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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