Roster of Vulnerable Incumbents Changing

Posted October 25, 2004 at 6:03pm

The sands are shifting in the battle for the House as the effect of massive spending by the national party committees as well as the demographics of the districts have combined to cement some candidates’ fates.

Traditionally, Roll Call publishes its final list of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents in its fall Election Preview. But enough has changed in the past three weeks that another seemed in order.

This list no longer includes freshman Reps. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), Bob Beauprez (R-Colo.) and Jon Porter (R-Nev.), all of whom were leading Democratic targets at the start of the cycle but who have pulled away from their opponents in the past few weeks thanks in large part to heavy spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

For Democrats, perennial targets like Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore and Utah Rep. Jim Matheson finish out of the top 10. Neither will win by big margins, but they are both favorites.

With seven days left before voters head to the polls, Texas remains the major problem for Democrats hoping to pick up seats in the House, as four Members in the state appear in serious jeopardy. For Republicans, Connecticut is their trouble spot as President Bush’s extended tumble in the polls has dragged down two Republican Members who once seemed safe.

These 10 incumbents are listed alphabetically, rather than in order of vulnerability.

Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.)

Burns began this cycle considered the most vulnerable incumbent facing re-election. While there’s still no doubt Burns is in jeopardy in this Democratic-leaning district, his prospects for a second term look surprisingly better than most everyone imagined.

He faces Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow (D), who has run an average campaign at best to this point.

Barrow has been hurt by his perceived flip-flop on a ban on gay marriage, an issue that Republicans have largely played to their benefit in a district that is culturally conservative despite its Democratic leanings. Democrats have focused on Burns’ support for a national sales tax — going so far as to label it the “Max Tax.”

Curiously, no polling has been released in this contest. While both parties no doubt have an idea of where the race stands, neither has decided to tip its hand — potentially a sign that Democrats haven’t seen encouraging news. The disposition of the black vote will be key.

Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.)

The steady attacks being lobbed by 2002 nominee Melissa Bean (D) appear to be taking their toll on Crane, the longest-serving Republican in the House. A Democratic poll conducted in early October showed Crane leading Bean by only a slim 46 percent to 44 percent margin, dangerous territory for an entrenched incumbent in a district considered to be the most Republican in the state.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is now up on Chicago television to try to boost Crane, whom Democrats are painting as out of touch and no longer effective. Republicans are hitting Bean for living just outside of the district’s lines and playing up the fact that, if elected, she would vote for now-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead of the state’s own Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Bean is up on television as well, as is the League of Conservation Voters attacking Crane.

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas)

Frost remains on this list even though his prospects have improved in the past month.

Frost and Rep. Pete Sessions (R) are pitted in this North Texas race that is likely to be the most expensive — and among the most nasty — House campaigns this cycle. Spending is expected to top $8 million in this race, which Frost forced after Republican map-makers cut his district into five pieces.

Frost has kept himself in the Dallas-area race through a combination of massive fundraising and street-fighter campaign tactics.

Republicans believe Sessions is the likely victor but acknowledge this race is closer than they expected.

Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.)

Hill is locked in a tough rematch with trucking company owner and 2002 nominee Mike Sodrel (R), who spent heavily from his personal checkbook and ultimately outspent the incumbent.

Hill won with only 51 percent of the vote last cycle, even though national Republicans paid little attention to Sodrel until the end of the campaign.

All that’s changed this year, with the NRCC touting the contest in southern Indiana as one of its top challenger races and airing ads on Sodrel’s behalf. The DCCC is also on the air, blasting Sodrel over the national sales tax issue.

Republicans hope that Sodrel will get a boost from President Bush’s presence at the top of the ticket, something he lacked two years ago. The state is also hosting a highly competitive governor’s race, and turnout is expected to be high.

Still, Hill has thus far proven his ability to hold onto this GOP-trending district.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas)

Lampson faces well-known former Judge Ted Poe (R) in a district that has both Lampson’s base of Jefferson County, which includes Beaumont and Port Arthur, and Poe’s base in Harris County, which includes Houston.

More than half of the district’s vote is expected to come from Harris County, while roughly 40 percent will come from Jefferson. The remaining vote is in Liberty County.

Republicans insist that their internal polling shows Poe with a lead well into double digits; Democrats contend that Lampson retains a fighting chance.

Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas)

Sandlin appears to be in serious trouble in his race against former state District Judge Louie Gohmert (R) in the East Texas 1st district.

Sandlin has represented less than half of the new district’s population during his time in Congress — a situation made even worse by the fact that the new 1st adds Smith and Gregg counties, both of which are heavily Republican. Adding to his problems, the Democratic Member has refused to attack Gohmert even as the Republican nominee and the National Republican Congressional Committee whale away at him.

Even Democrats privately concede that unless something drastic happens, Sandlin is a goner.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)

Shays’ first serious re-election fight in eight years is being complicated by Bush’s freefall in the state.

Though Shays’ southwestern Connecticut 4th district is less heavily Democratic than Simmons’ 2nd district, it still favors Democrats on the statewide level.

Westport First Selectwoman Diane Farrell (D) has run a solid campaign, positioning herself to take advantage of any favorable political climate on Election Day.

Shays’ political machinery does not appear rusty despite its lack of a vigorous workout in recent years, however, a fact that may enable him to survive.

Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.)

Simmons is fighting President Bush’s slippage as much as he is his opponent, former Norwich City Councilman Jim Sullivan (D).

Simmons has run by far the better campaign but is hampered by the underlying Democratic nature of the eastern Connecticut 2nd district.

With Bush continuing to nosedive in Connecticut, recent polling has shown Simmons struggling to break free. Even though Simmons has greatly outraised his challenger, Sullivan looks to have done just enough to take advantage of a strong Democratic wind in the state.

Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas)

The race in this West Texas seat, which stretches from Lubbock in the west to Abilene in the east, seems to be breaking along party lines, which hurts Stenholm.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) has centered his campaign around his support for Bush — a sound strategy in a district where Republicans running statewide won an average of 69 percent of the vote in 2002.

Stenholm has tried to make the race about his ability to deliver for the area from his position as ranking member on the Agriculture Committee.

Republicans, and some Democrats privately, consider this race all but over.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.)

Wilson has been a top Democratic target since winning a three-way special election in 1998 with 45 percent of the vote. But she has confounded them every time — most recently taking 55 percent against state Senate President Pro Tem Richard Romero (D).

Romero is back for a second shot in 2004, and the dynamic in the Albuquerque-based district may be different this time. By most accounts, he is running a tougher, savvier campaign. And this is a where the fate of the Congressional candidate may be closely linked to those of the presidential contenders.

In the 1st district, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is thought to be narrowly ahead, and as his numbers rose in early October, so did Romero’s. The most recent independent poll showed the challenger trailing Wilson by just 1 point.

Romero will benefit from a huge get-out-the-vote operation orchestrated by Gov. Bill Richardson (D). But Wilson is tough as nails and has defied the odds before.