How Long Are the House Democrats’ Really Long Shots?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 31, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Everyone knows about the 40 to 50 GOP House seats at risk this cycle. But what about those lower-tier contests that some consultants and bloggers are pushing?

What about such Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “emerging races” as the one in Texas’ 7th district, where Michael Skelly (D) is running against Rep. John Culberson (R), or in California’s 50th, where Nick Leibham (D) is challenging Rep. Brian Bilbray (R), or in Virginia’s 5th, where Tom Perriello (D) seeks to upset Rep. Virgil Goode (R)? Should we all get excited about them at this point, or continue to be skeptical until the fall?

Does Mike Montagano (D) really have a chance in Indiana’s 3rd or Steve Sarvi (D) in Minnesota’s 2nd? How about Dennis Shulman (D) in New Jersey’s 5th?

How about two “Red to Blue” contests that also qualify as long shots, Virginia’s 2nd, where Glenn Nye (D) is taking on Rep. Thelma Drake (R), and Maryland’s 1st, where Frank Kratovil (D) hopes to upset Andy Harris (R)?

Larry Joe Doherty (D) is hyping a poll against Rep. Michael McCaul (R) in Texas’ 10th, and some bloggers seem to be excited about Sharen Neuhardt (D) in Ohio’s 7th. Neither even made the DCCC’s emerging races, so how seriously should they be treated?

Talk of a 30-plus seat Democratic year is overblown. Even though many factors favor Democrats, the party would need to win solidly Republican districts to get that kind of gain, and that’s a daunting challenge. Partisanship still matters a great deal.

In Texas’ 10th, a Goodwin Simon Victoria Research polling memo for Doherty in late May argued that “Democrats have a real chance to take this district in November.” The Doherty campaign is also crowing about a June survey conducted by IVR Polls, an automated polling firm with a very thin political track record.

The reality of the race is quite different. Doherty showed almost $260,000 in the bank at the end of June — not what he’d need to oust a mega-wealthy Republican in a solidly GOP district that gave George W. Bush 62 percent in 2004. If McCaul campaigns, he wins.

Ohio’s 7th? Forget it. State Sen. Steve Austria (R) is an established officeholder with $361,000 in the bank on June 30 in a district Bush won last time by 14 points. Neuhardt, a political neophyte, had $108,000 in the bank.

California’s 50th? Didn’t we hear that Francine Busby (D) was going to win this seat when Duke Cunningham (R) headed to prison? She didn’t, because the Republican floor seems to be at or about 50 percent, making it very tough for any Democrat.

Virginia’s 5th? Challenger Perriello has had strong fundraising (much of it on the Web), a team of consultants that can’t be ignored and strong academic credentials. He is personable, and his message of faith could resonate in southern Virginia.

But it’s no wonder Perriello bridles at the usual “liberal” and “conservative” labels. He’s a “social justice” Catholic, meaning that he’s pretty far to the left. That will play well in Charlottesville, but not the rest of the district.

Perriello’s only hope is to run a technically perfect campaign, talk in generalities to avoid a liberal tag and hope a wave carries him over the top. It’s been done before, but it’s not likely.

Can Shulman, a blind rabbi and psychologist, upset conservative Rep. Scott Garrett (R)? The challenger’s June 30 cash-on-hand of $258,000 is not encouraging. Nor are the district’s recent election results: John Kerry drew 43 percent in the district in the 2004 White House election, ’06 Democratic challenger Paul Aronsohn drew 43.8 percent and ’04 Democratic challenger Anne Wolfe drew 41.1 percent. Looks like a trend, doesn’t it?

What about Michael Skelly? He is smart and would be an engaging dinner companion. If Skelly were running in a competitive district, I’d think he’d have a good shot. But he isn’t. Texas’ 7th gave George W. Bush 64 percent in 2004 and regularly delivers big numbers for Republicans, making it a nightmare for any Democrat.

If you really think Skelly has much of a chance, ask yourself this: Do you really think that Republicans could beat Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) or Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) even in a bad political year for Democrats? Of course not. Yet their districts went for Kerry in 2004 by roughly as much as Culberson’s Texas district went for Bush four years ago.

Montagano and Sarvi? Sarvi has no money ($98,000 in the bank on June 30) and Montagano, 27, who has raised an impressive amount (probably with some family help), seems more like an overly enthusiastic undergraduate running for class president than a Member of Congress.

Of all the longer shots, Nye and Kratovil look to be serious contenders. Virginia’s 2nd district is competitive, and Nye’s extensive international experience, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, makes him a credible messenger of change. The big question is whether his youth and button-down style will sell throughout the district.

And Kratovil has the strong backing of fellow Marylanders, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen, who can help him with fundraising and direct party resources into the race. That makes his long-shot race worth watching.

In general, however, be skeptical early on about low second- and third-tier Democratic challengers in solidly Republican districts. If they are in the game in early October, give them a longer look. But for now, don’t buy the hype.