Incumbents at Risk in Today’s Primaries

Posted March 3, 2008 at 6:31pm

Just one month after two incumbents fell to primary challengers in Maryland, four more House Members are sweating their respective primaries today in Ohio and Texas.

What’s more, the primary contests are expected to draw a record-breaking number of voters to the polls today because they coincide with the presidential primaries, adding an element of uncertainty in both states.

Coincidentally, two of the endangered House incumbents recently came off the presidential primary trail: In Ohio’s 10th district, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) has attracted four primary opponents, while Rep. Ron Paul (R) has a primary challenge in his southeastern Texas district.

Kucinich’s most serious threat is Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman (D). Coming off his second presidential race, Kucinich started out the year with next to nothing in his campaign bank account, but he rebounded to raise more than $865,000 in anticipation of the tough primary.

Cimperman, who was endorsed by the mayor of Cleveland and has the backing of the city’s business community, has raised more than $527,300. The district, however, comprises the western Cleveland suburbs, including the many union neighborhoods that have helped re-elect Kucinich year after year.

Kucinich also may be aided by the split opposition: Anti-war activist Rosemary Palmer, North Olmsted Mayor Tom O’Grady and 2006 Democratic primary candidate Barbara Ferris also are running.

The other Ohio incumbent to face a serious challenge, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), is looking at her third GOP primary in as many years. Her most serious challenger, former Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich (R), dropped out of the race in January just weeks after state Rep. Tom Brinkman (R) jumped in. Brinkman hasn’t raised much money, so the incumbent will likely hold on to the GOP nod.

On the other side of the 2nd district ballot, physician Victoria Wulsin is running against attorney Steve Black in the Democratic primary. Wulsin, who lost to Schmidt by a few thousand votes in 2006, is favored to win that primary.

In Texas’ 4th district, Rep. Ralph Hall (R) is facing multiple primary challengers, most prominently former Frisco Mayor Kathy Seei and wealthy businessman Gene Christensen (among his business ventures is a NASCAR racing team.) Republican insiders based in Texas give Hall the edge in this race.

“I think Hall wins that race outright, even without a runoff,” said one Texas GOP insider. “His name ID is just too high.”

Paul, meanwhile, is fending off only one fellow Republican — Friendswood City Councilman Chris Peden.

Republicans monitoring this contest expect Paul to win handily, although the Congressman deemed Peden enough of a threat that he took a temporary leave from his long-shot presidential campaign to focus most of his energy on winning his House primary.

Regardless of how the incumbents perform in the 4th and the 14th today, Republicans are not expected to face formidable competition for these seats in November from the Democrats.

Back in Ohio, Republicans are facing competitive primaries in several contests.

Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner predicted a 52 percent turnout for today’s primaries, up from 24.3 percent in the 2006 primary and 32.8 percent turnout in the 2004 presidential primary. Additionally, 20 percent of voters already have voted early via absentee ballot, according to the official office.

The Ohio primary is considered a semi-open contest, so voters can register the day of the election with either party to vote in the primary.

In the district south of Columbus held by retiring Rep. David Hobson (R), state Sen. Steve Austria, Clark County Republican Party Chairman Dan Harkins and former state Rep. Ron Hood are running for the GOP nod.

Austria has Hobson’s backing and had raised significantly more funds than both Harkins and Hood combined. The district is solidly Republican, giving President Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2004.

In the 16th district, Ashland County Commissioner Matt Miller, radio host Paul Schiffer and state Sen. Kirk Schuring are running for the GOP nod. As in Hobson’s district, Schuring is backed by retiring Rep. Ralph Regula (R).

However, the 16th district, which circles the area south of Cleveland, is more likely to be competitive for Democrats this fall. National Democrats are backing state Sen. John Boccieri, who has a light challenge from former state Rep. Mary Cirelli.

Republican voters also will pick their candidate to face freshman Rep. Zack Space (D), who won the GOP-leaning seat after longtime Rep. Bob Ney (R) resigned and went to jail on corruption charges. Space is seen as potentially vulnerable, though none of the Republicans running — attorney Paul Phillips, former Guernsey County Magistrate Jeanette Moll and former state Agriculture Director Fred Dailey — has stood out from the pack yet.

In Texas, in addition to the primary challenges to Hall and Paul, there are two additional House GOP contests that could lead to a shake-up in the Lone Star State’s Congressional delegation come November.

In the GOP-leaning 22nd district encompassing much of suburban Houston, Republicans are heavily targeting Rep. Nick Lampson (D). Most Republicans following the race predict that former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs will finish first in the primary today but fail to win the 50 percent of the vote she needs to avoid a runoff.

In the sprawling West Texas 23rd district, which includes the hill country near San Antonio at its eastern point, the winner of the GOP primary between attorney Quico Canseco and Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson is expected to help Republican officials decide how much effort to put into flipping the competitively drawn seat currently held by Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D).

“We are confident that we will be well positioned in Texas after the primaries to pickup seats this fall,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The 22nd district primary, in former Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R) old seat, is a crowded affair that is almost sure to generate an April 8 runoff, as none of the 10 candidates is likely to win the race with more than 50 percent of the vote. Republican insiders predict Sekula Gibbs will finish first, but they say her runoff opponent could pick up a wave of grass-roots and Capitol Hill support that carries him to victory on April 8.

The three candidates considered most likely to advance to the 22nd district GOP primary runoff with Sekula Gibbs are former Sugar Land Mayor Dean Hrbacek, ex-Senate aide Pete Olson and former Pasadena Mayor John Manlove.

With only two candidates running in the 23rd district GOP primary, that contest — which has become quite contentious in recent days — should be decided by the time all of the votes are counted this evening.

The 23rd district was redrawn by a federal District Court in the summer of 2006, a move that helped Rodriguez oust then-Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) in a December 2006 runoff after Bonilla finished just 2 points shy of winning the seat outright in a special general election held on the same day as the 2006 midterm elections.

“It’s a very close race here,” said a Republican strategist with ties to the Lone Star State. “Larson is depending on his name ID, and Quico Canseco has been dumping in a ton of cash.”