Open Season in 2010

House Seats Could Be Left Vacant as Members Run for Governor

Posted April 30, 2008 at 6:36pm

Democrats aren’t losing much sleep over their open seats this cycle. But 2010 may be a whole different story.

This year, Democrats control only seven of the 31 open seats in the House. They simply aren’t leaving Washington, D.C., the way the Republicans are, whether it’s due to excitement about the new majorities or peer pressure.

But it also could be due to a lack of opportunity. Along with no open Senate seats on the Democratic side, a mere 11 governorships are up this cycle (including only three open seats), and Democratic Members of Congress aren’t running for any of them.

Contrast that with 2010, when 36 governorships will be on the ballot, including at least 19 open seats. If Democratic House Members make the move, the Democratic Governors Association stands to benefit while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee can only wait and prepare to defend.

“We are fortunate to have such a talented pool of possible 2010 candidates, and we are confident that Democrats’ interests are aligned,” said DGA press secretary Brian Namey. “The first step in building a long-term majority in Congress is electing Democratic governors.”

In South Dakota, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) is expected to run for the state’s open governorship. Her family has a long political history in the state that includes her grandfather, former Gov. Ralph Herseth, and grandmother, former Secretary of State Lorna Herseth. The Congresswoman’s father, Lars Herseth, was a longtime state legislator who lost his own gubernatorial bid in 1986. Herseth Sandlin could run in part to redress his loss.

Herseth Sandlin already represents the entire state in her at-large district, and would be a formidable gubernatorial candidate. But her seat will be a tough hold for the DCCC. She had the family history in the state and one statewide bid under her belt before winning under unusual circumstances.

She lost her first House race in 2002 to former Gov. Bill Janklow (R), earning 46 percent. But Janklow resigned the seat in January 2004 after killing a motorcyclist in a car crash and being convicted of second-degree manslaughter. Herseth Sandlin won the subsequent June special election with 51 percent over former state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R). She won a full term, 53 percent to 46 percent in a rematch five months later, and cruised to re-election in the previous cycle.

But South Dakota still is a Republican state, and Democrats will struggle to find someone to follow Herseth Sandlin in the House. President Bush carried the state 60 percent to 38 percent in 2004.

In Tennessee, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) is mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate. If he chooses to run, he may face primary opposition from former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the 2006 Senate nominee, or former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell.

Bush did well in Davis’ 4th district, carrying 22 of 24 counties and winning it 58 percent to 41 percent. Davis initially won the seat in 2002, when GOP Rep. Van Hilleary decided to run for governor. The Blue Dog Democrat was elected with 52 percent that year and re-elected with 55 percent two years later in a district that stretches across central Tennessee from the Kentucky border south to Alabama and Georgia.

Republicans are trying to make some noise in the district this cycle with businessman Monty Lankford (R), but their best shot would be in an open seat. Democrats likely would need another socially conservative candidate to keep the open seat.

Rep. Artur Davis (D) is sitting on $881,000 in campaign cash without a serious 2008 race and is a potential gubernatorial candidate in Alabama next cycle. But his 7th district seat would not be at risk for a takeover. The district’s population is 62 percent black, and Bush received only 35 percent there in 2004.

Other Democratic districts could become competitive, particularly in a midterm election of a Democratic president, if Members vacate them.

Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz (D) is focused on re-election this cycle to his 1st district seat, but he’s also mentioned as a future gubernatorial candidate. Walz was swept in with the Democratic wave of 2006, defeating then-Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) with 53 percent, in a district that Bush carried by 4 points. Former Sen. Mark Dayton (D) is also mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2010.

Rep. Mike Michaud (D) won Maine’s 2nd district in 2002 when John Baldacci (D) vacated the seat to run for governor. Even though Michaud has had two easy re-elections, the district could be competitive once again. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) used to represent the district, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won it by only 6 points in the 2004 White House election. Baldacci will be term-limited as governor next cycle and Michaud is mentioned as a potential candidate.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) is also mentioned as a potential 2010 statewide candidate. The 69-year-old Congressman might be eyeing the governorship because it doesn’t look as if either of Hawaii’s Senate seats is opening up anytime soon. Abercrombie had close races in both 1994 (54 percent) and 1996 (50 percent), and Kerry won the district with only 53 percent in 2004. Under the right circumstances, the seat could become competitive.

Regardless of who runs for governor, the DGA is already preparing and planning for next cycle with its Project 2010. The committee is on pace to break its 2006 fundraising record in 2008, even though this year is considered an “off-cycle” for gubernatorial races. And with so few competitive races this year, the DGA will finish the cycle with money in the bank.

Of course, House Democrats aren’t the only ones eyeing governorships.

“If you’re a member of the minority, sitting in Congress today, you might take a gamble on becoming a chief executive,” said GOP consultant Phil Musser, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R) is a potential gubernatorial candidate, and is already being attacked by the Oregon Democratic Party. But the National Republican Congressional Committee is not likely to have much trouble holding his massive 2nd district seat. Bush won the district with 61 percent in 2004 and the rural area is conservative, despite significant growth in the Bend area.

In New York, Rep. Peter King (R) is publicly exploring a gubernatorial bid. He’s represented the Long Island-based 3rd district since 1992, and Republicans would likely have some difficulty holding the seat in the current political environment. Bush won the district by only 5 points in 2004, and Empire State Republicans are becoming an endangered species in the Congressional delegation. King is publicly looking, but he may not actually make the jump next cycle.

Other Republican Members who are potential gubernatorial candidates include Candice Miller (Mich.), Zach Wamp (Tenn.) and Darrell Issa (Calif.), who was pushed aside during the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis (D) but still contributed financially to the effort to oust Davis.

At this early stage, there look to be more Republican Senators seriously eyeing governorships. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) is a strong bet to run for governor of Kansas next cycle, simultaneously abiding by his term-limits pledge. He’ll be looking to replace term- limited Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) who will, in turn, receive heavy pressure to run for Brownback’s Senate seat, creating a rare Democratic opportunity and National Republican Senatorial Committee headache in Kansas.

Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) is widely expected to run for governor in 2010, replacing Gov. Sonny Perdue (R). Isakson ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990 and would need to get past state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine (R), who has already announced for the race. At one point, Perdue was mentioned as a Senate candidate for Isakson’s seat, but that scenario may be in doubt.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison could be headed for a Republican primary for governor as well, where she could face off against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.