ON THE BATTLEFIELD

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
Add to Briefcase
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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