The Few, The Not So Proud

It’s Hard to Find Vulnerable House Incumbents This Cycle

Posted November 7, 2003 at 11:44am

The decennial redistricting process left so few competitive House districts that it has become considerably more difficult to compile Roll Call’s traditional 10 most vulnerable House incumbents list.

Not that a significant number of House incumbents couldn’t lose. There could be a partisan wave one way or the other on Election Day 2004 — but even then, the paucity of competitive districts becomes a factor.

What’s more, the new Republican-drawn Congressional redistricting maps for Texas and Colorado could be upheld by the courts, and that could have a tremendous impact on the fate of incumbents. If the new Texas map is not overturned in court, as many as seven Democratic Members could be endangered.

By the same token, Rep. Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) is probably safe if the courts do not change the new Colorado map, but he could be very vulnerable if the previous Congressional boundaries are restored, having won his current Denver-area seat by just 121 votes.

For the purposes of this early list, neither Beauprez nor the Texas Democrats are included. Naturally, this list is subject to change during the next 12 months. Members are listed alphabetically and not in order of vulnerability.

Rep. Rodney Alexander (D-La.)

Alexander’s victory in a December 2002 runoff election was an early Christmas present for House Democrats demoralized after losing six seats in the cycle.

Alexander defeated former House aide Lee Fletcher (R) by just 974 votes, benefiting from a divisive Republican nomination fight whose wounds never healed. Alexander’s victory ensured him a place at the top of Republican target lists for 2004. His Republican-leaning northeastern Louisiana district would have given President Bush 55 percent of the vote in 2000.

Republicans have yet to field a candidate, although they have spent significant time recruiting former Rep. John Cooksey, who held the seat for three terms before running unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2002.

Alexander’s campaign released a July poll showing him with a 52 percent to 37 percent edge over Cooksey.

Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.)

Burns garnered a spot on this list the day after last year’s election, before he was even sworn into office or elected president of the freshman class. His win in 2002 over an unelectable Democratic nominee makes him one of the top — if not the top — targets for House Democrats next year.

The Congressman had a relatively quiet first year in office, until last month when Burns gained unwanted headlines after his chief of staff said he was fired for political reasons and reports surfaced about an anti-Semitic remark a supporter made at a Burns fundraiser. Still, the sheer makeup of this district remains Burns’ biggest obstacle. The 12th district favors Democrats more than any other seat represented by a Republican on the most vulnerable list.

Democratic insiders are most enthusiastic about the candidacy of Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow, who had almost $300,000 in the bank at the end of September.

Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.)

Hostettler has been targeted before and won, albeit narrowly, each time. But in 2004 Democrats believe they have found the candidate who can oust the five-term incumbent.

He is Boston Celtics scout Jon Jennings, whom the local Democrats have coalesced behind, giving him a clear shot at winning the party’s nomination.

Hostettler, who has sometimes been his own worst enemy in past races, has never been a strong fundraiser. He does not accept political action committee money and has been outspent in two previous contests.

This year, his fundraising has been even more anemic than usual, and he showed just $32,000 in the bank at the end of September.

Jennings will hold a fundraiser Tuesday night featuring NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird and other basketball luminaries.

Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.)

No Member’s political future is more uncertain than Janklow’s following his involvement in an Aug. 16 car accident that left a motorcyclist dead and the former four-term governor charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Janklow is set to stand trial next month. Republican observers believe he is unlikely to resign his seat before November 2004 but admit ignorance as to whether Janklow will retire or seek a second term.

Regardless of his decision, 2002 Democratic nominee Stephanie Herseth is set to run and presents a formidable challenge. Herseth took 46 percent against Janklow last cycle — her first run for elective office.

Rep. Ken Lucas (D-Ky.)

Republicans have regularly failed to recruit a top-tier challenger to Lucas since he won the northern Kentucky open seat in 1998. In 2002, little-heralded businessman Geoff Davis (R) gave Lucas his toughest race, holding him to 51 percent of the vote.

Davis announced his plans to make a rematch in early 2003 and had already banked $376,000 at the end of September. He will face a primary challenge from attorney Kevin Murphy, who had a solid $253,000 on hand; Murphy had chipped in $75,000 of his own money.

Lucas is a feisty campaigner with the crossover appeal necessary to win in a district where President Bush would have taken 61 percent in 2000. Republicans believe Lucas’ decision to break his three-term-limit pledge will change their luck in 2004.

Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.)

After a narrow victory in 2002, Marshall faces a likely rematch with former Bibb County Commissioner Calder Clay (R), who came up short with 49 percent of the vote. Republicans argue that Clay will be bolstered by the president’s presence on the ticket in 2004, but it’s hard to see how turnout could improve after last year’s banner statewide Republican sweep at the polls, when Marshall won in the home district of the two top Republicans on the ballot — now-Sen. Saxby Chambliss and now-Gov. Sonny Perdue — as many other Democrats were going down to defeat.

Marshall’s fundraising so far this cycle has been lackluster to say the least, especially for a vulnerable freshman. Marshall, who underwent prostate cancer surgery in October, has also flirted with running for Senate.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

For Matheson, there is no escaping this grim reality: When you’re the only Democratic House Member from Utah — and, in fact, the only Democratic House Member from the Rocky Mountain West who doesn’t represent Denver or Boulder — you are going to be a target, cycle after cycle.

This year, Matheson appears headed for a rematch with former state Rep. John Swallow (R), whom he defeated by just 1,600 votes in 2002. (Swallow, however, has a competitive nomination fight on his hands.) The big question this time is how Matheson will be affected by the presence of his brother, University of Utah law school dean Scott Matheson Jr., on the ballot as the Democratic nominee for governor.

Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.)

Moore is fighting a losing battle against the demographics of his increasingly Republican district but may hold on for a fourth term with GOPers facing the likelihood of another divisive primary.

First elected in 1998, Moore’s base in Republican-leaning Johnson County has helped keep him in office. But according to the 2001 Census, Johnson County grew by more than 100,000 people in the past decade while the Democratic stronghold of Wyandotte County lost 4,000 residents. Moore is likely to benefit in 2004 from a primary between 2002 nominee Adam Taff, a moderate, and former Justice Department official Kris Kobach and state Rep. Patricia Barbieri-Lightner, both conservatives. Moore ended September with $490,000.

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.)

Renzi may be the top target for Democrats in the 2004 cycle. He won just 49 percent of the vote in 2002 against a lackluster Democratic nominee who struggled with past business problems and fundraising. Democrats may be shooting themselves in the foot, however, as three candidates have already made it clear they will seek the nomination, presaging a primary fight that could keep Renzi in office for a second term. National Democrats are most enthusiastic about the candidacy of former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt, the brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. However, 2002 nominee George Cordova and 2002 candidate Diane Prescott are also in the race, and Prescott already has more than $175,000 in the bank. Renzi ended the period with $281,000 on hand. The district, which was created following the 2001 reapportionment, is evenly divided between the parties.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.)

Although Rogers doesn’t currently have a Democratic challenger, the competitive nature of this swing district combined with the fact that he won only 50 percent in 2002 earned him a spot on this list.

Democrats are hoping that Calhoun County Circuit Court Judge Joel Laird (D) will run. Laird is from Anniston, Rogers’ hometown.

Meanwhile, Rogers has been one of the top fundraisers of the freshman class, with more than $600,000 in the bank on Sept. 30.

The 3rd district is 32 percent black, and the Democratic nominee will likely be helped by higher turnout in a presidential year. However, black turnout was also elevated last cycle during the state’s competitive gubernatorial race. So far there’s no evidence there will be a contested Senate race in the Yellowhammer State in 2004.