Can Democrats Win These Four Uphill Open Seats?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 15, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

The Democrats have a real chance of sweeping three open seats in Democratic-leaning or tossup districts this fall: Arizona’s 8th, Colorado’s 7th and Iowa’s 1st. But they may need to win more open seats than that to take control of the House of Representatives.

To have the really big election night they’re hoping for, Democrats may need to win at least a couple of generally Republican-leaning open seats that went for President Bush. Can they do it?

The longer-shot open-seat opportunities are Minnesota’s 6th (Mark Kennedy), Wisconsin’s 8th (Mark Green), New York’s 24th (Sherwood Boehlert) and Illinois’ 6th (Henry Hyde). In each, national Democratic strategists are portraying the likely Republican nominee as ideologically extreme.

In Minnesota, Democrats argue that they got the Republican candidate they were looking for when the Republican district endorsing convention tapped state Sen. Michele Bachmann to be the GOP nominee in November. At the convention, Bachmann defeated two major opponents — one of whom had the backing of the influential Club for Growth — which assures her the Republican nomination in the fall.

Bachmann is an outspoken social conservative, and she was photographed crouching, as if she were trying to avoid being seen, as she was watching a gay rights rally.

Hours after her endorsement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a press release branding her an “out-of-step extremist” and charged that she voted against “competitive pricing for gasoline in Minnesota,” against increasing the minimum wage, against increasing the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and against “making investigation of child neglect charges easier.”

Still, Bush carried the district twice, with 57 percent in 2004 and 53 percent in 2000. Clearly, it’s a district that likes Republicans.

In Wisconsin, Democrats have a three-way primary on Sept. 12, but they already know who their GOP opponent will be: state Rep. John Gard, the Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly.

Democratic operatives paint Gard as an ethically challenged legislative insider and right-wing ideologue. Bush won the district with 55 percent in 2004 and 52 percent in 2000.

In New York’s 24th, the Republicans are likely to nominate state Sen. Ray Meier, whom Democrats will paint as more conservative than retiring Republican Boehlert and too conservative for the district. Democrats have a competitive primary, with Oneida County District Attorney Mike Arcuri the party favorite over health policy researcher/activist Les Roberts.

But the upstate New York district leans Republican, and Bush carried it with 52 percent in his previous race.

Finally, Democrats have been acting for months as if they already have Hyde’s Illinois open seat in their hip pocket. Their nominee, Tammy Duckworth, faces Republican state Sen. Peter Roskam, whom they portray as a protégé of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and a conservative firebrand. Roskam worked briefly on Capitol Hill for DeLay (during the Congressman’s first term), as well as for Hyde.

Hyde’s open seat isn’t as Republican as you might think. Bush won it with 53 percent both when he first ran for the White House and four years later when he ran for re-election. Moreover, virtually all of the state legislators from the area are Republicans. But Democrats argue that the suburban Chicago district seems to be inching their way.

Republicans will not let even one of these districts slip away without a blood bath of a fight, and Democratic rhetoric about the Republican nominees in these four districts may not sell well among voters who actually have met the GOP candidates.

I’ve met three of the four Republican nominees in these districts — all but Meier — and, after hearing the Democrats describe Bachmann, Gard and Roskam as knuckle-dragging, fire-breathing, right-wing bomb throwers, I was more than a little surprised to find all three personable and reasonable-sounding.

I certainly understand why Democrats hate the Republican trio. All three are politically savvy, unapologetically conservative and results-oriented. In short, they’d likely be formidable adversaries on Capitol Hill.

But expectations are an important part of politics, and Democrats have spent so much time portraying Bachmann, Gard and Roskam as scary ideologues that when voters meet the Republicans, they may not only like them, they may also wonder about future Democratic charges and attacks. (Roskam was recently endorsed by local Teamsters and Operating Engineers unions.)

Of course, Democrats have various sorts of ammunition to use against each of the four Republicans, and if the Democratic tide is big enough, all four seats could turn Democratic. But Democratic strategists would be wise to treat the quartet of Republican nominees in these districts as serious, politically attractive candidates, not as crackpots.