Have Democrats Expanded the Field for ’06 House Races?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 13, 2006 · 12:05 AM EDT

For more than a year now, House Democrats have insisted that they want to widen the political playing field by recruiting strong candidates in districts they often have ignored. Now, with about 40 percent of state filing deadlines having already passed, it’s time to ask: How have the Democrats done?

The short answer is that Democrats definitely have added new districts into the mix. They are competing seriously in places that they haven’t for years. But Democratic recruiting is also falling short in some districts they’ve repeatedly targeted, and most of the competitive districts this time — not counting open seats — have been targeted time and again.

In upstate New York, Democrats have never had a serious candidate against Rep. John Sweeney (N.Y.), even including his 1998 open-seat victory, when he replaced retiring Rep. Gerald Solomon (R). Sweeney outspent his Democratic opponent in that race by more than two and a half to one, coasting to a 13-point victory. Since then, he has been re-elected with no less than 65 percent of the vote.

His 2006 opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, already has raised $750,000 in her bid to unseat Sweeney. As I’ve written previously, she is a well-connected, appealing candidate who should give Sweeney a run for his money.

In Pennsylvania’s 7th district, Republican Rep. Curt Weldon has been held under 60 percent only once in 10 races — last year, when he drew 58 percent while outspending his Democratic opponent $678,444 to $23,763. This time, Democrats have nominated Joe Sestak, a 31-year veteran of the Navy who retired with the rank of vice admiral.

Sestak has raised almost $450,000 for his challenge, and while his lack of political experience is a potentially serious problem, his fundraising and profile suggest that he will be Weldon’s toughest opponent in a very long time.

Democrats also have put Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) in the political crosshairs for the first time since 1992, when the Republicans won her seat with 44 percent in a three-way race that featured a pro-life conservative who sought to sink the more socially moderate Pryce. Since then, Pryce has never been held below 60 percent. Her 2004 opponent, Mark Brown, apparently didn’t file a Federal Election Commission report, yet drew 40 percent against her.

This year, Democrats are backing Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy against the Congresswoman. The challenger’s fundraising isn’t overwhelming, but she looks to be a serious opponent for Pryce, particularly in an expected Democratic wave.

In Arizona, Democrats are making a run at Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who hasn’t faced a tough challenge since 1998, when former Democratic state party chairman Steve Owens drew 44 percent against the Republican. Two years earlier, Hayworth nipped Owens by a single point.

Hayworth hasn’t faced a serious challenge since then, though he drew only 59.9 percent in the previous cycle while outspending his Democratic challenger $1.35 million to $4,898. This time, Democrats have recruited Harry Mitchell, 65, who recently gave up his seat in the state Senate to concentrate on his Congressional bid. (Term limits would not have allowed him to run for re-election.)

Mitchell, a former mayor of Tempe and the current state Democratic chairman, entered the race only last month, so he begins far behind the curve in this Republican district. But he is held in high regard in Tempe and is deemed a threat to Hayworth.

Democrats also have mounted a significant challenge to Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), whom they have targeted from time to time.

In Ohio, Rep. Steve Chabot (R) faces John Cranley (D). Cranley wasn’t much more than a nuisance when he challenged the Republican Congressman in 2000, but he looks more formidable this year.

Kentucky state Rep. Mike Weaver (D) is a stronger challenger than Democrats have had since Rep. Ron Lewis (R) was elected to Congress in 1994.

And, of course, Democrats would cite their recruits against GOP Reps. Bob Ney (Ohio) and Thelma Drake (Va.) as evidence that they have widened the playing field.

The question for Republicans in all of these races is whether the incumbents can regain their campaign skills quickly as they adjust to a new political environment.

In the case of Weldon, for example, the Congressman’s comment questioning the decision by opponent Sestak to have his ill daughter treated at a Washington, D.C., hospital rather than one in or near the state (she has a malignant brain tumor) suggests that the Republican’s campaign antennae aren’t exactly in tip-top shape.

And while Democrats have put at least a handful of new districts into play — again, not counting open seats, which are almost always more competitive than districts where incumbents are seeking re-election — the party is lacking strong candidates in some districts that Democrats have been talking about and targeting for years.

These GOP-held seats include North Carolina’s 8th district (Rep. Robin Hayes), Alabama’s 3rd district (Rep. Mike Rogers), Arizona’s 1st district (Rep. Rick Renzi), Pennsylvania’s 15th district (Rep. Charlie Dent) and Missouri’s 6th district (Rep. Sam Graves). In addition, the Democrats came up with only a low-second-tier opponent in Nevada’s 3rd district (Rep. Jon Porter).

But no party ever recruits strong challengers in every hypothetically competitive district — and even second-tier Democrats might be good enough to win if the Democrats’ midterm wave is large enough.