Grudge Matches

Five former House Republicans are trying to win back their seats from the Democrats who ousted them in 2006.

National Journal
Richard E. Cohen
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Richard E. Cohen
May 23, 2008, 8 p.m.

Did the 2006 Demo­crat­ic tid­al wave catch some in­no­cent Re­pub­lic­an vic­tims in its tow? This Novem­ber, five former House GOP mem­bers hope to prove that was the case. But the fresh­man Demo­crats who de­feated them two years ago are con­fid­ent that the re­matches will have the same out­come.

“In 2006, my dis­trict voted against [then-Rep.] Melissa Hart, and not so much for me,” said Rep. Jason Alt­mire, D-Pa., one of the 30 Demo­crats who took a Re­pub­lic­an-held seat. “In 2008, I will re­mind people of her re­cord. And I will be happy to talk about what I have done.”

Hart re­spon­ded that her suc­cessor is ig­nor­ing the unique nature of the last elec­tion and the con­ser­vat­ive lean­ing of their sub­urb­an Pitt­s­burgh dis­trict.

“Alt­mire twis­ted my re­cord, with the help of Mo­ve­On.org, to try to re­make me…. Now, people are learn­ing that he took po­s­i­tions as a can­did­ate and that he’s gone in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion,” she said. “Be­fore, he was the box marked ‘oth­er.’ He’s run­ning in a dis­trict that is so­cially con­ser­vat­ive and fisc­ally mod­er­ate, and his votes have been wrong.”

For House Re­pub­lic­ans, these five re­matches are among their best pro­spects to re­claim seats in Novem­ber. “When you lose 30 seats and don’t win any from the oth­er side, that shows something big­ger than in­di­vidu­al cam­paign fail­ures,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man. “Last time, we were the is­sue. Now, Demo­crats have cast votes, and they are run­ning with a po­lar­iz­ing pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.”

But Demo­crat­ic strategists con­tend that Re­pub­lic­an for­tunes—and pop­ular­ity—haven’t im­proved dur­ing the last two years, as the GOP losses in three re­cent spe­cial elec­tions have shown. “These re­treads got fired last time be­cause they put Pres­id­ent Bush and the spe­cial in­terests ahead of their dis­trict,” said Jen­nifer Crider, spokes­wo­man for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

Re­matches in­volving de­feated in­cum­bents are re­l­at­ively un­usu­al in con­gres­sion­al polit­ics. (More com­monly, in­cum­bents may face the same un­suc­cess­ful chal­lenger from a pre­vi­ous elec­tion.) Giv­en their his­tor­ies and track re­cords, the two can­did­ates may have dif­fi­culty re­shap­ing their pub­lic im­ages—and privately, they may har­bor con­sid­er­able an­im­os­ity to­ward each oth­er.

The House cur­rently has sev­en mem­bers who re­turned after los­ing their seats. But only Reps. Dav­id Price, D-N.C., and Bar­on Hill, D-Ind., won back their seats from the mem­bers who ous­ted them. The oth­ers either ran in a dif­fer­ent dis­trict or sought an open seat after the in­cum­bent de­par­ted. Five oth­er House mem­bers vol­un­tar­ily ex­ited to seek an­oth­er of­fice and even­tu­ally re­turned.

Here is a look at this year’s five con­gres­sion­al re­matches.

This con­test is like one of south­ern In­di­ana’s long-run­ning—and bit­ter—high school bas­ket­ball rival­ries. The two can­did­ates are headed for their fourth con­sec­ut­ive show­down: Hill won by nearly 10,000 votes in both 2002 and 2006, but

So­drel pre­vailed by 1,425 votes in the in­ter­ven­ing pres­id­en­tial year.

Now, the Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger is count­ing on the high voter turnout of an­oth­er pres­id­en­tial elec­tion to give him a boost. He notes that Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton de­feated her Demo­crat­ic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, 67 per­cent to 33 per­cent here in the In­di­ana primary, even though Hill en­dorsed Obama.

“This dis­trict is al­most per­fectly bal­anced” between the two parties, So­drel noted, and it is a mostly small-town bas­tion ex­cept for the In­di­ana Uni­versity cam­pus in Bloom­ing­ton. He ex­pects to hold Hill ac­count­able for his 2006 cam­paign prom­ises to spur the eco­nomy and re­duce gas prices. “That will come back to haunt him,” So­drel de­clared.

Since re­turn­ing to serve a fourth term in the House, Hill has played up his in­de­pend­ence as an En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee mem­ber, in­clud­ing his oc­ca­sion­al will­ing­ness to go his own way on en­ergy and health care is­sues. And he is not con­cerned about the Obama factor. After the In­di­ana primary, Hill ex­plained that his sup­port was based on which can­did­ate can “end the par­tis­an grid­lock and bring people to­geth­er to move this coun­try in a new dir­ec­tion.”

Both can­did­ates are clearly weary of their clashes with each oth­er—and dur­ing earli­er trans­itions, their aides sniped over the hand­ling of con­stitu­ent case­loads. Per­haps their biggest hope is that this will be their fi­nal face-off. So­drel said he doesn’t hear voters com­plain much that they are tired of the con­tests but ad­ded whim­sic­ally that the fu­ture will de­pend on Hill. “I don’t know if he will want to run again in 2010.”

In 2006, Boyda made a point of craft­ing her own cam­paign sep­ar­ate from na­tion­al Demo­crats, after los­ing to Ry­un 41 per­cent to 56 per­cent two years earli­er. She has con­tin­ued that ap­proach as an in­cum­bent by re­fus­ing the cam­paign sup­port of the DCCC and EMILY’s List. “I am very in­de­pend­ent,” she said. “I run my of­fice and my cam­paign on my own terms.”

Boyda proudly points to her cent­rist re­cord in Wash­ing­ton and—al­though she prefers not to men­tion him—she wel­comes the con­trast with Ry­un, who was the most con­ser­vat­ive House mem­ber in Na­tion­al Journ­al’s 2006 vote rat­ings. She also em­phas­izes that the Topeka-based dis­trict elec­ted Demo­crats for 20 of the 24 years from 1970 to 1994.

But Ry­un doesn’t buy Boyda’s mod­er­ate mes­sage, es­pe­cially in a dis­trict that Bush car­ried with 59 per­cent of the vote in 2004. “Not many people here call her a cent­rist,” Ry­un said. “I call her a Demo­crat.”

The former five-term mem­ber at­trib­utes his de­feat two years ago to his fail­ure to run an ad­equate grass­roots cam­paign and the lower Re­pub­lic­an turnout in a year when Demo­crats—led by Gov. Kath­leen Se­beli­us—ran well statewide. After the loss, Ry­un said, “I had a real time of soul-search­ing. But people told me that they want me to run again.” This time, he notes, pre­sumptive Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain and pop­u­lar GOP Sen. Pat Roberts will top the tick­et, and Boyda will have “a vot­ing re­cord of sup­port­ing the largest tax in­creases in the na­tion’s his­tory.”

Ry­un faces an ini­tial hurdle with an Au­gust primary against state Treas­urer Lynn Jen­kins, a GOP mod­er­ate. But re­cent polls give him com­fort­able leads.

Yar­muth’s com­fort level is en­hanced by the fact that he’s the only one of the five Demo­crats en­gaged in re­matches whose dis­trict was won by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in the 2004 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Plus, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans make up 19 per­cent of the Louis­ville-based dis­trict’s pop­u­la­tion (the largest per­cent­age, by far, in these five dis­tricts), and it has a siz­able stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. It’s likely that both groups would be at­trac­ted to the pres­id­en­tial can­did­acy of Obama, who Yar­muth ex­pects would carry the dis­trict.

The former loc­al news­pa­per pub­lish­er is also com­fort­able run­ning on his own terms. “In 16 months, I’ve done 500 events” back home with con­stitu­ents, he said. “That’s made me a bet­ter mem­ber.”

None of that dis­cour­ages Northup, who served a dec­ade in the House after beat­ing a Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent in 1996—the year that Pres­id­ent Clin­ton won the dis­trict with 53 per­cent of the vote. “In nine of 10 elec­tions, there are mostly two cap­able can­did­ates, and the ques­tion is who best can rep­res­ent them,” Northup said. “This dis­trict is not nearly as lib­er­al as John Yar­muth.” Obama’s huge loss to Hil­lary Clin­ton in the May 20 Ken­tucky primary—though he nar­rowly won the Louis­ville area—re­in­forced Northup’s con­fid­ence that Mc­Cain will run well in the swing dis­trict.

Yar­muth, Northup ad­ded, “has a vot­ing re­cord that is ex­tremely lib­er­al—for tax in­creases and spend­ing in­creases,” and he will suf­fer from Demo­crats’ op­pos­i­tion to new en­ergy sources amid rising gas prices. A former ap­pro­pri­at­or, Northup ex­pects to be­ne­fit from pro­jects she won for the dis­trict and from what she says are Yar­muth’s fail­ures to fol­low up on them, in­clud­ing a ma­jor bridge for which she gained ap­prov­al.

The in­cum­bent non­ethe­less doesn’t seem wor­ried. “Anne can’t dis­tance her­self from na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an policy,” he said. And Yar­muth voiced con­fid­ence that he won’t need as­sist­ance from his na­tion­al party to win re-elec­tion. “The best help that I can give is that I won’t need their money,” he said.

The 2006 vic­tory by the pre­vi­ously un­known Shea-Port­er was among the most shock­ing to House lead­ers of both parties. A so­cial work­er and lib­er­al act­iv­ist, she seized upon a grass­roots net­work and strong op­pos­i­tion to Bush in a state where Demo­crats scored un­ex­pec­tedly well. She plans a sim­il­ar ap­proach this time, coupled with a vig­or­ous de­fense of the Demo­crat­ic-con­trolled House. “I will be so pleased to talk about my re­cord and my votes for the middle class,” Shea-Port­er said. “I will put my re­cord against his.”

Brad­ley, who served two terms, has already launched ads against Shea-Port­er that fo­cus on the state’s le­gendary op­pos­i­tion to high taxes. With a vot­ing re­cord that sup­ports “big­ger gov­ern­ment,” he charged, “she’s no longer a blank slate.” A late-April poll by the Uni­versity of New Hamp­shire gave him a lead over Shea-Port­er of 45 per­cent to 39 per­cent. “We are buoyed by the poll, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Among Brad­ley’s chal­lenges is a Septem­ber primary race against John Steph­en, a former state com­mis­sion­er of health and hu­man ser­vices. The more con­ser­vat­ive Steph­en trailed Shea-Port­er by 8 points in the UNH poll. Brad­ley said he takes the primary chal­lenge ser­i­ously but em­phas­ized that “Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents want some­body who can mount a suc­cess­ful cam­paign” in Novem­ber.

The House race will likely be com­plic­ated fur­ther by the ex­pec­ted close pres­id­en­tial con­test in the Gran­ite State, which Kerry won with 50 per­cent in 2004. “John Mc­Cain has a long re­la­tion­ship with New Hamp­shire voters, es­pe­cially in­de­pend­ents,” Brad­ley said. But Shea-Port­er replied, “Once the cam­paign starts, people will real­ize that Mc­Cain is not a mav­er­ick. He has had an easy pass on his vot­ing re­cord.” And she noted with a smile, “In New Hamp­shire, polit­ics is a blood sport. I en­joy it.”

Hart says that her Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent’s con­ten­tion that she was too con­ser­vat­ive dur­ing her three terms in the House was “wrong then and now,” and she in­tends to make that point more ef­fect­ively dur­ing this year’s cam­paign than she did in 2006. She has high­lighted Alt­mire’s po­s­i­tions on high­er taxes and gas prices in an area with a long his­tory as an in­dus­tri­al base.

The pro­spect that Alt­mire will have a big fun­drais­ing edge does not worry Hart. “I have no il­lu­sions that in­cum­bents raise more than chal­lengers. But I have run be­fore as a chal­lenger.” Still, she voiced un­hap­pi­ness with the “heavy-handed” tac­tics of Demo­crat­ic lead­ers who, she said, have used “ab­surd pres­sure and in­tim­id­a­tion against people who have con­trib­uted to me in the past.”

Alt­mire, for his part, com­plained that Hart has been “no holds barred and neg­at­ive from the start.” He cited her re­l­at­ively weak fun­drais­ing and poll num­bers to ar­gue that her ef­forts have not gained trac­tion. And he ex­pects to be­ne­fit from the na­tion­al polit­ic­al cli­mate, even though Obama won only 35 per­cent of the loc­al vote in the Pennsylvania primary. Alt­mire ap­peared with Obama at events but did not make an en­dorse­ment be­fore the primary.

Alt­mire said he has heard through the polit­ic­al grapev­ine that he is no longer among the most vul­ner­able House Demo­crats from Pennsylvania. Re­pub­lic­ans “will have to make dif­fi­cult de­cisions,” he said. “I may not be a high tar­get.” NR­CC chief Cole, however, dis­coun­ted such spec­u­la­tion. “I hope he con­tin­ues to have that view,” he said. “Any­one run­ning against Melissa Hart who thinks he is safe may have an­oth­er thing com­ing.”

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