Nail-Biters in 2002's Midterm Elections

Can Bush beat the odds that say the party in power loses seats in the first election after moving in? These races may tell

Richard S. Dunham

Despite Republican President George W. Bush's soaring popularity, he's just six House seats away from facing a Congress controlled by Democrats. The U.S. Senate fell into Democratic hands last year when Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent.

That makes the 2002 midterm elections in November a high-stakes game. With the Republican majority in the House of Representatives so tenuous, it's no wonder White House political advisers say the President will shift from statesman mode to partisan salesman over the course of 2002.

History would seem to work against the GOP this year. Presidents almost always lose congressional seats in their first midterm election. And the party in control of the White House almost always loses seats amid an economic turndown.

But Republicans remain hopeful for several reasons. They draw a comparison between 2002 and the war on terrorism and 1962, when Americans rallied around John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis in a midterm election. That year, voters bucked history: Kennedy's Democrats actually gained seats.

Plus, the reapportionment and redistricting process, which occurs every decade and is nearing its conclusion, has created more GOP-leaning districts in the Southwest and Rocky Mountain West, while costing the Democrats at least five incumbents in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Furthermore, Republicans will have a big edge in campaign dollars.

Here are some of the key House races to watch this year, and how they could tip the balance of power in Congress:

Condit's Last Stand

If embattled Representative Gary Condit manages to win the Democratic primary over Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, he's almost certain to lose the general election to a Republican. The most likely Republican candidate -- State Senator Dick Monteith.

But if Cardoza ousts Condit in the primary, he'll be favored in the fall in a district redrawn by Golden State Democrats to become more Democratic and more Hispanic. Republicans are actually hoping that Condit's campaign cash and record of constituency service help him eke out a primary victory.

Big John's Big Headache

Michigan Republicans, who control the Wolverine State's legislature, eliminated three Democratic seats during the redistricting process while adding one new, probably GOP district. The most interesting fight is shaping up as a primary contest between two Democratic incumbents: John Dingell, a hard-charging New Deal Democrat from Dearborn, and Lynn Rivers of Ann Arbor.

Dingell, one of the most senior members of the House, will have the money and lots of support from friends in organized labor and the National Rifle Assn. Rivers' ace in the hole is the liberal voter base surrounding the University of Michigan. Whoever wins, the Democratic Party is sure to lose one valuable incumbent.

Barr Brawl

Outspoken conservative Representative Bob Barr was a virulent Bill Clinton basher, making himself one Republican that Democrats love to hate. During the redistricting process, the Democratic-controlled Georgia legislature wreaked vengeance upon Barr by combining his district with one represented by fellow Republican John Linder. Linder, a former member of the House GOP leadership, has seen his power dim with the demise of fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich. This will be a dog fight, unless one of the two tough guys backs down and retires before the August primary -- but don't count on it.

The Sons Also Rise

The Texas political landscape is strewn with familiar names this year. Former Senator Lloyd Bentsen's nephew, Representative Kent Bentsen, is running for U.S. Senate. And two sons of Republican congressmen are trying to follow their dads to Washington. In North Texas, Denton County Judge Scott Armey hopes to replace his father, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who's retiring.

In Central Texas, Representative Joe Barton's son, Brad, has joined a wide-open race for a new district that adjoins his dad's. Because both districts are strongly Republican, the elections will be effectively over when the GOP candidate is selected. The question is: Do these presumptive heirs have the right stuff?

Henry vs. Henry

One of the best House contests in the country will take place in South Texas, where incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla of San Antonio must fend off a challenge from former Texas Secretary of State Henry Cuellar in a district that tilts Democratic. Bonilla, the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress, is a rising GOP star who chose not to run for the Senate vacancy created by Phil Gramm's retirement. That may have been a big mistake.

Cuellar, a former Democratic state legislator from Laredo, has a reputation as a bipartisan coalition builder. He served briefly in GOP Governor Rick Perry's Cabinet. It has been 18 years since the streets of Laredo had a hometown congressman. Keep an eye on this race: If Cuellar wins this one, the Dems might be on their way to regaining control of the House after eight years in the minority.

Keystone Kops

Although Democrats hold a voter-registration edge in Pennsylvania, the Republican-dominated legislature seems bent on drawing districts that would give the GOP more than two-thirds of the state's 19 House seats. One particular piece of gerrymandering is a district that would snake through the wealthy Montgomery County suburbs into Northeast Philadelphia.

The goal is to force suburban Representative Joe Hoeffel, a rising star among moderate Democrats, to face off against a long-time Philadelphia machine Democrat, Representative Bob Borski. The GOP's ultimate aim is to create a swing district the party might be able to win following a bloody Democratic primary. The beneficiary of the Dems' fratricide could be Charles Dougherty, the last Republican to hold a congressional seat in Philly. Then again, the Republicans could overreach. It has happened before.

Udall's the Name

Because of its rapid population growth, Arizona gets two new districts. One of them, the massive 1st District, is larger than the state of Rhode Island. And two of the dozen or so wannabes in this race have a name that's politcal magic in the American West -- Udall, from the Mormon family dynasty that has produced four congressmen (all Democrats), a senator (Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon), and a Cabinet secretary (former Johnson Administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall).

This time, one of the Udalls is a Democrat (Apache County attorney Steve Udall), and the other is a Republican (Chris Udall, an aide to GOP Representative J.D. Hayworth of Arizona). Both face tough primaries in a district that should be a political toss-up.

Standing Tall in Utah

It's tough being a Democrat in Utah, but Representative Scott Matheson has thus far defied the odds. The son of a popular Democratic governor, Matheson rolled to victory two years ago in a Salt Lake City-based district. To punish him, Republicans in the GOP-dominated legislature redrew his district to include thousands of square miles of rural Utah. If any Democrat can survive, it's Matheson. But the Dems can't afford to lose him (or other marginal incumbents) if they hope to take back the House.

Fair Fight in Fairfield

Connecticut is losing a seat in Congress, and it's looking like two incumbents will be forced to compete in a new swing district in the western part of the state. The colleagues-turned-rivals most likely will be moderate Republican Nancy Johnson of New Britain and moderate Democrat Jim Maloney of Danbury. Both have narrowly escaped defeat in the past. This year, one is fated to fall. This will be a tight race.

Nearer My God to Thee?

Two-term Democrat David Phelps saw his Illinois district carved up into three pieces, as the Prairie State lost a seat in reapportionment. A professional gospel singer and songwriter, Phelps will now be crooning for votes against conservative Republican Representative John Shimkus in a district composed largely of Shimkus' former constituents. Phelps, a leader of the conservative-leaning Democratic "Blue Dogs," has beaten the odds before. But he may need a miracle (or a worsening economy) to keep his seat now.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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