Hammer Time Over? A “House of Blues” After 2006?

Democrats Hope Presidential Disapproval, DeLay Charges Influence Midterms


In May, the Crystal Ball argued that the 2006 midterm elections would present a whole new opportunity for Democrats to nationalize the ethics charges mounting against Rep. Tom DeLay and to use “the Hammer” as a tool of their own for chipping away at the GOP majority. In light of this month’s news, this has never been more the case.

Last week’s indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX 22) on charges of improper transfers of funds between federal and state PACs stung the GOP badly and ignited a firestorm of reaction, both on Capitol Hill and in competitive congressional districts from coast to coast. Democrats, who have made a sport out of indicting Tom DeLay in the press for years, seemed downright giddy as they caught wind of the Texas grand jury’s decision and pounced without hesitation. Across the aisle, Republicans, already hampered by President Bush’s stalled, low-40s approval ratings amid questions concerning handling of crises ranging from Baghdad to the Bayou, appeared weary but determined on damage control duty. Additional charges lodged against DeLay this week have only deepened GOP gloom and inflated Democratic spirits.

To be sure, as top House Republicans under the direction of House Speaker Dennis Hastert – and DeLay, to an extent – scrambled to fill the void in their leadership last Wednesday, the GOP caucus’s reaction to the DeLay indictment was decidedly more varied than the united Democratic response. Publicly, firebrand conservatives along with high ranking Republicans like new Majority Leader Roy Blunt and newly elevated whips Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. David Dreier were quick to alternately rally around their embattled conservative hero, brash Texas prosecutor and longtime DeLay foe Ronnie Earle, and profess their confidence in a speedy exoneration at trial (though privately, of course, members of the new lineup hope their temporary promotions will become permanent one way or another). But many other GOP caucus members saw fit to either adopt a cautious, wait-and-see attitude towards the Texas trial or to stay silent on the matter altogether, resisting the temptation to conform to leading Republican strategy of using Earle as a pinata. Republicans in swing seats and those already facing potentially difficult reelection battles in 2006 seemed especially eager to stay above the fray and to emphasize their independence; liberal Connecticut Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, certain to face a strenuous challenge back home in 2006, issued a release last week bragging that he had called for DeLay’s resignation from the House leadership as early as April.

As for the other side, congressional Democrats have tried desperately in the last several years to put GOP ethics problems front and center on the national stage. And much to Democrats’ chagrin, they would be hard-pressed to produce evidence that this game plan has moved them any closer to making a dent in the GOP’s 29-seat majority, save for a near-win in a Southwest Ohio special congressional election in August (and the Crystal Ball knows that close only counts in horseshoes). The fruitlessness of their efforts in 2004, however, was not surprising. After all, public disapproval of congressional scandal rarely manifests itself in highly partisan ways at the ballot box, and recent polls show broad popular disapproval of both parties’ performance in Congress. But then again, looking forward, the partisan uniformity of House scandal on the GOP side is almost unprecedented in recent history. Ethical questions plaguing Republicans Sen. Bill Frist, Reps. Bob Ney, Don Sherwood, and Duke Cunningham–in addition to DeLay–combine to tower over those swirling around Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson, whose ongoing FBI investigation is still a relatively minor concern for his swamped New Orleans district’s constituents.

So what does the news mean for the 2006 midterm cycle?

As long as Democrats can keep issues of the GOP’s ethics foibles afloat and President Bush’s approval ratings fail to bounce back in time, the minority party will be poised to gain a substantial number of House seats in 2006, especially in districts where hard-line conservatives such as Colorado’s Marilyn Musgrave or Indiana’s John Hostettler continue to align themselves closely with President Bush and the Republican leadership in Congress. But even Republicans who have been careful to stress their distance from the lightning-rod figures in their ranks, such as Shays and fellow Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons, are not free from danger. They, too, will face tougher races as a result of the DeLay matter.

As for the case itself, the outcome of the pending trial in Austin–in effect a grudge match between two old Texas pols–will likely be worth a few congressional seats in November of 2006. The GOP has not been shy about bashing quirky Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle, who is not without his flaws. Although Earle has pointed to his record of prosecuting more Democratic than Republican officeholders in the past, his longevity as District Attorney dictates that most of his prosecutions took place when Texas was largely a one-party (read: Democratic) state anyway, and a past failed suit against Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison ended in her complete exoneration and his considerable embarrassment. Furthermore, Earle’s high-profile, DeLay-bashing speech at a recent Texas Democratic fundraiser raised more than a few eyebrows. Nonetheless, the charges of campaign finance impropriety DeLay faces are clearly serious, and more than a few Republicans are nervous about the trial’s disposition. In the event of an acquittal of criminal wrongdoing, DeLay would likely remain the favorite to retain his own Houston-area seat, and he would have a shot at returning to the ranks of the House GOP leadership. (We wonder if a majority of Republicans would want him back in visible leadership even after an acquittal.) But in the event of a DeLay conviction, Earle’s vindication would only be matched by the jubilation of the national Democrats, who have long been dreaming about “The Hammer’s” ousting and would be eager to reap their rewards at the polls.

As we at the Crystal Ball roll out the 2006 Dirty Thirty list of the most competitive House races, we bear in mind what potential the “DeLay factor” and other circumstances might have to affect results on a district-by-district or national basis in 2006. If Democrats find a way to piece together GOP ethics lapses within a single frame and paint a broad picture of “absolute power corrupting absolutely,” they could foment a partisan wave on the order of 1994, with the qualifier that the lack of potentially competitive seats would severely limit their gains in raw numbers. Still, to put their challenge in perspective, compared to the GOP’s stunning 56-seat gain twelve years ago, all Democrats would need to overtake the current majority would be a 15-seat gain–a tall task and much can change in the next 13 months, but not out of the realm of possibilities.

And now, introducing the first installment of the 2006 Dirty Thirty…

The “Dirty Thirty” Competitive House Races

State District Current Outlook Link to State Page
Colorado 3 Leans Democratic Read more
Colorado 4 Leans Republican Read more
Colorado 7 Toss-up Read more
Connecticut 2 Leans Republican Read more
Connecticut 4 Leans Republican Read more
Florida 22 Leans Republican Read more
Georgia 3 Toss-up Read more
Georgia 12 Leans Democratic Read more
Iowa 1 Toss-up Read more
Iowa 3 Leans Democratic Read more
Illinois 8 Toss-up Read more
Indiana 8 Toss-up Read more
Indiana 9 Leans Republican Read more
Louisiana 3 Toss-up Read more
Louisiana 7 Leans Republican Read more
Minnesota 2 Leans Republican Read more
Minnesota 6 Leans Republican Read more
New Mexico 1 Leans Republican Read more
North Carolina 11 Leans Republican Read more
Ohio 6 Toss-up Read more
Ohio 18 Leans Republican Read more
Pennsylvania 6 Toss-up Read more
Pennsylvania 8 Leans Republican Read more
South Dakota AL Leans Democratic Read more
Texas 17 Leans Democratic Read more
Texas 22 Leans Republican Read more
Utah 2 Leans Democratic Read more
Vermont AL Leans Democratic Read more
Washington 8 Leans Republican Read more
Wisconsin 8 Leans Republican Read more

The Watch List

Our look at the seemingly close House races of 2006 wouldn’t be complete without a peek at our watch list–contests that show potential for increased competition in the upcoming election cycle. Whether they are open seat races, freshmen representatives facing strong challengers, rematches from 2004 or other interesting face offs, any number of these twenty could end up taking a spot on the Dirty Thirty list in the year to come.

Arizona (1) – Northern Arizona’s 1st District is nearly even between Republicans and Democrats in party affiliation, but GOP Rep. Rick Renzi won easily last cycle. Against Indian Affairs official Jack Johnson, can Renzi replicate in 2006? Likely R.

California (11) – Republican Rep. Richard Pombo represents a decreasingly GOP northern California district, but Democrats may host a highly contested primary here in 2006. Likely R.

California (26) – GOP Rep. David Dreier, a staunch defender of Rep. Tom DeLay but a recently failed hour-long candidate to fill the House Republican leadership void, saw his margin of victory drop considerably between 2002 and 2004. If Democrats can field a qualified challenger, Dreier may face a real race. Likely R.

California (50) (Open Seat) – Disgraced retiring GOP Rep. Duke Cunningham has left a sour taste in many San Diego voters’ mouths. But can Democrat Francine Busby take advantage? Likely R.

Connecticut (5) – Democratic State Sen. Chris Murphy, who orchestrated Charlotte Koskoff’s shocking near-upset of GOP Rep. Nancy Johnson in 1996, hopes he can replicate that effort a decade later. The moderate Johnson remains popular, but this could be the major sleeper contest of the season. Likely R.

Florida (13) (Open Seat) – Democratic banker Christine Jennings awaits the winner of a crowded GOP field in the race to succeed Rep. Katherine Harris in this Sarasota-based district. Likely R.

Illinois (6) (Open Seat) – Democrat Christine Cegelis, who ran unsuccessfully against GOP Rep. Henry Hyde last year, will likely face state Sen. Peter Roskam in the 2006 general election to replace the retiring Hyde in this decreasingly GOP district. Likely R.

Indiana (2) – GOP Rep. Chris Chocola so far looks to be in good shape for a rematch against Democratic businessman Joe Donnelly. Likely R.

Kansas (3) – Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore has held this Bush-majority district for four terms, but the right Republican candidate could still give him a run for his money. Likely D.

Kentucky (3) – GOP Rep. Anne Northup had a breakout year in 2004, capturing more than 60 percent of the vote for the first time in her career. Still, a challenge by 2002 Democratic nominee Jack Conway could make things interesting. Likely R.

Nevada (3) – Republican Rep. Jon Porter represents a very marginal district on Las Vegas’s perimeter. But it remains to be seen whether a credible Democrat will emerge to challenge him. Likely R.

New York (1) – Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop may face a GOP challenge from Fire Union leader Steven Cassidy, but this Long Island incumbent has won handily since 2002. Likely D.

New York (27) – Democratic freshman Rep. Brian Higgins will be in the clear in this Buffalo-based seat unless Jack Quinn III, the son of a popular former congressman by the same name, decides to run. Likely D.

New York (29) – Republican freshman Rep. Randy Kuhl posted an underwhelming victory in 2004 against flawed Democratic candidate Samara Berend in this Southern Tier district, and Democrat Eric Massa is his likely 2006 opponent. Likely R.

North Carolina (8) – GOP Rep. Robin Hayes’s last-minute switch in favor of CAFTA could prove a major burden on the campaign trail against Marine Reservist Tim Dunn in this textile-heavy district. Likely R.

North Dakota (AL) – Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy has always managed to get by in this increasingly Republican state, but any number of GOP state legislators could give him a real race in 2006. Likely D.

Ohio (2) – If Iraq veteran Paul Hackett decides to seek a rematch against GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt, expect fireworks. At this point, however, that scenario is unlikely. Likely R.

Pennsylvania (10) – GOP Rep. Don Sherwood’s marital infidelities caused him embarrassment back home, but polls have shown effects on 2006 vote choice here to be minimal. Likely R.

Tennessee (4) – Incumbent Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis has compiled a centrist record in Congress, but Republicans have yet to run a very strong challenger against him. Likely D.

Washington (2) – Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen will face a staunch challenge in 2006 from GOP veteran Doug Roulstone, but still retains a strong advantage. Likely D.