Evidence Grows of Incumbent Vulnerability in House Races

by Stuart Rothenberg May 30, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

While there is plenty of evidence that voters are dissatisfied with the president, Congress and the direction of the nation, I am finally seeing a significant amount of evidence at the local level — in polling data and in recent primary election results — that the national mood is having an impact on incumbents.

The anger has hit incumbents of both parties, but it hasn’t been distributed evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Incumbent GOPers are taking more of the heat, and they are likely to suffer far more in November.

Last week, voters in Oregon and Pennsylvania sent messages of dissatisfaction to incumbents. In Oregon, incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) won renomination with just more than 54 percent of the votes in a three-way contest. While his 25-point win over former state Treasurer Jim Hill may seem substantial, it is a sign of weakness, not strength.

In Pennsylvania, state legislators who supported a pay raise for the three branches of state government, including themselves, fell like flies in the state’s May 16 primary. But the federal race that raised eyebrows involved the 10th Congressional district, where veteran Republican Rep. Don Sherwood (who admittedly has unique problems of a personal nature) squeezed out a 56 percent to 44 percent primary win over a prohibitive underdog.

A number of early polls now suggest greater vulnerability among Republican incumbents this cycle than I had previously assumed. (Even if you don’t accept all of the numbers in all of the polls, the surveys as a whole confirm that something is going on.)

Democratic polls in Republican-held districts such as California’s 11th (Richard Pombo), Indiana’s 8th and 9th (John Hostettler and Mike Sodrel), Pennsylvania’s 10th (Sherwood), Kentucky’s 4th (Geoff Davis), and North Carolina’s 8th and 11th (Robin Hayes and Charles Taylor) show Democrats running better against GOP incumbents than they should if this were a “normal” election cycle. In some of these districts, the Democrat is essentially unknown but running well ahead of his or her name identification.

The best evidence that the national GOP meltdown is affecting individual Republicans may well be North Carolina’s 11th district, where Taylor is facing Democratic challenger Heath Shuler.

Surveys conducted by Democratic pollster John Anzalone in the district in 2003 and 2004, as well as two newer surveys conducted for Shuler in February and May of this year by Anzalone Liszt Research, strongly suggest that President Bush’s current weakness is taking its toll on Taylor.

In August 2003, Anzalone found Bush’s name identification at 59 percent favorable/39 percent negative in North Carolina’s 11th district. Eight months later, in April 2004, Bush’s ID was down to 55 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable.

In February of this year, the president’s name ID had fallen even further — to 51 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable. And earlier this month, President Bush’s ID in the district stood at 44 percent favorable/53 percent unfavorable.

That precipitous drop corresponds to a drop in the Republican “generic ballot” — a longstanding survey question that asks whether respondents plan to vote Republican or Democratic for their Member of Congress in the next election.

In August 2003, the generic ballot in the district was even (38 percent Republican and Democrat), and it was still even in April 2004 (40 percent Republican and Democrat), according to Anzalone.

But in February of this year, Democrats held a very narrow 41 percent to 39 percent edge in the district, and in polling earlier this month, the Democratic generic ballot advantage grew to 44 percent to 36 percent over the GOP.

As Bush’s numbers have fallen and the generic ballot has turned in favor of the Democrats in the district, Taylor’s numbers have also dipped. I’m betting that’s not a coincidence.

In 2004, Taylor was re-elected to Congress by 55 percent to 45 percent over Democrat Patsy Keever — about his normal winning percentage in recent years.

In February of this year, Anzalone Liszt Research polling showed Taylor holding a 47 percent to 40 percent lead over Shuler. Three months later, in a May 9-13 survey, the Democrat reversed that, pulling ahead (albeit narrowly) by a 45 percent to 43 percent margin. During the same time period, Taylor’s 46 percent “re-elect” score in February dropped to 42 percent in May.

Bush’s job approval in the district also slipped over the past three months, falling from 44 percent positive in February to 38 percent positive in May.

Since Shuler didn’t run any district-wide TV or radio advertising between the February and May surveys, it’s reasonable to assume his movement in polling reflects the overall deterioration of the environment for Republicans, rather than voters’ sudden warming to him. After all, despite Shuler’s fame as a football player, most voters still don’t know much about what kind of Congressman he’d be.

Anzalone, who is polling for Democratic House candidates in a number of states this cycle — including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois — says that what is happening in North Carolina isn’t unique.

“It’s all about the environment, not the challenger,” he says. “Every Congressional poll that we have done for months has been good for Democrats and bad for Republican incumbents. Now, merely because of the environment, Democratic candidates can be at 10 percent in name ID and still be sitting in the mid-30s in [ballot tests]. That’s a huge difference from past years.”

And that’s why Republicans in 2006 are starting to look like the Democrats in 1994.