Possible Upsets, Late Breakers and Missed Opportunities

Posted October 25, 2004 at 2:01pm

As we head down to the wire in this year’s elections, some races suddenly look interesting, while others look like missed opportunities. [IMGCAP(1)]

Leading the list of late-breaking races is the Kentucky Senate contest.

The advantages held by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) — lots of money, a guaranteed strong showing by President Bush at the top of the ticket, a second-tier opponent and a state that is trending increasingly Republican — should have him coasting to a second term. Instead, he’s in real trouble.

Bunning was a far better Major League pitcher than he is a Senate candidate.

The Republican has somehow made himself the issue in the race, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has dropped $815,000 into the race to try to defeat him. His opponents (including Democratic nominee Dan Mongiardo and some in the media) now portray Bunning as erratic and out of touch.

In private ballot tests, the Senator is under 50 percent, and his huge lead has almost completely evaporated. GOP insiders believe that he will still squeak out a victory, but if you are looking for a Senate upset, this contest deserves your attention.

In the House, each party appears to have a late-breaking race or two that could produce a considerable upset.

Under most circumstances, retiring Rep. Ed Schrock’s open seat, Virginia’s 2nd district, ought to remain Republican. But Democrat David Ashe is giving state Del. Thelma Drake (R) a serious run for her money. Democrats argue that Drake over-reached when she accused Ashe, who served a tour of duty in Iraq with the Marines as a lawyer, of not being tough enough on terrorism.

While everyone who is paying any attention to this election cycle already knows that veteran GOP Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois’ 8th district is in deep trouble, many don’t yet realize how endangered Connecticut 4th district Rep. Christopher Shays (R) is.

Months ago, I identified Westport Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D) as a strong candidate with only a small chance of upsetting Shays, an entrenched moderate-to-liberal Republican. But the combination of Bush’s problems in the Northeast and Shays’ refusal to chew up his opponent have put this GOP seat at considerable risk.

The Republicans have their own long-shots-turned-upset possibilities in California, Indiana and Missouri.

Indiana’s 9th district probably is the GOP’s best shot. While incumbent Rep. Baron Hill (D) is no slouch, his district is highly competitive, and Republican challenger Mike Sodrel, who drew 46 percent against Hill last cycle, is again breathing down the Democrat’s neck, according to recent polling.

In California, the National Republican Congressional Committee has sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into upsetting former state Sen. Jim Costa (D), the favorite in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Cal Dooley (D). State Sen. Roy Ashburn (R) remains an underdog in a Democratic-leaning district, but Costa isn’t coasting to election as Democrats once assumed.

Finally, wealthy GOP businesswoman Jeanne Patterson is proving to be a pesky opponent for former Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver in a district that is so solidly Democratic (the party has more than a 20-point “generic” advantage) that a competitive race looked impossible.

But Cleaver has some ethics issues that were exposed in his primary, and Patterson’s wealth and aggressiveness are making this a race that deserves at least a look. A recent media poll confirms what Republican operatives have been saying: This is a single-digit race.

This cycle has also had its share of missed opportunities.

Two years ago, the House contest in Colorado’s 7th district was the tightest in the nation, and the district appeared headed for another close contest. But this time, Democratic nominee Dave Thomas, the Jefferson County district attorney, imploded shortly after the first Republican attacks hit. Instead of being one of the most vulnerable incumbents, freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) looks like a relatively easy winner.

If Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.) was widely regarded as the single most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election in 2004, then Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi (R) was a close second. But Arizona observers no longer see Renzi as in trouble, an indictment of the candidacy of Democrat Paul Babbitt.

National and state Democrats helped clear the field for Babbitt in the primary, allowing the brother of former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to win the nomination earlier this year without a fight. That may have helped Babbitt conserve resources for the general election, but it also obscured the fact that he is a mediocre candidate.

Finally, Kentucky’s 4th is either a late-breaker or a missed opportunity, depending on who wins. When Rep. Ken Lucas (D) announced that he wouldn’t see re-election, Republicans knew they had a Democratic district for the taking. But Nick Clooney (D) has proved to be more formidable — and more difficult to label — than Republican strategists expected.

Clooney looks and sounds like a Member of Congress, even if his views are far too liberal for the district. Republican Geoff Davis, who is a less-than-compelling candidate, has had trouble overtaking Clooney. If the Democrats hold this seat, it will be a missed opportunity for the Republicans. On the other hand, if Davis defeats Clooney, it will be a late breaker.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.