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The Line: GOP Exodus From House Puts Party on Defense

Retirements continue to plague House Republicans' chances at gaining seats in the 2008 election with two new open seats in New Jersey entering the Line this month.

As I wrote in an article for the Post earlier this week, the rash of retirements -- 17 to date in the House -- has transformed the 2008 congressional elections. Initially Republicans were expected to be on offense; now it looks like they'll be playing defense and attempt to hold the line against a larger Democratic majority.

The problem for House Republicans is two-fold.

First, at least half of the open seats they must defend are competitive between the two parties and are in territory where Republicans have struggled of late. Among these are two tough open seats in Ohio and New Jersey, at least one swing seat in Illinois and an open seat in Minnesota. The underlying demographics of these districts and states make holding these seats far more difficult.

Second, as more and more Republican members of Congress head into retirement, it makes it far easier for other Congressman only considering retirement to walk away. It's a lot easier to be the 18th man (or woman) off the ship than the second or third. Among those to keep an eye on in the coming months are Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Bill Young (Fla.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.) and Tom Davis (Va.). All could face far tougher re-election fights than they are used to and might decide retirement is the more attractive option.

The likelihood of further open seat vulnerability makes the task before House Republicans extremely difficult. Of the ten seats on this month's Line, eight are Republican-held open seats and we can easily envision a scenario where all ten slots on the Line are occupied by GOP vacancies.

As always, the number one ranked race is the most likely to change parties next November. Offer your own thoughts on the Line in the comments section below.

To the Line!

* Races dropped since the last House Line: Florida's 16th District (Currently Democratic)

* Races added: Pennsylvania's 10th (D), New Jersey's 3rd (R) and 7th (R)

* Last Cut (Dem.-held): Kansas's 2nd

* Last Cut (GOP-held): Michigan's 9th

10. Pennsylvania's 10th District (Currently D): There's no way around it: this district stinks for Democrats. President Bush won it with 60 percent even as he was losing the entire state with 48 percent. In 2006, Rep. Chris Carney (D) unseated incumbent Don Sherwood (R), who had admitted an extramarital affair and been accused of choking his mistress, by 53 percent to 47 percent. The best news for Carney is that Republicans seem headed for a costly and bruising primary between businessmen Chris Hackett and Dan Meuser. But, it may be so early (late April) that the party's chances at beating Carney won't really be diminished. (Previous ranking: N/A)

9. Arizona's 1st District (Currently R): Scandal-plagued Rep. Rick Renzi's (R) retirement from this seat gives his party a chance to hold it next November but many Republican strategists are pessimistic. Why? Because the last time this seat was open in 2002, Renzi squeaked by thanks to massive personal spending and considerable independent expenditures by the national GOP as well as a decidedly weak Democratic opponent. It's not likely the Republican nominee will enjoy such a scenario this time around. Democrats face a three-way primary with former state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick seen as the frontrunner. The lone Republican in the race at the moment is conservative activist Sydney Hay, although state Rep. Bill Konopnicki, state Sen. Tom O'Halleran and rancher Steve Pierce are considering bids. This race could well move up the Line in the coming months. (Previous ranking: 9)

8. Illinois' 11th District (R): The battle lines are already drawn in this north-central Illinois seat being vacated by Rep. Jerry Weller. Republicans have unified behind New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann, while Democrats scored a recruiting coup by convincing state Sen. Debbie Halvorson to run. The district leans toward Republicans -- President Bush took 53 percent here in 2004 -- but it is primarily covered by the pricey Chicago media market and will be a place where the massive financial edge by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will be brought to bear. (Previous ranking: 6)

7. Ohio's 15th District (R): Good news has been hard to come by for House Republicans this cycle but the state Sen. Steve Stivers' (R) decision to run for the open seat of Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) drastically improves GOPers' chances of holding it next year. Democrats have coalesced behind Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy who lost to Pryce by 1,045 votes last time. Kilroy retains considerable name identification from that race, but, Republicans argue, she also carries significant negatives. This seat's demographics -- President Bush won it by just over 2,000 votes in 2004 -- make it one of the premier battleground districts in the country. (Previous ranking: 2)

6. Minnesota's 3rd District (R): Among the newly open seats, none is more difficult to analyze than this one. On its face, the district should be very competitive; President Bush won it with just 51 percent in 2004 and the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities, which are at the heart of the seat, have been moving Democratic of late due to dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq. But, the race simply hasn't developed as quickly as some ranked ahead of it on the Line. For Republicans, state Rep. Erik Paulson seems like the establishment choice. There is no such consensus among Democrats as state Sen. Terri Bonoff, Iraq war vet Ashwin Madia and Edina Mayor Jim Hovland are all in the contest. Minnesota politics goes at its own pace and this race just isn't gelling yet. (Previous ranking: 3)

5. New Jersey's 7th District (R): Rep. Mike Ferguson's (R) retirement stunned House Republicans who now must defend one of the most expensive Congressional districts in the country (the 7th is entirely within the New York City media market). Adding to the Republican woes is the candidacy of state Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D) who came within 3,000 votes of ousting Ferguson in 2006. Republicans lost their number one recruit when state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. took a pass and now face a likely primary between Kate Whitman, the daughter of former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R), and state Sen. Leonard Lance. This district was made more Republican by redistricters in 2001 but given its cost Republicans must nominate a candidate with either a well-known name or deep pockets to compete. (Previous ranking: N/A)

4. New Mexico's 1st District (R): This Albuquerque-based district is hard to figure. Rep. Heather Wilson (R), who is running for the Senate, was a perennial target of Democrats and Sen. John Kerry won it in 2004 with 51 percent of the vote. And yet, Republicans are very optimistic about their chances while Democrats are noticeably reticent. Some of that has to do with the candidacy of Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White (R) who is widely regarded as a superstar-in-waiting by national GOPers. A poll conducted for White showed him with a wide lead in the primary more than 50 percent support against the two strongest potential Democrats -- one of whom, former state Attorney General Patricia Madrid, is not running. Albuquerque City Councilman Martin Heinrich is the favorite, for now, on the Democratic side. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. New Jersey's 3rd District (R): Rep. Jim Saxton's retirement is a BIG problem for Republicans. Why? First, this south-central Jersey district is marginal territory politically as President Bush won it with just 51 percent in 2004. Second, the district is covered by the incredibly expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets and is a very tough one in which to communicate. Third, Democrats seem united behind state Sen. John Adler as their candidate, while state Sen. Diane Allen, the preferred Republican candidate, dropped from the race on Thursday, a decision largely credited to her running dispute with the boss of Burlington County. (How can you not love New Jersey politics?) It now looks like Lockheed Martin vice president Christopher Myers will be the Republican pick and will enjoy Saxton's support. (Previous ranking: N/A)

2. Ohio's 16th District (R): This district, which sits due south of Cleveland and includes Canton -- home of the National Football League Hall of Fame, isn't as good on paper for Democrats as the open 15th District near Columbus. But, candidates make a difference and Democrats have one of their best recruits in the country in state Sen. John Boccieri, a conservative lawmaker who has been in the race for months. Republicans privately express concern about state Sen. Kirk Schuring who appears to be their likely standard-bearer. While President Bush carried this district with 54 percent in 2004, its population center in Stark County went strongly for Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) in 2006. (Previous ranking: 5)

1. California's 4th District (R): Another month passes and incumbent Rep. John Doolittle (R) remains a candidate for re-election. We're as surprised as anyone but until Doolittle bows to the inevitable, it's impossible not to rank his seat as the most vulnerable in Congress. Many Republicans openly acknowledge that Doolittle can't win next November and are hoping he either comes to his senses or loses in a Republican primary. One or the other is a near certainty, but until we hear Doolittle say he is retiring or watch him beaten in a primary this seat stays where it is. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 30, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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