The Dangerous (Not Nearly) Dozen Open House Seats

Posted February 13, 2004 at 3:42pm

Today’s special election in Kentucky’s 6th district is the first open-seat contest of the cycle. But while partisan turnover is likely, switching the seat from Republican to Democrat, few other open seats appear competitive, and even fewer are likely to change party control.

[IMGCAP(1)]So, since I can’t come up with 12 open seats for my usual Dangerous Dozen Open Seats column, I’ll start with what I’ve got — nine seats — and add other competitive open-seat races as (or should I say ‘if’) they develop over the next few months. Another special election could be scheduled if and when Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) yields his seat for a job in the private sector.

Of the nine races below, the first four are in a class by themselves in terms of competitiveness and likelihood of changing party control. The others are long shots.

1. Kentucky 4th: This reliably Republican district (which went 61 percent for George W. Bush in 2000) should return to the GOP column now that conservative Rep. Ken Lucas (D) is retiring. The Republicans don’t have great candidates, but given the district’s GOP bent, they may not need much. Army veteran/2002 Republican nominee Geoff Davis has received a contribution from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), and the committee is quietly backing him. While attorney/former Kenton County GOP Chairman Kevin Murphy makes a much better impression, his support of Lucas in 1998 against an ethically challenged GOP opponent still has some Republicans seeing red. Democrat Nick Clooney, father of Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney, looks to be far too far liberal for this district.

2. South Dakota At Large: Stephanie Herseth (D) begins with an advantage over Republican state Sen. Larry Diedrich in the June 1 special election to fill the vacancy created by Republican Bill Janklow’s resignation. One poll put her up 58 percent to 29 percent. The Republicans have a partisan advantage in the state, so Diedrich should be able to close the gap. But he probably needs to paint Herseth as a liberal to win, and it’s not clear whether he can do that in the special election or how voters will respond to his criticism of her.

3. Washington 8th: Wealthy former high-tech businessman Alex Alben (D) has been in the race for months, while Republicans are just starting to sort out their options following the retirement announcement of Rep. Jennifer Dunn. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert has jumped into the GOP race. Al Gore carried the district by 2 points in 2000.

4. Louisiana 7th: Democratic Rep. Chris John’s Senate bid gives the Republicans an opportunity in a district that went 55 percent for Bush. Two state Senators, Willie Mount and Don Cravins, and former Judge Ned Doucet are battling it out for the Democratic nomination, while heart surgeon Charles Boustany apparently has an edge over school board member David Thibodeaux for the Republican nomination.

5. Colorado 3rd: Republican Scott McInnis’ open seat went solidly for Bush in 2000 (58 percent to 42 percent), making it a tough road for any Democrat. A number of GOP elected officials are looking at the race, while district Democrats may rally around state Rep. John Salazar, the brother of Colorado’s attorney general.

6. Pennsylvania 13th: Gore carried this Philadelphia/Montgomery County district with 56 percent four years ago, so the Democratic nominee will be favored to hold retiring Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel’s seat. State Sen. Allyson Schwartz and Joe Torsella, a one-time aide to then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, are locked in a competitive race, and Republicans hope that that will give their nominee a chance. Melissa Brown, who drew 47 percent two years ago, faces state Rep. Ellen Bard for the GOP nomination.

7. Washington 5th: Rep. George Nethercutt (R) is running for the Senate, and Democrats hope that businessman Don Barbieri is the kind of well-funded, moderate candidate who can steal the seat. But Bush won it with 57 percent in 2000, and the Republicans will be favored if they can unite behind their nominee after their September primary. The GOP field is large.

8. Pennsylvania 15th: My inclusion of this district on the list tells you how few competitive open seats there are this cycle. This district’s demographics argue for competitiveness (Gore beat Bush 49 percent to 48 percent), but the Democrats’ likely nominee, businessman Joe Driscoll, lives in the Philadelphia suburbs and has no connection with the Lehigh Valley. Right now, state Sen. Charlie Dent is favored to win the GOP nomination and to hold the seat, which is open because incumbent Pat Toomey (R) is running for the Senate.

9. Oklahoma 2nd: While Bush carried this district in 2000 (53 percent to 47 percent), it clearly trends Democratic. Former Rep. Tom Coburn (R) held the seat for three terms, but when he retired, moderate Democrat Brad Carson won it and has had little trouble retaining. At least three serious Democrats are in the race, but the early favorite is state Rep. Dan Boren, son of former Sen. David Boren. At this point, the Republicans don’t have much. A strong Democrat should be able to hold the seat, but a liberal would have problems.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.