1996, or a David vs. Goliath-style toppling of an incumbent, such as Democratic physicist Rush Holt’s 1998 stunning upset of GOP New Jersey Rep. Mike Pappas, observers always tend to miss a couple “sleeper” races.

Last week, we rolled out our updated list of the top “Dirty Thirty” races we consider extremely likely to experience strong inter-party competition in November. So then where might these “sleeper” districts be located in 2006? At this point, we’ve nominated twenty districts to keep a close watch on. And while we’re willing to bet that several of these races will end up in the “Dirty Thirty” before all is said and done, it is just as likely that a good number of these races won’t end up being very competitive at all. By the same token, we expect that a few races not even listed in our twenty-member “Watch List” will find their way into our picture before the fall.

In many respects, our list of the 31st through 50th most competitive seats is just as remarkable for the races it leaves out as it is for the races it includes. The Crystal Ball is going out on a limb by predicting that in a Democratic-leaning 2006, several seats that seem to host perennially close matchups (especially very “red” Democrat-held districts such as Utah-2, Kansas-3, and South Dakota-AL) might actually be less competitive than several seats where pitched battles against established incumbents have been rare occurrences as of late (Kentucky-2, Pennsylvania-7, and Connecticut-5 come to mind). In the end, veteran incumbents who have taken little for granted in the off-season–as evidenced by fundraising and time spent in their districts–are much less likely to be caught asleep at the wheel on November 7th.

The watchword for parties holding borderline-competitive seats? Be on the lookout!

The “Watch List” of Potentially Competitive Races

State District Current Outlook Link to State Page
California 11 Likely Republican Read more
Colorado 4 Likely Republican Read more
Connecticut 5 Likely Republican Read more
Florida 9 Likely Republican Read more
Indiana 2 Likely Republican Read more
Kentucky 2 Likely Republican Read more
Louisiana 7 Likely Republican Read more
Minnesota 2 Likely Republican Read more
Nevada 2 Likely Republican Read more
New York 20 Likely Republican Read more
New York 29 Leans Republican Read more
North Carolina 8 Likely Republican Read more
Ohio 1 Likely Republican Read more
Ohio 13 Likely Democratic Read more
Ohio 15 Likely Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 7 Likely Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 10 Likely Republican Read more
South Carolina 5 Likely Democratic Read more
Virginia 2 Likely Republican Read more
Washington 2 Likely Democratic Read more

Fratricide Watch: Congressional Incumbents Fight for Survival

You may be surprised–not all the House action in 2006 is reserved for districts where one party may be poised to add a seat to its totals! We’re covering these primary races now because they’re happening soon, and in many cases there exists hard-to-read potential for incumbents to lose. In fact, at least one almost always does! Is there any possibility an upset of an incumbent will lead to the out-of-power party becoming competitive in any of these districts? Unlikely. But in these types of volatile situations, alliances can shift and almost anything can happen.

The Top 5

California (51) – Longtime southernSan Diego County Democratic Rep. Bob Filner may face his toughest electoral fight yet in 2006 for several reasons. First, although his district was altered prior to the 2002 elections to include more Democrats, its Hispanic percentage increased markedly, making him susceptible to a challenge from a Hispanic candidate. Second, Filner has received his share of unfavorable press attention this year on the heels of neighboring GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham‘s indictment: he has been criticized for hiring his wife as a paid fundraiser for his campaign committee. Both of these factors promise to increase the viability of Hispanic Assemblyman Juan Vargas, who has wasted no time in blasting the incumbent over a variety of matters. We give an ever-so-slight advantage to Filner at the outset, but predict this one will be very close. Outlook: Toss-up

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Bob Filner (D)* $165,838.30 $712,501.56
Juan Vargas (D) $137,651.06 $303,273.44

Michigan (7) – Moderate freshman GOP Rep. Joe Schwarz won the open 2004 Republican primary with merely 28 percent of the vote in a six-candidate field to claim this seat, which is home to the birthplace of the Republican party and is true to its roots in general elections. The third-place finisher was conservative State Rep. Tim Walberg, who is back for more action this year after receiving 18 percent of the vote last time around. Walberg was able to out-raise Schwarz for the final quarter of 2005 with the help of the very conservative Club for Growth, but still trails in cash on hand considerably. Schwarz, 68, is the early favorite to weather the charge that he is a “Republican in Name Only.” Outlook: Leans Schwarz

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Joe Schwarz (R)* $122,146.00 $366,301.93
Tim Walberg (R) $163,002.00 $163,065.05

Mississippi (2) – One of the most intriguing party primaries of 2006 promises to take place in this Mississippi Delta-based district. Held by former Bolton Mayor Bennie Thompson since the mid-90s, it retains a strong black majority. Challenger Chuck Espy, nephew of former Clinton official and district Rep. Mike Espy, has sought to tag Thompson, a resident of the Jackson area, as being out of touch with rural Delta issues, and has appealed to white Republicans for crossover support in the open primary. Still, Thompson dwarfs Espy in the money chase, and begins the race with the upper hand. Outlook: Leans Thompson

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Bennie Thompson (D)* $107,278.11 $529,640.16
Chuck Espy (D) $56,830.00 $10,216.18

Ohio (2) – Freshman Rep. Jean Schmidt was probably wondering why national Republicans weren’t all smiles when she claimed a 52 percent victory in the August 2nd, 2005, special election to replace Bush appointee and former Rep. Rob Portman. The answer? The district had voted 64 percent for Bush the year before, and Schmidt’s performance as a candidate had been underwhelming to say the least. So far in Congress, Schmidt has made her share of enemies, drawing fire for a comment on the House floor perceived as unfair criticism of pro-Iraq-withdrawal Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania. Now, at least one of her foes from last year’s special primary election, former Rep. Bob McEwen, is making another run of it. If McEwen can raise money and has the anti-Schmidt vote to himself, expect a barnburner. Outlook: Toss-up

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Jean Schmidt (R)* $152,346.17 $162,140.13
Bob McEwen (R) $1,646.04 $576.09

Texas (28) – Although Bush carried this overwhelmingly Hispanic district narrowly, the Democratic primary here is effectively its ticket to Congress. Freshman Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar stunned former Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in 2004’s primary, upsetting the incumbent by a handful of votes in a DeLay-redrawn district joining parts of Laredo with precincts in San Antonio’s Bexar County. The battle that year broke down along regional lines, with Rodriguez sweeping his San Antonio home base handily and Cuellar dominating in areas around Laredo’s Webb County.

Although the outcome of that race was the subject of a protracted legal battle and is still a matter of dispute, Rodriguez is readying for a rematch and hopes to be back in Congress after 2006. Charging that Cuellar is a Republican in disguise, Rodriguez points to the fact that Cuellar unapologetically endorsed Bush’s presidential campaign, voted for CAFTA, and won an unusual (for a Democrat) endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth group. The fact that Cuellar was prominently spotlighted embracing President Bush during his State of the Union entrance certainly helped Rodriguez’s case, though for the voters, the end decision in this contest will likely have more to do with geography than ideology.

In recent weeks, Cuellar’s conservatism has begun to draw fire from liberal bloggers and groups such as Democracy for America (the carcass of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign), who have in turn encouraged their supporters to donate to Rodriguez. We give Cuellar, who outraised Rodriguez 2-1 last quarter, the early advantage, but we expect Rodriguez’s latest infusion of national cash to level the playing field somewhat. We would also caution that perennial candidate Victor Morales could also be a major factor in the primary. Outlook: Leans Cuellar

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Henry Cuellar (D)* $164,900.00 $290,833.40
Ciro Rodriguez (D) $88,131.21 $43,070.74
Victor Morales (D) N/A N/A

Honorable Mention

California (6) – Liberal seven-term Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey finds opposition this year from the political center. Moderate Assemblyman Joe Nation, who lags behind in the money chase, has attempted to take Woolsey to task for privately-sponsored congressional travel and for boosting her own pay. Woolsey is likely to survive the primary and win an eighth term. Outlook: Likely Woolsey

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Lynn Woolsey (D)* $155,805.67 $365,550.41
Joe Nation (D) $46,275.10 $125,528.76

Rhode Island (2) – Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin has compiled a moderate record over the course of his five terms in Congress. For some of his more liberal Democratic constituents, including a few around the considerably left-of-center haven of Brown University, Langevin’s pro-life stance has been a particular point of disagreement. Seeking to tap into this resentment, young Brown Prof. Jennifer Lawless has been readying a primary challenge. But her nascent campaign has not been without its flaws; several months ago, she was criticized for accepting campaign contributions from students whose theses she was grading. Although she returned the money and the flap is somewhat a thing of the past, we give the edge to Langevin. Outlook: Likely Langevin

Candidate 4th Quarter Raised Cash on Hand
Jim Langevin (D)* $70,409.58 $242,083.52
Jennifer Lawless (D) $55,114.39 $75,980.93

Larry J. Sabato is the Crystal Ball’s creator and the director of the U.Va. Center for Politics. David Wasserman is the Crystal Ball’s House Editor.