Rothenberg’s 2006 Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

by Stuart Rothenberg January 25, 2006 · 4:06 PM EST

For the past few election cycles, I have followed the most vulnerable House open seats as a way of monitoring the two parties’ overall prospects for November. This cycle, there are relatively few inherently competitive open seats. But some open seats that would normally be reliably Republican could well see strong competition if the national landscape continues to tilt toward the Democrats.

Of the 12 seats in this initial open-seat list of 2006, only the first four are strong takeover possibilities, with Democrats having three pickup opportunities to the GOP’s one.

Iowa’s 1st. Rep. Jim Nussle (R) has held this northeastern Iowa seat since 1990. But Nussle’s gubernatorial bid gives Democrats a golden opportunity for a takeover. The district, which went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 7 points in the 2004 presidential race and for Al Gore in 2000, is competitive but Democratic-leaning. Both parties are likely to have strong candidates. The Democrats will nominate either former Iowa Trial Lawyers Association President Bruce Braley or Rick Dickinson, director of the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation, while the GOP field includes former state party chairman Brian Kennedy, state Rep. Bill Dix and businessman Mike Whalen. This is probably the best open-seat opportunity in the country for either party.

Colorado’s 7th. The gubernatorial bid by Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) gives Democrats another takeover opportunity. They have two excellent candidates, former state Sen. Ed Perlmutter and former state Rep. Peggy Lamm, the ex-sister-in-law of former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm (D). Rick O’Donnell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2002 and is the frontrunner for the nod this year. He too is a strong candidate. This district went narrowly for Kerry and Gore, and it is evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. The race is a toss-up, but with a national breeze, the Democrats have a terrific chance for a pickup.

Ohio’s 6th. The gubernatorial bid of Rep. Ted Strickland (D) gives the GOP a chance for a pickup in a state where the GOP is beset by problems. State Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) will try to hold the district, while Ohio Speaker Pro-Tem Chuck Blasdel is likely to get the GOP nod. President Bush won the district narrowly in both 2000 and 2004, and Democrats hope that Wilson’s conservative views on abortion and guns will neutralize issues that Republicans have used to appeal to swing voters and Democrats in southeast Ohio. Rate it a tossup.

Arizona’s 8th. The retirement of Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) gives the Democrats an opportunity in this district, which includes Tucson and southeast Arizona. Bush won it by only 2 points in 2000 and 7 points in 2004. Both parties expect primaries, so the outlook remains uncertain. But expect a competitive race.

Vermont At-Large. Could a Republican succeed Rep. Bernie Sanders (I)? Possibly. Vermont National Guard Adjutant General Martha Rainville faces a primary but begins as the favorite. The Democratic nominee will be state Senate President Peter Welch. GOP chances would improve if the state’s left-of-center Progressive Party runs a candidate. Progressive state Rep. David Zuckerman is weighing a bid, but Sanders wants him to stay out.

Illinois’ 6th. Democrats have a shot at the seat of retiring Rep. Henry Hyde (R), but they must endure a primary and overcome a district in which Bush drew 53 percent in each of his presidential races. Unsuccessful ’04 nominee Christine Cegelis starts as the Democratic frontrunner, but many party insiders and the state AFL-CIO are backing Illinois Army National Guard Maj. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran. The GOP nominee will be state Sen. Peter Roskam, a politically savvy and personable former Capitol Hill aide. Roskam starts out as the favorite, but it could be competitive.

Minnesota’s 6th. United Methodist minister and ex-state Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg gives Democrats their strongest possible candidate in this district being vacated by Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), who’s running for Senate. Bush won a comfortable 57 percent victory in 2004. A potentially crowded GOP primary, scheduled for mid-September, has Democrats thinking upset.

California’s 50th. Democrats hope a pending special election and a focus on ethics — the seat was held by former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R), who pleaded guilty in a bribery scandal — will make Francine Busby an upset winner. Busby drew less than 40 percent in 2004 against Cunningham. Granted, he was then an entrenched incumbent, but the Democrat will need quite a surge in this strong GOP district.

Wisconsin’s 8th. Rep. Mark Green (R) is running for governor, and Democrats could pull an upset. Both parties have primaries, but state Speaker John Gard (R) starts as the favorite. A Democrat held the seat from 1996 to1998.

Florida’s 13th. Rep. Katherine Harris (R) is running for Senate, taking away the Democrats’ biggest issue in this GOP district. That this race is even on the list tells you how few competitive open seats there are so far in 2006.

Florida’s 9th. Democrats think they have a shot at the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Mike Bilirakis. They could — but probably only if Republicans screw up and a Democratic tsunami develops.

Nevada’s 2nd. Bush carried this district twice with 57 percent of the vote. Rep. Jim Gibbons (R) is running for governor. If the Democrats win this district, they will take over the House.