Can Dems Win House Majority in 2006?

“We could be looking at a Democratic House in ’06,” a senior Republican House member told me recently.

The lawmaker was clearly nervous about the President’s record-low poll numbers, the bad reports from Iraq continually pounded home by the liberal media, and the ongoing reports of scandal surrounding congressional Republicans connected with indicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff.  Could this combination of negative factors be a formula for Democrats to make the net gain of 15 seats they would need to recapture a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in a dozen years?  

“Yes,” replied the Republican congressman without hesitation, whereupon he proceeded to tick off more than 20 Republican-held seats around the country that are in danger of flipping to the Democrats in the third congressional election cycle of the Bush presidency. The third cycle historically yields disastrous results for the party in the White House.

He was not alone in this forecast.  Bernadette Budde, who oversees elections for the Business and Industry Political Action Committee, dismissed claims that such an overwhelming number of the 435 congressional districts are “safe” for one of the two major parties that it is impossible for Democrats to gain the seats necessary for a majority.  “Only the smug would rely on the belief that their incumbency or their district lines insulate them from scrutiny,” she said. Citing the line from the old “Laugh-In” TV comedy, Budde, who has monitored congressional elections since 1974, predicted that “the fickle finger of fate could point to upsets in a lot of districts the so-called experts are writing off as ‘safe.’”  

There are other opinions. Rep. Tom Cole (R.-Okla.), the leading candidate to take over the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee after the 2006 elections, notes, “There are now 41 seats held by Democrats [in districts] that George W. Bush carried in ’04 and 18 districts held by Republicans that John Kerry won last year.”  Cole believes there is room for Republican gains over time, but only if the GOP and the President “can communicate that the economy is going great and we are succeeding in Iraq.”

Currently, there are 231 Republicans in the House and 202 Democrats.  There is also one independent, Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who caucuses with the Democrats), and one vacancy, the California seat of disgraced former Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who recently pleaded guilty to bribery.  Below is a summary of the 20 Republican House districts most vulnerable to Democratic takeovers.

Arizona’s 5th District

With the retirement of Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, this Tucson-area district will have a contentious Republican primary.  The field will include several of Kolbe’s fellow moderates facing off against conservative former state House Majority Whip Randy Graf.  Graf drew 43% of the vote against Kolbe in 2004, running almost exclusively on an anti-illegal immigration platform.  Democrats have a heavyweight candidate in State Sen. Gabriel Gifford.  President Bush won this district with only 53% of the vote last year.

Calilfornia’s 4th District

All 53 districts in California are considered safe for incumbents from the major parties, thanks to a 2002 redistricting that was an “incumbent’s protection plan.”  But recent publicity surrounding Republican Rep. John Doolittle’s dealings with Jack Abramoff (as well as reports of the lobbyist’s dealings with Doolilttle’s wife and a former top aide) have definitely put the Sacramento-area district on the Democrats’ “wait and watch” list.

Colorado’s 7th District

After winning his first term in 2002 by 129 votes and his second last year with 55% of the vote, conservative Rep. Bob Beauprez is seeking the Republican nomination for governor next year.  This suburban Denver-area district was carried by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, and the open seat is sure to be a top priority for national Democrats.

Connecticut’s 2nd District

The Eastern Connecticut district will always be on the A-list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  Having given handsome margins to Demo-crats in presidential and state races, the 2nd District has narrowly elected moderate Republican Rep. Rob Simmons to the House since 2000.  Simmons has always been hard-pressed by challengers and 2006 will be no exception.

Indiana’s 2nd, 8th and 9th Districts

Hoosier Democrats will make spirited strikes at three Republican House members: Chris Chocola (2nd District), John Hostettler (8th), who always faces strong opponents and wins narrowly, and freshman Mike Sodrel (9th), who unseated Democratic Rep. Baron Hill last year by less than 2,000 votes and faces a rematch.

Iowa’s 1st District

“Anytime the 1st District is open, it is vulnerable to Democratic takeover,” concluded veteran Iowa Republican pollster Craig Tufty.  Seven-term Rep. Jim Nussle is seeking the Republican nomination for governor and a crowded primary for his Davenport-Waterloo district is sure to ensue.  Democrats, who always drew a 43% to 45% base vote against Nussle, will field a heavyweight contender for his open seat: 2004 nominee Bill Gluba, who drew 43% against Nussle, is running again.  

Minnesota’s 6th District

Rep. Mark Kennedy was one of two Republicans in the nation to unseat incumbent Democratic House members in 2000.  Now he is running for the Senate and at least three candidates are vying for the Republican standard to succeed him in this suburban St. Paul district.  Democrats have a strong candidate in former State Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg.

Nevada’s 3rd District

Two-term GOP Rep. Jon Porter, who has never secured his Las Vegas-area district, is the top Democratic target in the Silver State.

New Mexico’s 1st and 2nd Districts

Republican Representatives Heather Wilson of the 1st District (Albuquerque) and Steve Pearce of the 2nd (Roswell) have always won close races and 2006 is sure to spell major Democratic challenges to both.

Ohio’s 2nd, 14th, 15th and 18th Districts

“The big casino” in Democratic plans for a recapture of the House is Ohio, where scandals surrounding lame-duck Republican Gov. Robert Taft and other statehouse Republicans have given Buckeye State Democrats their first hopes of big gains in 16 years.  Having won the historically Republican office of Franklin County (Columbus) clerk last month, Democrats have recruited strong challengers for Republican Representatives Deborah Pryce (15th District), Steven LaTourette (14th) and Bob Ney (18th).  Ney’s ties to Abramoff have made statewide headlines.  Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt, who narrowly won the special election in the 2nd District this year, may face a primary rematch with ex-Rep. Bob McEwen and a November rematch with Democrat Paul Hackett.

Pennsylvania’s 6th, 8th and 10th Districts

With Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in re-election trouble, Democrats expect to field strong opponents to Republican Representatives Jim Gerlach (6th District) and Mike Fitzpatrick (8th), who won closer-than-anticipated races in 2004, and Don Sherwood (10th), who has admitted a tumultuous extra-marital affair.  

Virginia’s 2nd District

Republican Rep. Thelma Drake was the pinch-hitter Republican nominee last year when the incumbent ended his campaign in the wake of a scandal.  She won with 55% of the vote and next year will face Democrat Virginia Beach Commissioner of Revenue Phil Kellam, whose family has been to politics in Virginia Beach what the Kennedys have been in Massachusetts and the Bushes in Texas.