Which House Members Will Carry their Weight in '08?


This month, the Crystal Ball has compiled an endangered species list of sorts: members of the House of Representatives who have their work cut out for them if they seek political survival beyond 2008. At this point, we can sort the vulnerable into two stacks: the “Freshman Fifteen” and the “Scandalous Six.” We’ll keep you in suspense by saving the latter for next week.

First up, we’re taking a look at congressional newcomers (One Republican and 14 Democrats) who were freshly elected to the House last November and have yet to entrench themselves fully in Washington. Several of them–such as Jerry McNerney of California and Tim Mahoney of Florida–won in districts that would have easily stayed in GOP hands save for the fact that scandal-plagued incumbents mortally wounded themselves. Those unique circumstances won’t be present in 2008, so these kinds of districts are natural pickup opportunities for the other side.

The strong anti-GOP waves we witnessed in 2006 may be somewhat tempered by the time of the next slate of elections. So it follows that several freshman Democrats in districts that are essentially toss-ups–or even normally favor Republicans–could be in grave danger if political winds shift. Still, keep this in mind: in 1976, just two of the 76 Democratic freshmen (3 percent) were defeated in the first election after the anti-Nixon Democratic wave in 1974. In 1996, two years after the Republican wave of 1994, 12 of the 73 Republican freshmen (16 percent) when down in defeat. In 2008, there will be a more modest number of Democratic freshmen standing for reelection (42 in total), but how many, if any, will they lose once the final votes are counted next November? Will it be one or two seats (á la 1976), six or seven seats (á la 1996) or some larger total unmatched in recent history?

Also, before our GOP readers start pegging prospective one-term wonders for defeat, be warned that anything and everything can change in the next sixteen months. There are many yet-to-be-determined factors that will have deep and significant effects on the performances of these newcomers in next November’s elections. Although individual circumstances will prevail in some cases (think strong candidate recruits or monumental gaffes), larger systemic circumstances will affect each race.

First and foremost, the blockbuster race for the presidency in 2008 is sure to cast a long shadow over congressional races. For example, if a House incumbent represents the same party and state as one of the two major party presidential candidates (think Rick Renzi and John McCain) expect the value of coattails for lower-ballot candidates to be multiplied. Conversely, if an incumbent is of the opposite party of their state’s favorite son (or daughter) presidential candidate, their troubles could multiply. Of course, if either party nominates a presidential candidate predisposed towards one of the ideological extremes, it is possible endangered incumbents of that party will pay for it at the polls regardless.

Avid Congress-watchers will note that the Crystal Ball has omitted mention of several Democratic freshmen who could face stiff challenges come 2008. Among these wet-behind-the-ears officeholders are Pat Murphy (PA-8), Joe Courtney (CT-2), and John Yarmuth (KY-3), to whom we will give the benefit of the doubt, given that they represent districts that lean towards Democratic presidential candidates in a presidential election year.

For now, It’s off to the races we go!

The Freshman Fifteen

FLORIDA’s 13th DISTRICT: Sarasota, Bradenton

  • Representative: Vern Buchanan (R)
  • Outlook: Leans Republican

Former car-dealing Rep. Vern Buchanan was elected last November to replace ex-Rep. Katherine Harris, who vacated the seat to embark on a miserable for the U.S. Senate. After late polls showed him behind, Buchanan won by just 369 votes–and the election is still a matter of dispute as his opponent, Democratic banker Christine Jennings, likely suffered from a massive ballot placement error in her home base of Sarasota County that led to 18,000 under-votes. Because Sarasota County went to Jennings by six percent, if even a third of those under-votes were in error, she would likely have won. Assuming the election is upheld, Buchanan would still likely face a stiff contest in 2008. The Florida Democratic Party has said they view Jennings as the incumbent and therefore would support her in 2008 if she runs, but some worry that she would be viewed as a sore loser instead of the rightful winner. The district normally leans Republican, but Buchanan’s slim margin of victory (if it was a victory at all) cannot be ignored.

FLORIDA’s 16th DISTRICT: Port Charlotte, parts of Palm Beach

  • Representative: Tim Mahoney (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

Florida’s 16th district was ground zero for the most scandalous of congressional scandals last election cycle. Then-Rep. Mark Foley was forced to resign as a result of inappropriate conduct with House pages, but he resigned too late to remove his name from the ballot. Although the Republican Party designated another candidate to receive the votes cast for Foley, voters were too disgusted to do anything other than hand the election to Democrat Tim Mahoney, who won by less than two percent. Since Mahoney is the first Democrat to ever represent the district, and because he only managed a two percent win in “perfect storm” circumstances, it seems unlikely he can escape a tight campaign this upcoming cycle. Mahoney hasn’t made things easier for himself so far, telling a Capitol Hill newspaper that serving in Congress “isn’t the greatest job” he’s had. Republicans are chomping at the bit to get their shot at Mahoney, and at least four credible names (a state Representative, an investor, a city councilman, and the son of the Pittsburgh Steelers owner) have already declared their intention to challenge him.

TEXAS’s 22nd DISTRICT: Sugar Land, parts of Houston

  • Representative: Nick Lampson (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

Rep. Nick Lampson represents a district famous not only to hardcore politicos, but to satirical news show viewers as well. Lampson’s district is none other than Texas’s 22nd, declared by political satirist Steven Colbert as “dead to me” given the tarnished reputation left to it by its last representative, notorious Republican Tom DeLay. In fact, Lampson won the seat almost entirely as a result of DeLay’s missteps and political miscalculations. After DeLay decided not to seek reelection–he was under a controversial indictment on charges of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws–courts determined it was too late to replace his name on the ballot and Republicans lost the district after a subsequent write-in campaign failed. This year, Republicans seek to reclaim this seat, which encompasses a solidly Republican area. Lampson toyed with entering the U.S. Senate race in Texas, but has since announced plans to vigorously campaign for reelection to the House. Lampson is no political lightweight, and not your typical freshman, as he served four terms in the U.S. House before losing in 2004 after his district was severely altered in mid-decade redistricting. Health could be a factor for Lampson, as he has missed over a quarter of all the votes cast in the House this session as a result of heart surgery. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the unsuccessful write-in candidate of 2006 who actually held the seat for two months before Lampson was sworn in, will seek a rematch with Lampson, but district editorialists gave her low marks for her brief service and she will have significant primary opposition.

OHIO’s 18th DISTRICT: Zanesville, Muskingum, New Philadelphia

  • Representative: Zack Space (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

Rep. Zack Space is another Democratic who won election in 2006 as a result of the scandalous behavior of the seat’s previous occupant. Ohio’s 18th was represented by Bob Ney, who was forced to resign upon pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements with regards to the Jack Abramoff affair. Ney designated Republican state Sen. Joy Padgett his chosen successor and she progressed through the Republican special primary, but met her match in Space, who won by the largest margin of any Democrat taking over a Republican seat in 2006. The support from Ney that helped Padgett win the GOP nod in the race was likely her undoing in the general election, as many Republicans and Independents joined with angry Democrats to repudiate Ney by voting against his favored candidate. When Ney was first elected to the seat, it had been held by Democrats for the previous half century, but after beating back two serious challengers in back-to-back elections, he settled in and the district was modified in 2002 to contain more Republicans. As it is currently districted, it favors Republicans by a fair margin: Bush carried it with 57 percent of the vote in 2004. Padgett will most likely not make a second attempt at the seat, but there are plenty of other potential Republican candidates, and two have already declared: one an Air Force veteran and lawyer and the other a self-described “soccer mom.” Expect additional declarations, as at least three state legislators are pondering runs. We foresee a barnburner in Ohio’s 18th.

PENNSYLVANIA’s 10th DISTRICT: Far Northeast Pennsylvania

  • Representative: Chris Carney (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

The campaign in Pennsylvania’s 10th District in 2006 was one of the dirtiest of the cycle. Then-Rep. Don Sherwood was reeling from his own admission of an extramarital affair with a younger woman and allegations of violence against the mistress. Sherwood barely squeaked through a primary against an opponent who spent under $5,000 during the entire campaign and limped into the general election. Rep. Chris Carney smelled blood, attacking Sherwood’s character and forcing Sherwood to make a political gamble by appearing alongside President Bush, who was rapidly declining in the polls but still held some star power in this district. Carney ultimately won by 6 percent, but now faces the tough task of holding onto the seat in a district Bush won by 20 percent in 2004. U.S. Attorney Tom Marino recently acknowledged interest in challenging Carney, and the NRCC has touted him as a top candidate.

NEW HAMPSHIRE’s 1st DISTRICT: Manchester, Portsmouth, Dover

  • Representative: Carol Shea-Porter (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

New Hampshire experienced one of the more drastic political sea changes in recent history last November. Not only did both House seats switch from Republican to Democratic hands, but both houses of the state legislature are now controlled by Democrats for the first time since 1874. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter was one of the beneficiaries of this dramatic shift, but now she must try to hold onto her seat even if political winds aren’t blowing as hard in her direction. The district she represents is a battleground by any definition, with the Republican presidential candidate eking out a 3 percent victory in each of the past two elections, losing by 8 percent in 1996, and winning by a percent in 1992. Shea-Porter was able to compete against Bradley despite being out-funded by a five to one margin and without much help from national Democrats. This time around the help from the DNC and DSCC will certainly be there, but Bradley is itching for redemption and has announced that he will seek a rematch.

KANSAS’s 2nd DISTRICT: Topeka, Manhattan

  • Representative: Nancy Boyda (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

In 2004, now-Rep. Nancy Boyda took on then-Rep. Jim Ryun in the general election and lost by 15 percent. That same year, George Bush carried the district by 20 percent. Just two short years later, however, Boyda defeated Ryun by four percent, one of the more remarkable comeback stories of the cycle. Ryun was hamstrung by allegations that he paid below market value for a townhouse he bought from an organization funded by associates of corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Neither side received much help from their respective national committees, although that dynamic will certainly change in 2008 when both Democrats and Republicans will see this as a key seat in their congressional strategies. Ryun will run for the nomination again, but will face state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins in the primary. Ryun has been touting a poll that shows him leading the primary match-up 61 percent-27 percent, but Jenkins has room to grow: Ryun has 92 percent name identification and Jenkins is recognized by only 41 percent of voters. Clearly, Jenkins has some potential to move up in the polls as she introduces herself to voters, and the extent to which the GOP can close ranks after the primary day will give us some clues as to prospects for November.

INDIANA’s 2nd DISTRICT: South Bend, Elkhart, Kokomo

  • Representative: Joe Donnelly (D)
  • Outlook: Leans Democratic

The 2006 race in Indiana’s 6th District was another rematch campaign, as now-Rep. Joe Donnelly took on now-ex-Rep. Chris Chocola. In 2004, Donnelly had lost by nine percent while being outspent by a two to one margin. In 2006, national Democrats zeroed in on the race to aid Donnelly and liberal organizations like ran ads bashing Chocola and the Republican Party. The tactics worked and Donnelly amassed enough of a vote margin in traditionally Democratic South Bend to carry the entire district. As the district leans Republican (if only narrowly) in presidential election years, Donnelly may face a tough fight in 2008.

PENNSYLVANIA’s 4th DISTRICT: Northern Pittsburgh suburbs

  • Representative: Jason Altmire (D)
  • Outlook: Leans Democratic

Rep. Jason Altmire occupies one of the surprise upset seats won to Democrats as gravy during their dramatic takeover of Congress last year. Altmire capitalized on the district’s discontent with respect to healthcare and Iraq to unseat a three-term incumbent in a suburban district that clearly leans Republican. If that discontent is turned instead toward the Democratic Congress in 2008, Altmire could easily see himself swept away. Ex-Rep. Melissa Hart has said she is considering a rematch, but Steelers legend Lynn Swann, who ran for Governor in 2006 and carried the district, has signaled interest as well. Still, Altmire came out of 2006 a winner and Swann lost big, so the momentum would be Swann’s to reverse.

IOWA’s 2nd DISTRICT: Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Burlington

  • Representative: Dave Loebsack (D)
  • Outlook: Leans Democratic

Rep. Dave Loebsack, an ex-Political Science professor (quite a noble profession we must note), defeated ex-Rep. Jim Leach in 2006, taking advantage of the Democratic wave that even swept away Leach who voted against the Iraq use of force resolution. Leach was primarily a victim of party ID in a district that favored each of the past two Democratic presidential nominees by double digit margins. Earlier this year, Loebsack actually wrote a bill that would name a building after Leach, perhaps trying to smooth over some feathers he ruffled by accepting PAC donations, something Leach shunned during his time in office. Loebsack is definitely trying to endear himself to the district, but he doesn’t seem to have the same fit with the district that Leach managed in his 30 years as its congressman. The rumor mill has been quiet about possible challengers, but don’t expect Loebsack to escape uncontested.

NEW YORK’s 19th DISTRICT: Parts of Westchester and the Hudson Valley

  • Representative: John Hall (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

You may remember Rep. John Hall from the Orleans, the 1970s rock band that wrote “Still the One.” President Bush apparently did not remember Hall, until Hall complained to the campaign about unauthorized use of the song on the campaign trail in 2004. From there it was only a short jump into the world of elected office, as Hall ran for Congress against ex-Rep. Sue Kelly in 2006. While the district was competitive for both sides in the 2000 presidential race, redistricting gave Bush a nine point edge in 2004. That is not to say the district is entirely Republican, but Kelly did face significant challenges from right-wingers who saw her as too moderate, and those folks will likely be even less pleased by their new representative. Businessman Andrew Saul is an early contender to replace Hall and has been highly touted by the NRCC, but the other announced Republican candidate, Iraq veteran Kieran Lalor, has already begun warning conservatives that Saul could turn out to be “Sue Kelly all over again.” Keep your eye on this seat as the primary battle will no doubt be as entertaining as the general.

WISCONSIN’s 8th DISTRICT: Green Bay, Appleton

  • Representative: Steve Kagen (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

The 2006 race in Wisconsin’s 8th congressional district was the most expensive in Wisconsin’s history, as allergist Rep. Steve Kagen took over an open seat vacated by a Republican. Kagen ended up winning by just two percent, still a considerable feat when one takes into account the hearty Republican tilt of the district. Unfortunately for Kagen, his well-publicized post-election tale of staring down Karl Rove in a White House men’s room and boasting of his victory earned him some bad press to start his term. Rumor has it that ex-Rep. Mark Green, who retired to make a bid at the Governor’s Mansion, could be in the running for his old seat. Green was very popular during his time in Congress, winning his last three elections with over 70 percent of the vote each time. If Green does make a comeback bid, expect this race to be neck and neck down to the wire.

MINNESOTA’s 1st DISTRICT: Rochester, Mankato

  • Representative: Tim Walz (D)
  • Outlook: Leans Democratic

Even though ex-Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota’s 1st district thought he had backtracked from his term limits pledge as a Contract with America signatory, the voters had others idea and effectively held him to his own promise. The beneficiary of this was Rep. Tim Walz, who now occupies the slight-Republican-leaning seat. Walz was a teacher and distinguished former member of the National Guard, who graduated from the famous Camp Wellstone. Before Walz had been in Congress for even two months, a state Senator and a school board member announced they would challenge him in 2008, and at least another half dozen Republicans are waiting in the wings, including the current Lieutenant Governor. Although nothing has been made official, rumor has it that Gutknecht will not enter into the race, but with the crowd of Republicans already clamoring to get a shot at Walz, things won’t be easy for this first-term congressman.

NEW HAMPSHIRE’s 2nd DISTRICT: Nashua, Concord, Keene

  • Representative: Paul Hodes (D)
  • Outlook: Leans Democratic

For Rep. Paul Hodes, the second time was the charm, but the pertinent question now is whether the third time will be as magical. In 2004, Hodes went up against then-Rep. Charlie Bass and lost by 20 percent. In 2006, Hodes bravely took on Bass once more and was victorious by a full seven point margin. Bass has given no sign of wanting a rematch and is now instead mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate. Hodes is not quite out of the woods yet, however, even though the district and state have been trending towards the Democrats over the past few years. Already, venture capitalist Stephen Gray has met with the NRCC to discuss a possible challenge and several other former and current state legislators have been mentioned.

CALIFORNIA’s 11th DISTRICT: Pleasanton, parts of Stockton

  • Representative: Jerry McNerney (D)
  • Outlook: Toss-up

In 2006, Jerry McNerney pulled a surprise upset in defeating Rep. Richard Pombo, a seven-term incumbent who suffered from allegations of corruption and unpopularity with the environmental lobby. Pombo recently dropped out of the race to challenge McNerney, a positive development according to Republicans who would prefer the 2008 election to be a referendum on McNerney instead of another on Pombo. The top challenger is now former state Assemblyman Dean Andal, who resigned to run for state Treasurer in 2002, but lost in the primary. Bush won the district in 2004 and Republicans are touting Andal as a top-flight candidate, but after beating a seven-term incumbent, it’s not hard to imagine McNerney holding onto this seat.

The staff of Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball wishes our colleague David Wasserman well as he leaves our staff and joins The Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. We are proud of this outstanding graduate of the University of Virginia, and we know he will enrich the work of his new publication just as he has done here at the Center for Politics. Good luck and thanks for all of your hard work over the last five years (including a 2-for-3, 3 RBI performance in last night’s summer league softball game)! You are truly a Crystal Baller. CBZ4LIFE