Even Veteran Members Will Struggle to Win

Posted August 2, 2010 at 4:03pm

Reps. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and John Spratt (D-S.C.) need to keep in mind the fate of former Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.).

[IMGCAP(1)]Kelly, first elected in 1994, had only one tough race (in 1996) before she was upset in 2006. In the two elections before her defeat, she drew 67 percent and 70 percent. Leach had a tight race in 2002 but coasted to victory in 2004. Two years later, he was upset by Democrat Dave Loebsack, who was widely dismissed by national Democrats.

This cycle, Edwards, Herseth Sandlin and Spratt face the same problems that their one-time Republican colleagues did in 2006. Can they swim against the current and win re-election? The prospects of all three Members are less than bright right now.

Edwards, 58, has been a Republican target for years, and the National Republican Congressional Committee almost got his scalp in 2002, when he was forced to run in a dramatically redrawn district. But as Mark Twain might say, reports of Edwards’ political demise were greatly exaggerated, and he has continued to defeat all kinds of challengers.

A member of the Budget and Appropriations committees, the Texas A&M graduate knows his district. His record has been conservative enough, and his support for the military (and military spending) has been robust enough, to allow him to win re-election even in difficult cycles.

Over the years, I have found the Congressman to be unusually approachable and down-to-earth. He readily acknowledges his challenges this year but notes that he has always found a way to win re-election, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

But 2010 isn’t shaping up to be “about” Edwards, and that’s bad news for the Congressman, who has a policy of not releasing his poll numbers.

Multiple polls (only one of which was conducted by a Republican firm for Edwards’ opponent) show the same thing: Voters in Edwards’ district continue to like him but are now intending to vote for GOP challenger Bill Flores. Edwards represents a very Republican district, and he trails Flores by double digits.

Edwards is running a very aggressive race against Flores, and his hopes of pulling out another win rest on his ability to localize the contest. The Congressman has the resources to do so. He ended June with $2.1 million in the bank and has been hammering Flores, a former Houston oil executive, for everything from misstating his voting history and failing to take steps to save the Big 12 Conference to taking a position that would kill the expansion of a nuclear power plant in the district.

I wouldn’t count out Edwards just yet, but he has an uphill fight.

Far north of Edwards’ district, in South Dakota, Herseth Sandlin suddenly finds herself with unexpected problems. In a contest that some politically incorrect observers are already calling the “hottest” race of the year, Herseth Sandlin, 39, faces state Rep. Kristi Noem (R), 38.

Both women are personable and attractive, but this time Noem is the outsider who should benefit from a strong Republican environment in the state and nationally, as well as from some obvious contrasts.

The Congresswoman, who is married to former Texas Rep. Max Sandlin (D), now a lobbyist, graduated from Georgetown University and Georgetown Law School. Noem attended Northern State University in Aberdeen and South Dakota State University, but she returned to the family farm after her father was killed in a farm accident.

While Herseth Sandlin’s first foray into elective office was a run for Congress (she lost a bid in 2002 but won a 2004 special election), Noem opted to run for the state Legislature. She was elected in 2006 and re-elected two years later.

The Congresswoman opposed cap-and-trade and health care reform, but she voted for the stimulus, is a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act (also known as “card check”) and can be linked easily with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Noem is an unapologetic conservative who believes the government has grown too large and spends too much money. The executive director of the state Democratic Party has already called her an “extremist.”

A year ago, Herseth Sandlin seemed likely to coast to re-election, even in a bad year for her party nationally. That’s no longer the case. Noem is the real deal. If she wins, she, like fellow South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, could become a political star.

In South Carolina, Spratt, the chairman of the Budget Committee and the only white Democrat serving in federal elective office in the state, hasn’t had a truly tough race for more than a decade.

This cycle, however, state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, who served one term in the state House and is in his first term in the state Senate, is a serious threat to the 67-year-old Congressman.

Spratt, who was first elected to Congress in 1982, has overcome weakness at the top of the ticket before. He won 63 percent of the vote in 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was drawing just 42 percent in the district, and he ran about 16 points ahead of President Barack Obama in the district in 2008.

Unlike Edwards or Herseth Sandlin, Spratt has a large African-American population in his district, giving him a solid base vote. But his seniority, his record of support for the administration and midterm dynamics this year mean a giant headache for him.

As the Budget chairman, Spratt is easily defined by what his party has accomplished and stood for since January 2009. His support for the stimulus, health care reform and cap-and-trade make him a juicy target in this Republican district.

Spratt’s longevity is testament to his political skill and personal appeal. But this year, his longtime service, Democratic label and recent votes on controversial issues may well give even those who have supported him in the past enough reason to look for a replacement.

So the question is simple for Edwards, Herseth Sandlin and Spratt: Can any of them localize their races enough to squeeze out another win? I’m certainly not expecting all three of them back in the next Congress.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.