October 4, 2002

At the Races

By: Timothy P. Carney

It was only recently that Democrats and their parrots in the mainstream media were predicting a huge Democratic sweep in November’s mid-term elections.

The Mid-term elections are often called the President’s report card. So, with the economy still flailing, Enron and WorldCom getting the blame, and Republicans painted as the defenders of big business, shouldn’t there be a national backlash against Republicans? Not exactly.

Lazy journalists point to generic congressional ballots, which all recently show a 3 to 7 point edge for the Dems, and say this means the House is going swing to the Democrats. Hopeful liberals point to the anti-Clinton backlash of 1994 and say the reverse is going to happen this year. Don’t count on it.

The only way to get a good read on the future of the House and the Senate is to look at 435 individual House races and 34 separate Senate contests. Such a review will show you that no wind of change is blowing in either party’s direction. In fact, the breakdown of both chambers in 2003 may be the same it is right now.

Currently, Republicans hold 223 of the 435 House seats. Democrats have 208. Socialist Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the vacancies left by Ohio Democrats James Traficant (expelled) and Tony Hall (appointed to an ambassadorship) as well as the passing away of Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) round out the 435 seats.

Expect any result from a status quo (223-211-1) to a small Republican pickup of 5 seats.

One of the most striking features of this year’s House contests is the very real possibility that not a single incumbent will fall to challenger this year. The most viable challenger is State Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who beat a Kennedy cousin in the primary and now leads liberal Republican Rep. Connie Morella in the polls.

Morella often earns the scorn of Republicans who hate her voting record (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 21%,. Plus she voted last week against the war resolution), but the district she represents is even more liberal than she is. The Democrat-controlled redistricting plan brings an African-American portion of Prince George’s County into her Montgomery County district, making it even harder for a Republican to win.

The best Republican challenger is retired Marine Corps officer and third-time candidate John Kline of Minnesota. Minnesota’s redistricting plan separated Rep. Bill Luther (D) from the Twin Cities, which he had represented since 1995, and threw him into the same rural district as Rep. Mark Kennedy (R).

Luther decided instead of challenging Kennedy to run in the 2nd district and face Kline for a third time. This new district is much more Republican than Luther’s old 6th, and should switch hands this time.

The other incumbents on the possible chopping block include Reps. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.). In Iowa, all four incumbents are in danger, most especially Democrat Leonard Boswell and Republican Jim Leach.

It is guaranteed, however, that four congressmen will lose this year, because of incumbent vs. incumbent matchups forced by reapportionment.

In Connecticut, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) holds a small, but steady lead over Rep. Jim Maloney (D). In Mississippi, Rep. Ronnie Shows (D) can blame Sen. Pat Leahy when the Mississippi Democrat loses to Rep. Chip Pickering (R), son of the ill-treated judicial nominee, Charles Pickering.

The Illinois contest between downstate Reps. David Phelps (D) and John Shimkus (R) is tighter than had been expected. Shimkus brought to the combined district more of his constituents than did Phelps, and so he looked like a real favorite. Recent polls show Phelps ahead, though, and this one could go either way.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. George Gekas (R) was supposed to knock of Rep. Tim Holden (D), but things are not going according to plan. While some suspect “the Geek” will make a run now that the House has recessed, Gekas has not shown the energy.

The tightest open seat races are the new 7th district in Colorado (leaning Democrat), the seat left open by Rep. Joe Skeen’s (R-N.M.) retirement (leaning Republican), and Rep. Tim Roemer’s (D) open seat in Indiana (leaning Democrat).

Republican redistricting gains in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Texas will offset Democratic gains elsewhere. The most likely outcome is a three-seat Republican pickup giving the GOP a 226-208-1 majority.

In the Senate, control depends on a few tossup races and a handful of contests where an upset is possible. The outcome ranges from Democrats expanding their 50-49-1 plurality to an outright majority, or Republicans raising their total to 50 seats and so gaining an effective majority.

Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) is the only incumbent Senator clearly playing catchup. Personal foibles and the big name of his opponent–state Atty. Gen. Mark Pryor (D), son of a former Governor and Senator–have put Hutchinson in a 10-point hole according to a recent poll. While Pryor won’t win by double digits, the ball is in his court.

Next in line on the chopping block is the “Senator on the left”, Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota. More liberal even than Minnesota, Wellstone faces a serious challenge from former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman (R). Wellstone currently trails in polls, but don’t count on things to stay that way. Once the Senate goes home for recess, Wellstone, one of Washington’s most tenacious campaigners (on his flight back to Minneapolis next week, once the “fasten seatbelt” light goes off, expect the Senator to get out of his seat and start pressing the meat), will make big gains. Coleman, on the other hand, fell into a slump at the end of his Governor’s race, and ended up losing to a professional wrestler.

The race between Tom Daschle’s boy Sen. Tim Johnson (D), and South Dakota’s homecoming king Rep. John Thune (R) is as tight as any race could be. Recent findings of possible Democratic voter fraud could play either way: bad publicity hurts Johnson, or dead voters push him over the top.

In New Hampshire, Rep. John Sununu (R) ousted Sen. Bob Smith (R) in the primary, but now the Granite State’s fortunate son finds himself trailing “Mean” Jeanne Shaheen (D), a terrible governor but a ferocious campaigner. Unless Sununu learns to play hardball, expect another Democratic takeover here.

Colorado’s Sen. Wayne Allard (R) is running against former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland (D), who has probably garnered more headlines than the incumbent since their last contest in 1996. While Allard is the favorite, this race will be tight.

The other states to watch are Missouri (Sen. Jean Carnahan against former Rep. Jim Talent), Texas (Atty. Gen. John Cornyn vs. former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk), and Georgia (Sen. Max Cleland against Rep. Saxby Chambliss).

In the open Carolina Senate seats, Republicans should win both. That will bring Liddy Dole and Lindsey Graham to the Senate. Lamar Alexander (R) should win in Tennessee. Democratic Senators Mary Landrieu (La.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) are almost in the clear, and relief pitcher Frank Lautenberg (Righthanded Democrat from New Jersey) should outlast Republican starter Doug Forrester (0-0 in his career).