House Handicapping Is Getting Very Silly, Very Quickly

by Stuart Rothenberg October 31, 2005 · 10:27 PM EST

I have already written that the 2006 election cycle offers Democrats an excellent opportunity to make serious gains in the House, possibly even the 15 seats they need to win a House majority. A Democratic wave seems likely to develop.

That said, some of the early assertions being thrown around about how many competitive House races there will be this cycle are foolish, indicating a misunderstanding of the 2006 landscape and how it compares to what happened in 1994.

It may make great copy to write that 100 GOP seats could be in play, or that recent Republican troubles could double the number of contested House races from 40 to 80 seats. But those numbers are no more credible than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s hyperbolic assertion in an Oct. 21 press release that the party has “45 strong candidates for change.”

Let’s take a serious look at where the fight for the House stands and where it might be headed.

Democrats have a number of strong candidates running in GOP open seats, including two each in Iowa’s 1st district and Colorado’s 7th, plus one in the Minnesota 6th. They also have good candidates in their own open seats – Maryland’s 3rd, Ohio’s 6th and Vermont’s at-large seat.

But recruiting strong hopefuls to seek a party’s own open seats isn’t news, and the Iowa and Colorado races are in tossup districts, in which both parties are expected to field strong candidates.

The test for the Democrats will be in open seats that lean Republican and in districts where Republican incumbents are seeking re-election – and in those districts, the Democrats’ achievements so far are mixed.

The DCCC can rightly boast about recruits such as Diane Farrell (Connecticut 4th), Lois Murphy (Pennsylvania 6th), Ron Klein (Florida 22nd), Patricia Madrid (New Mexico 1st), and former Reps. Nick Lampson (Texas 22nd) and Baron Hill (Indiana 9th). Each has demonstrated an ability to run a strong campaign, and each has significant personal accomplishments.

But some of those the DCCC is promoting as “strong candidates” have far fewer assets, and much more to prove, before they merit the strong candidate label.

For instance, I met businessman Tim Mahoney, who is challenging Rep. Mark Foley (R) in Florida’s 16th. He’s on the DCCC’s list, but if he’s a top-tier candidate, then I’m Thomas Jefferson. I found Mahoney to be an unpolished second- or third-tier House candidate who is not yet prepared for a U.S. House race. He may have some personal money to put into his race, and he may ultimately become a good candidate. Time will tell. But he isn’t one now.

Other candidates whom I have not yet interviewed don’t seem, on paper at least, to be top-tier recruits. John Pavich, a 29-year-old lawyer and former CIA employee who’s challenging Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.), has never run for office before. The same goes for Tony Trupiano, a former radio talk show host and weight-loss advocate who is challenging Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.).

The DCCC’s list also includes Francine Busby (California 50th), who drew 37 percent in a House bid in 2004, and Paul Hodes (New Hampshire 2nd), who drew 38 percent last year. Their showings are hardly proof that they are inherently strong challengers.

Many of the DCCC’s allegedly strong recruits have also raised no cash. Larry Grant (Idaho 1st) showed $11,453 on hand through Sept. 30, while Tim Walz (Minnesota 1st) had $41,150 in the bank and Jack Jackson (Arizona 1st) had $44,244 on hand. Yes, it’s early, but these and other mediocre fundraisers have plenty to prove.

About half of the names on the DCCC’s list of 45 strong candidates are warm bodies who actually may be able to take advantage of an electoral wave. After all, the GOP tsunami of 1994 swept in such lesser lights as Steve Stockman (Texas), Jon Christensen (Neb.), Dan Frisa (N.Y.), Wes Cooley (Ore.) and Enid Greene Waldholtz (Utah), none of whom survived more than two terms before being washed away again. But these Democratic recruits will have to demonstrate that they can win a race on their own.

As for the suggestions of 80 or 100 districts being in play next year, you probably can cut those numbers almost in half.

In the Nov. 2, 1994, issue of my newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, I identified 81 Democratic and 34 Republican House seats at real risk. Last year, at the end of the cycle, I classified only 30 total seats in the same way. The differences between 1994 and 2004 were dramatic, and even with a wave, 2006 will look much more like last year than 1994. No more than 50 or maybe 60 seats are likely to be in play a year from now.

A dozen years ago, Democrats held 252 seats – 20 seats more than the Republicans now hold. That meant Democrats were representing a considerable number of conservative and Republican-leaning districts that were vulnerable to a Republican wave.

Of the 34 Democratic incumbents defeated in 1994, only five represented districts that gave former President Bill Clinton more than 45 percent of the vote in 1992. By contrast, only 12 GOP Representatives currently hold districts carried by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (Mass.).

Even more important, 16 of the 34 Democrats defeated in 1994 were freshmen, and they had never run in an unfavorable cycle. This time, only three of the 33 incumbent Republicans against whom the DCCC says that it has recruited “strong” challengers are freshmen, and just over half, 17, were elected in 1994 or earlier, meaning that they successfully withstood Democratic tides in 1996 and 1998.

Finally, of course, there are fewer competitive districts after the post-2000 Census redistricting than there were before it, making it much more difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents.

One month ago, I surveyed the House and found 37 districts worth watching — 26 held by Republicans and 11 held by Democrats. Retirements, additional recruiting and a developing national political environment should increase that total. But the talk of 80 to 100 seats is, at this point, embarrassingly wrong.