Can the GOP Buck History in the House?

The party in power usually loses big in midterm elections. This year could be different if Republicans take enough of these races

By Richard S. Dunham

White House political director Ken Mehlman likes to to point out that, on average, a President's party loses 30 House seats in a midterm election. What's more, it has lost seats in 32 of 34 off-year elections since the Civil War.

However, Mehlman isn't worried that the GOP is facing a debacle on Nov. 5. He's reciting those statistics in anticipation of George W. Bush bucking all historical precedents. Even if the Republicans fail to capture the Senate, the White House is prepared to declare victory if the party breaks with tradition and retains control of the lower chamber, where it now holds a 223-210 advantage, with one Independent. "If we keep the House -- and only keep the House -- that's a huge accomplishment because we are supposed to be drubbed," the senior Bush aide declares.

Mehlman has convinced lots of political pundits that he's right. The conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats have no chance of recapturing the House. The reasons are many: Reapportionment has moved a dozen districts from Democratic strongholds to swing areas and Republican bastions. The National Republican Congressional Committee had a stellar recruiting year. The GOP has a huge money advantage in some two dozen competitive districts. And the Democrats have struggled to articulate an economic agenda that would attract voters to choose them to rebuild the economy.

Still, as the 2002 campaign nears its conclusion, the Republicans haven't managed to close the deal with voters -- and a few Democratic challengers have unexpectedly surged. Keep an eye on the House races this Election Night. The competition there could become very interesting. Here are some key elections that'll determine which party controls the lower chamber in 2003:

Kentucky (3rd). Republican Anne Northup, the sister of Olympic runner Mary Meagher, has held a tenuous grip on a Democratic-leaning Louisville-based district since since 1996. The Democrats think they have a winner this year in Jack Conway, a moderate New Dem who's attacking the incumbent as all talk and no delivery. This is a race to watch: If Democrats can defeat vulnerable incumbents like Northup, they could retake the House on Nov. 5

Maryland (8th). Liberal Republican Connie Morella (yes, she embraced that label during a recent debate) holds the distinction of representing the most Democratic district of any GOP incumbent. Although Maryland's Democratic legislature made her suburban Washington district even more Democratic in the redistricting process, Morella is hanging on by trumpeting her independence and her left-wing positions on issues ranging from abortion to guns. Dem challenger Chris Van Hollen, a popular state senator, will win if his party's legendary machine turns out its core vote. But a Morella victory would be a stunning setback for national Democrats.

Michigan (9th). Democrat Jennifer Granholm is riding a wave to victory in the Wolverine State's gubernatorial contest (see BW Online, 11/1/02, "Post Time in the Gubernatorial Stakes"), and Republicans are nervous that two of their congressional candidates could get caught in the undertow. In the newly drawn 11th District, conservative Republican Thaddeus McCotter is clinging to a narrow lead against Democrat Kevin Kelley.

More worrisome for the GOP is the nearby 9th District, also in the Detroit suburbs, where Republican incumbent Joe Knollenberg was caught napping by Democrat David Fink. Two months ago, Knollenberg had a 2-to-1 lead, but Fink raised more than $1 million and matched it with this own wealth. If Knollenberg goes down, it's a sign of bigger trouble for the Republicans.

New Jersey (5th). Two years ago, moderate Republican Representative Marge Roukema nearly lost the primary to GOP supply-sider Scott Garrett. This year, she decided to retire rather than face a rematch. Now, Garrett is clinging to a narrow lead against Republican-turned-Democrat Anne Sumers. This suburban central Jersey district leans Republican, but it's decidedly moderate. Sumers is blistering Garrett for his pro-gun views. This is another national bellwether: If Summers prevails, it could fortell a Democratic House upset.

New Mexico (1st and 2nd). Two races to watch here: In the 2nd District, where Republican incumbent Joe Skeen is retiring, Democrat John Arthur Smith and Republican Steve Pearce are in a dead heat in a district carried two years ago by President Bush. In the neighboring 1st District, Republican incumbent Heather Wilson is getting an unexpected scare from Democrat Richard Romero. Despite the district's Democratic tendencies, the moderate Republican retains a slight edge. But Dems could pull a surprise or two if GOP voters stay home. Democrat Bill Richardson hold a commanding lead in the New Mexico gubernatorial contest, and the wide expectation that he'll win has Republicans in the state worried about low GOP turnout.

New York (1st). Long Island Republican Felix Grucci, of the famous fireworks family, was supposed to win overwhelmingly. But he made a huge mistake by launching a nasty attack on his Democratic opponent, Tim Bishop. The ads claim that Bishop, as a college provost, didn't respond properly to campus attacks on women. Bishop angrily rejected the charges, and voters turned on the incumbent. Democrats claim that the race is "within the margin of error," though the GOP still thinks Grucci can pull it out. This is a struggle Republicans can't afford to lose.

Georgia (12th). The Democratic-controlled Peach State legislature drew new congressional district lines in a way designed to create four new Democratic House seats. Dems are poised to take three of them. Then there's the 12th District. The early favorite, Charles "Champ" Walker Jr., son of the Georgia Senate Democratic Leader, has struggled. First, he was forced into a primary runoff. Now, Republican Max Burns is playing up Walker's four arrests more than a decade ago, even though the charges were all dropped. Burns, a college professor aligned with the Religious Right, has been running TV ads showing a police mug shot of Walker. The district is heavily Democratic, but the attacks have made it a close contest. Democrats can't afford to lose races like this one.

North Dakota (At large). Representative Earl Pomeroy is the most endangered Democratic incumbent who isn't running against another incumbent. The top reasons: He comes from a state carried nearly 2-to-1 by President Bush, and he has compiled a left-of-center voting record. It's no surprise that Republican Rick Clayburgh has been running as a pro-Bush conservative. Pomeroy should survive, but his defeat would reflect a national pro-Republican tide.

Pennsylvania (17th). The GOP thought it had ended the career of Democratic congressman Tim Holden when they eliminated his district and forced him to run against 10-term Republican incumbent George Gekas. But a funny thing has happened. Holden has outworked his House colleague and is on the verge of a monumental upset.

It helps that the Democrat is a pro-gun social conservative. It also helps that Democrat Ed Rendell is heading for a huge victory in the governor's race. If Rendell has coattails, the Democrats also have an outside chance to win in the new 6th District in Philadelphia's suburbs, where Dan Wofford, the son of former Senator Harris Wofford, is running an energetic underdog campaign in a decidely Republican district.

South Dakota (At large). This is another race that wasn't on the national radar screen just three months ago. Democrat Stephanie Herseth, an energy and telecom attorney, is locked in a tight contest with Governor Bill Janklow, 63, an irascible and folksy conservative. The 31-year-old Democrat, whose grandfather served as governor and grandmother was secretary of state, could become the youngest member of Congress. This could go down to the wire -- just like the state's ultraclose Senate race.

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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