Democrats See Signs Bush’s Troubles May Pay Off Down Ballot

Posted September 26, 2003 at 1:48pm

As President Bush’s poll numbers slide, Democratic House prospects start to brighten, at least a bit.

The party of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) certainly has a long way to go before strategists can reasonably make the case that they have a fighting chance for control of the House. [IMGCAP(1)]

But every district that Democrats take from Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) in 2004 will be a step toward their goal of 218 seats. And to hear Democratic operatives tell it, there may finally be some light at the end of the tunnel.

“Since Memorial Day, we’ve had an influx of new inquiries from people who are interested in running for the House of Representatives, and that’s before Bush’s numbers started to go down,” says DCCC Communications Director Kori Bernards.

For state and local Democratic officeholders who hope to make politics a career, a weak national economy, the post-war situation in Iraq and a suddenly vulnerable Republican president combine to create a more favorable backdrop for a run for Congress.

At this point, the top Democratic targets appear to be freshman Republican Reps. Max Burns (Ga.), Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Steve Pearce (N.M.), as well as veteran Reps. Heather Wilson (N.M.), Anne Northup (Ky.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and John Hostettler (Ind.).

The Democrats also have their eye on districts held by freshman GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.) and Bob Beauprez (Colo.), and those of Reps. Robin Hayes (N.C.), Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) and Mike Rogers (Ala.). And add the open seat of George Nethercutt (Wash.), who is running for the Senate, to that list.

Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow has emerged as a well-funded threat to Burns in Georgia’s 12th district, a Democratic-leaning seat that fell to the GOP when Democrats nominated a candidate who had more than his fair share of personal baggage.

In Arizona’s 1st district, a politically marginal seat, former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt, the brother of former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, seems to be moving toward a bid against Renzi. And in New Mexico’s 2nd district, former state Rep. Gary King, son of a former governor, is strongly considering a challenge to Pearce.

Millionaire businessman Alex Alben could emerge as a serious threat to Dunn in Washington’s 8th district, which went narrowly for Al Gore in 2000 (by just a single point), and former Boston Celtics assistant coach Jon Jennings could develop into a serious threat to Indiana’s Hostettler. Oil and gas consultant John Works is mentioned as a potential opponent for Beauprez in Colorado’s 7th district.

An electorate increasingly skeptical about President Bush’s performance certainly could take its toll on Wilson, who faces a rematch with 2002 challenger Richard Romero. But while Romero is articulate and well-connected in the Legislature, he drew under 45 percent of the vote last time and would need a significant partisan wave to help him overtake the Congresswoman.

In the near term, the Democrats’ first test may well come in Kentucky, where a special election in the 6th district is looking increasingly likely. The incumbent in that Lexington-based district, Republican Rep. Ernie Fletcher, holds a clear lead in the gubernatorial race, and he is a narrow favorite to beat state Attorney General Ben Chandler in November.

Special elections are often headaches for the party that controls the White House, especially when times are rocky for the incumbent president and voters want to “send a message” about their concerns. While the 6th district gave Bush 55.5 percent of the vote in his 2000 race, it was his second worst showing in the state (after Northup’s 3rd district, which went for Gore).

If the seat does come open, state Republican Party Chairwoman Ellen Williams is widely mentioned as a prospective candidate, as are a number of state legislators. Her counterpart, state Democratic Chairwoman and state Rep. Susan Westrom, also receives mention as a possible candidate, as do state Sen. R.J. Palmer (D), Fayette County Attorney Margaret Kannensohn (D) and others.

The next few months constitute a crucial time for the DCCC, as the campaign committee tries to take advantage of a bounce in optimism about the party’s overall prospects for 2004. And a special election upset victory certainly would help Democrats convince skeptics that the tide had turned against Bush and his party.