GOP Hunts the House for One-Term Wonders in 2008


As the Crystal Ball gazes into the future of Congress’s lower chamber beyond 2008, what should it consider? Should we read anything into the moderate success of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s early leadership? No, the elections are too far away for it to really matter. Forgive us as we turn our attention to popular music for a moment.

With apologies to fans of the 1990s alternative rock band The Verve Pipe, we would have to argue that the singular success of their 1997 chart-topper, “The Freshmen,” earned the group residence in history’s musical pantheon of one-hit wonders. The chorus still rings familiar to anyone who tuned into pop radio ten years ago:

“For the life of me I cannot remember

What made us think that we were wise and

We’d never compromise

For the life of me I cannot believe

We’d ever die for these sins

We were merely freshmen”

Sure, these were some of last decade’s definitive words of teen angst. So why might they be of any significance to our politics in 2007? We know it’s early, but the Crystal Ball will have you know that an angst-ridden rematch for the House is already underway, and the large class of newly elected Democrats knows it doesn’t want to be singing this sorrowful tune two years from now.

Although they are still licking their wounds from the beating they took last fall, members of the new Republican minority will no doubt muster all their resources to claw their way back on top by in 2008. And to do so, they will need to reclaim a lion’s share of the thirty seats they lost to the surging Democrats of 2006. How? Much as “The Freshmen” branded its performers a “one-hit wonder” ten years ago, the GOP hopes it can relegate as many freshmen House Democrats as possible to history’s high heap of congressional “one-term wonders.”

Why are the Democratic freshmen the name of the game in 2008? Quite simply, for the House GOP, there may be precious few other seats to target and Democrats in their first term represent the lowest-hanging fruit. After all, which veteran Democratic incumbents who made it through slightly Republican-leaning elections in 2002 and 2004 would be obviously vulnerable in 2008, with their added seniority? And Republicans probably can’t count on many Democratic open seats either–which veteran Democrats would stand down so soon after coming into the power they had craved for so long?

For the first time in fourteen years, the Democrats will be seeking to defend a majority while the GOP plays offense, and the 31-seat House margin Democrats emerged with from 2006 is certainly one of the smaller House majorities in congressional history. Looking ahead, however, the Republicans’ road back to the majority is even steeper than the path Democrats climbed to victory in 2006: they must net 16 Democratic seats to reach the magic number, 218. If the GOP hopes to reclaim the Speaker’s gavel and curtail the Democrats’ grip on the lower chamber, they must strike back forcefully rather than whittle away at their deficit.

In this endeavor, history puts the odds slightly against them: in the six times since 1950 a party has lost more than 25 seats in a midterm wave, only once has the party recouped even half of the loss in the next presidential cycle. In fact, in three of the cases, the deteriorated party has gone on to lose even more seats in the next go-around (not a tremendous surprise, considering party losses tend to produce even more retirements and open seats ripe for the taking). Still, it is worth taking a look at the large group of Democratic takeovers from 2006, and at this early stage we can categorize these seats according to their general “snapback” vulnerability.

Here are the Crystal Ball’s 2008 One-Term Wonder possibility “bands,” loosely grouped from most vulnerable band to least vulnerable band:

1. The Scandal Babies

The most obvious targets for the GOP include five freshmen Democrats who probably would not have stood a chance of winning had fiery GOP scandals not scorched their districts in 2006.

State District Freshman Cash on Hand, 2006 Year-End
CA 11 Jerry McNerney $41,781
FL 16 Tim Mahoney $38,467
NY 20 Kirsten Gillibrand $43,964
OH 18 Zack Space $27,458
PA 10 Chris Carney -$12,086
TX 22 Nick Lampson $156,332

With the exception of Lampson, who previously served in Congress between 1996 and 2004, all of these freshmen are new to elective politics, which gives us reason to carefully observe their statements constituent service operations for rookie mistakes over the coming twenty months. So far, McNerney and Gillibrand have earned plaudits for their solid in-district presences since the election, though it is unclear whether they would prefer rematches with beleaguered ex-Reps. Richard Pombo and John Sweeney respectively or fights against fresh GOP faces. Mahoney caught a break when 2006 GOP replacement nominee Joe Negron nixed a rematch opportunity, but he’s not yet out of the woods. Space and Lampson’s huge margins in the wake of the 2006 Ney and DeLay scandals belie the heavily GOP nature of their districts, and Carney is sure to get a run for his money even if northeastern Pennsylvania Republicans field a mildly credible candidate against him.

2. The Grassroots Stunners

Seven new Democrats were elected in what could fairly be described as late-breaking surprise upsets, largely without the help of national Democrats. Republicans sure hope that these grassroots shockers are grassroots goners in 2008.

State District Freshman Cash on Hand, 2006 Year-End
IA 2 Dave Loebsack $33,253
KS 2 Nancy Boyda $34,533
MN 1 Tim Walz $29,528
NH 1 Carol Shea-Porter $68,714
NH 2 Paul Hodes $11,693
NY 19 John Hall $54,448
PA 4 Jason Altmire $54,830

The true wild cards of 2008 could be the upset-shocker winners of 2006, the gang of liberal anti-war Democrats who cobbled together under-the-radar grassroots campaigns and triumphed on shoestring budgets. Now in office, they will surely have to prove their mettle in a variety of respects to survive another election. Already, moderate GOP ex-Rep. Jeb Bradley has announced he wants a round two against the liberal Shea-Porter, and several others among the defeated are considering following suit. The question here: how many of these seven will moderate their views and temper their strident positions in their first term? If they stray too far left for their districts’ tastes and reject pragmatism entirely, voters might end up feeling some buyer’s remorse in the spirit of the lyric: “What made them think that they were wise and/they’d never compromise?” Notably, only one of the seven had ever held elective office before running: former rock artist and Saugerties, New York, school board member John Hall, who would no doubt volunteer as this “band’s” songwriter if given the chance.

3. The Red Recruits

Six freshman Democrats won their seats in 2006 after defeating heavily targeted GOP incumbents in considerably Republican districts, and Republicans are itching to take back at least a piece of this friendly turf.

State District Freshman Cash on Hand, 2006 Year-End
AZ 5 Harry Mitchell $20,995
IN 2 Joe Donnelly -$2,306
IN 8 Brad Ellsworth $26,424
IN 9 Baron Hill $31,765
NC 11 Heath Shuler $44,459
TX 23 Ciro Rodriguez $199,030

Half of the red-turf Republicans who fell to defeat on Election Night 2006 represented Indiana, where Hoosier Democrats pulled off a hat trick thanks to voter discontent at both the state and national levels. Republicans say the anger has softened, and Donnelly and Hill could be especially vulnerable if GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels pulls off his reelection in 2008. Shuler and Mitchell start out as favorites in their moderately Republican districts after vanquishing long-term GOP incumbents in 2006, and Rodriguez has an unusually large war chest after his high-intensity December special election runoff upset, which was sweet icing on the cake for Democrats at year’s end.

4. The Blue Chippers

Six freshman Democrats won their seats after defeating heavily targeted GOP incumbents in districts that had voted for John Kerry in 2004. Republicans could make a play for these seats next year, but they will need candidates with broad appeal.

State District Freshman Cash on Hand, 2006 Year-End
CT 2 Joe Courtney $47,598
CT 5 Chris Murphy $45,202
FL 22 Ron Klein -$26,584
KY 3 John Yarmuth $25,899
PA 7 Joe Sestak $210,785
PA 8 Patrick Murphy $16,481

The fact that these Democrats wrested liberal-leaning seats from GOP incumbents in 2006 means that Republicans will need to work especially hard to win them back. Klein’s 2006 opponent was headed for retirement anyway in 2008, Sestak’s was about to be surrounded by a mushroom cloud of ethics problems, and Chris Murphy’s was defeated by a discouragingly large margin. Courtney’s predecessor, GOP ex-Rep. Rob Simmons, appears ready to take a state job that will keep him out of elective politics for a while, and Yarmuth’s has announced a run for governor of Kentucky that will take her attention away from a rematch as well. Nonetheless, Courtney and Patrick Murphy won by very slim margins in 2006 and the GOP is sure to recruit intensively in their districts with an eye towards next year.

5. The Open Seat Stealers

Five freshmen Democrats took over for exiting Republicans in highly contested open seats where scandal was not much of a local factor in the outcome. Republicans will have the hardest time adding these seats back into their column in 2008.

State District Freshman Cash on Hand, 2006 Year-End
AZ 8 Gabrielle Giffords $141,680
CO 7 Ed Perlmutter $51,001
IA 1 Bruce Braley $250,244
NY 24 Mike Arcuri $35,507
WI 8 Steve Kagen $52,400

Three of these freshman Democrats–Perlmutter, Braley, and Kagen–nabbed the open seats of three GOP congressmen who chose to embark on unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 2006, and the Crystal Ball doubts these former congressmen will embark on campaigns to reclaim their old jobs. Still, following last fall’s election, Kagen offered up the perfect example of what freshmen should NOT do: he bragged to a local group about intimidating Karl Rove in a men’s bathroom at a White House reception for new members of Congress. Kagen apologized and hopes the flap will blow over by next year (his deep pockets could help), but it could well come back to haunt him in his Bush-carried district. Giffords and Arcuri are young replacements for GOP moderates who retired in 2006, and both are very strong campaigners. The question for Giffords: will she face a more moderate Republican who will actually give her a real race this time?

How many of these thirty freshmen will survive 2008 and earn a sophomore term? In some cases, inexperience will show or the GOP will recruit a strong opponent, and the Crystal Ball bets at least a few won’t make the cut. Quality of constituent service, attentiveness to fundraising, and positions in initial key votes will give us some early indication of freshman survivor skills. But at the outset of the cycle, a majority of these Democrats seem to stand on solid footing.

Overall, it’s important to remember that presidential politics could have a strong influence on the outcome of the 2008 race for the House. If Democrats nominate a very liberal candidate for the White House, many freshmen Democrats could be swept to sea thanks to weak coattails. But if American involvement in Iraq is still in turmoil heading towards November 2008 and Republicans continue to take a beating, Democrats might yet hold nearly all of their newcomers or perhaps even pick up a handful of seats. Either way, the Crystal Ball can already predict the reaction of the losing congressional party’s leaders: “Can’t be held responsible.”

CORRECTION: Last week’s Crystal Ball said that Governor John Hoeven (R-ND) was term-limited after eight years in office, come 2008. Not true. There is no term limit on the governorship in the state. Governor Hoeven may run for a third term, though no decision has been announced as yet. The last North Dakota Governor to serve three terms was William Guy (D-1961 to 1973). Governor Art Link (D-1973 to 1981) ran for a third term, but he was defeated in the Reagan landslide of 1980 by the GOP’s Allen Olson. Residents of the Lone Star State say, “Don’t Mess With Texas!”, but we have also learned from our faithful readers in the Flickertail State that we’d better not mess with them, either. Thanks to those who pointed out the error, and keep us honest in the future.