House Democrats Need ‘85 Percent Solution’ in Fight to Regain Control of Chamber This Cycle

Posted May 13, 2004 at 3:00pm

As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) continue to argue that the House majority is within reach in 2004, a close examination of the playing field reveals that such an idea remains a long shot at best.

Though House Democrats have gotten several good breaks in recent weeks, including the surprise retirement of Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) and the emergence of several well-funded challengers in previously unheralded races, the Republican-led redraw of the Texas Congressional lines last fall more than makes up for recent GOP hardships.

In an attempt to provide a detailed analysis of just how tough winning back House control will be for Democrats this fall, Roll Call has done a race-by-race look at where the party must win to take back the majority.

It goes without saying that Democrats must minimize losses among their own incumbents, a prospect that outside of Texas looks reasonable.

For the purposes of this exercise, imagine that four of the six Democratic seats rated as tossups by Roll Call fall into Republican hands.

Democrats appear headed for a piece of good news in the June 1 South Dakota special election, where attorney Stephanie Herseth (D) continues to lead state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R).

Though internal Democratic polling shows Herseth’s lead has narrowed to single digits, she remains the favorite.

If they come out on top, it would be Democrats’ second competitive special election victory this cycle in Republican territory. Rep. Ben Chandler (D) won Kentucky’s 6th district in mid-February.

Those developments would put Democrats in a 15-seat hole. What follows is how they could dig themselves out — and shows how tough an undertaking it will be.

The True Tossups

There are six Republican-held seats — four open and two held by incumbents — that look to be nearly even fights between the two parties.

Three of the four open seats — Quinn’s Buffalo-area 27th district, Louisiana’s coastal 3rd district‚ and the suburban Seattle 8th district in Washington — favor Democrats demographically.

The fourth, Colorado’s Western Slope 3rd district, favors Republicans on paper, but Democrats have recruited their strongest possible candidate, state Rep. John Salazar, while the GOP has a hard-to-predict seven-way primary.

Among the incumbents, freshman Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Max Burns (Ga.) sit in districts drawn to either be competitive or favor Democrats.

Burns seems the more vulnerable of the two given his district’s strong Democratic underpinnings, but Renzi faces a serious challenge from former Flagstaff Mayor Paul Babbitt (D).

Democrats must win every one of these races to even come within shouting distance of the majority.

The Tenuous 10

Even if Democrats sweep the six true tossups, they remain 10 seats from the majority.

These next 10 seats that currently are rated by Roll Call as leaning toward Republicans include just three open seats, which are considered the most ripe for party turnover.

The remaining seven are held by Republican incumbents, many of whom are perennial Democratic targets who have repeatedly shown their ability to run and win expensive, closely fought races.

The three open seats are Pennsylvania’s 15th district, Washington’s 5th district and Nebraska’s 1st district.

On paper, the 15th is Democrats’ best target of the three, as then-Vice President Al Gore carried it with 49 percent in the 2000 presidential race.

Republicans scored a clear recruiting win there, however, as state Sen. Charlie Dent (R) entered the race early and won a relatively easy primary victory over two more conservative opponents in late April.

Democrats struggled mightily to recruit a candidate, eventually enlisting wealthy real estate developer Joe Driscoll to run.

Driscoll has raised Democratic hopes by raising more than $500,000 in the first quarter of 2004. But Republicans note that Driscoll reported more donations from New York City than the district; Driscoll also does not live within the 15th’s boundaries.

The demographic numbers in Washington and Nebraska are less encouraging, and much of Democratic hopes are hinged on the possibility of a damaged or unattractive Republican nominee emerging from the primary.

In Washington, former hotel chain executive Don Barbieri is the leading Democratic candidate and has already raised better than $600,000 — half of which came from his own pocket.

Republicans face a three-way primary that will not conclude until September.

But the district gave President Bush 56 percent in 2000, and current 5th district Rep. George Nethercutt (R) will be leading the ticket as he takes on Sen. Patty Murray (D).

Although it is not a typical Democratic battleground, party leaders believe conservative state Sen. Matt Connealy (D) can win in Nebraska, especially now that arch-conservative former Lincoln City Councilman Jeff Fortenberry has won the GOP nomination.

Connealy is a farmer who has performed well on the fundraising front; the three leading Republicans in the May 11 primary tore each other apart over tax and abortion issues.

Although some members of the GOP establishment appear uncomfortable with Fortenberry as their nominee, there will be plenty of time for the party to coalesce. Plus, Bush won the district by 23 percent in 2000.

If these three Republican open seats appear difficult for Democrats, the list of incumbents they must topple is even more daunting.

The best chances Democrats have are against freshman Republicans elected last cycle in competitive seats: Jon Porter (Nev.), Bob Beauprez (Colo.) and Jim Gerlach (Pa.).

Porter seems to be the least secure of the three.

Though he won with 56 percent in the suburban Las Vegas 3rd district, the hefty margin was due in large part to the struggles of the Democratic nominee, who was later indicted.

The district was drawn to be split evenly between the parties, however, and should play host to a closer race this cycle.

Democrats are high on former gaming executive Tom Gallagher, who showed more than $400,000 in the bank at the end of March. Porter had $679,000 on hand at that time.

Though Beauprez won by only 121 votes in 2002, his likely Democratic challenger this year, Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, was unable to win the primary last cycle.

The suburban Denver district is extremely competitive, but Beauprez is a very strong candidate. He ended March with more than $1 million on hand.

Despite having a suburban Philadelphia district drawn for him by Republican redistricters, Gerlach won with an unimpressive 51 percent in 2002.

After struggling to find a candidate, Democrats settled on attorney Lois Murphy as their standard bearer. Murphy has close ties to Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the former Philadelphia mayor, which should help her fundraising.

Gerlach had $400,000 more on hand than Murphy in early April.

The remaining four incumbents are tougher nuts to crack.

Reps. Anne Northup (Ky.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and John Hostettler (Ind.) have been targets ever since coming to Congress.

All sit in marginal districts, with Simmons’ eastern Connecticut 2nd district the most favorable to Democrats.

With the exception of Hostettler, all are in extremely strong fundraising shape. And, in the Indiana Republican’s case, he has never raised significant amounts of money, relying on a grassroots network that has delivered time and time again.

The 85 Percent Problem

Take any of the above races in a vacuum and Democrats can make a compelling argument on how they can win.

But they must win every single one to take back the majority.

That means Democrats would have to win 23 of the 27 seats rated as either tossups or “lean Republican” races by Roll Call — an unheard of 85 percent of the most competitive races.

What seems a more likely and reasonable outcome is for Democrats to gain a few seats in November, making a push for the majority more reasonable in 2006.