Swimming Upstream: GOP Opportunities in the House

April 24, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the Democrats, their recruiting, and their quest to net the fifteen seats necessary to gain the majority in the House. But Democrats may actually need to takeover sixteen or seventeen seats in November to compensate for potential losses of their own.

In the last 50 years, no party has been completely shutout in the takeover columns in the House. That means, that even in “wave” elections including 1994, the party bearing the majority of the losses has managed to pick off at least one incumbent or one open seat from the other side.

In 1958, Democrats took over 49 seats (defeating 35 Republican incumbents and winning 14 GOP open seats), while Republicans still defeated a single Democratic incumbent. Eight years later, Republicans took over 43 Democratic seats, but Democrats simultaneously took over four GOP-held seats.

In 1980, Republicans took over 37 Democratic seats, but Republicans managed to pick off four seats from the Democrats’ column. And in 1994, Republicans took over 56 Democratic seats (defeating 34 incumbents and winning 22 Democratic open seats), yet Democrats still won four Republican-held open seats.

So, if Republicans are going to pick off one or more Democratic seats in November, it will likely come from this list (in order of most likely to turn over to least likely).

1. Ohio 6 (Open). Democrats hit a severe bump in the road when state Sen. Charlie Wilson (D) failed to garner the 50 valid signatures necessary to qualify for the primary ballot. Now, Wilson is running an expensive write-in campaign in the May 2 primary. State Rep. Chuck Blasdel is the likely GOP nominee, but he is still recovering from a hit he took for owing back-taxes. If Wilson doesn’t get the nomination, Republican prospects improve dramatically. If he is the nominee, it’s a very competitive race.

2. West Virginia 1 (Alan Mollohan). Cong. Mollohan is under pressure from Republicans and now the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post to step down from his role as ranking member of the House Ethics Committee. [Note: Mollohan did step down from the committee on Friday.] Under scrutiny is the dramatic increase in his personal wealth over the last four years and money he directed to a handful of non-profit companies he helped set up, back in the state. State Delegate Chris Wakim (R), a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, showed $118,463 in the bank on March 31 and could take advantage if Mollohan’s political situation becomes more dire.

3. Georgia 8 (Jim Marshall). Former Cong. Mac Collins (R) is running a rejuvenated campaign against Democrat Jim Marshall in a redrawn district. Marshall had over $1 million on hand through the first quarter of the year compared to almost $700,000 for Collins. President Bush carried the 8th District in both 2000 (58%) and 2004 (61%).

4. Illinois 8 (Melissa Bean). Businessman David McSweeney spent almost $2 million of his own money in winning the Republican nomination with 41% in a crowded field. He will now face freshman Cong. Melissa Bean (D), one cycle removed from knocking off long-time incumbent Cong. Phil Crane (R). Bean’s profile seems to fit the district, and she showed an imposing $1.75 million in the bank through the first quarter. But the district is reliably Republican.

5. Louisiana 3 (Charlie Melancon). No one really knows what the size or makeup of the electorate in Louisiana will be. But Cong. Melancon (D) is facing a credible challenge from state Sen. Craig Romero (R). Romero showed over $614,000 in the bank at the end of March while Melancon was closer to $1 million.

6. Vermont At-Large (Open). Democrats are lining up behind state Senate President Peter Welch, while Republicans are rallying behind former Adjutant General Martha Rainville. Democrats successfully wooed the Progressive Party candidate out of the race, which would have divided the more liberal voters. Rainville still faces a primary from conservative state Sen. Mark Shepard. Welch showed $612,775 on hand through the first quarter, Rainville $255,424 (although she just started campaigning after leaving her official post), and Shepard $27,795.

7. South Carolina 5 (John Spratt). The Democratic congressman is facing his toughest reelection in ten years from wealthy state Rep. Ralph Norman (R). Norman showed $619,401 in the bank on March 31 while Spratt, the ranking member of the Budget Committee, had over $1 million in a congressional district President Bush carried 57%-42% over John Kerry in 2004.

8. Texas 17 (Chet Edwards). Every cycle, Republicans love to target Chet Edwards (D), who represents President Bush’s home district. The GOP nominee is Van Taylor, a Marine and Iraq War veteran and Harvard Business School graduate. National Republicans believe that his profile, lack of a legislative voting record, and personal wealth add up to a winning formula for knocking off the incumbent. Edwards showed over $942,000 in the bank on February 15 for his effort.

9. Georgia 12 (John Barrow). Like his colleague Marshall, Cong. Barrow is running in a newly-configured district. But the 12th District still leans Democratic. Former Cong. Max Burns, whom Barrow defeated in 2004, showed over $680,000 in the bank on March 31 compared to over $1.1 million for Barrow.

10. Iowa 3 (Leonard Boswell). Republicans successfully recruited state Senate President Jeff Lamberti into the race against Boswell. John Kerry won the 3rd District by a mere two-tenths of a point in 2004. The congressman began April with over $745,000 in the bank, while Lamberti showed over $504,000 at the same time. Reasonable opportunity, but maybe the wrong cycle for Lamberti.

Honorable Mention. Ohio 13 (Open). Four Democrats are battling for the Democratic nomination on May 2 to replace Cong. Sherrod Brown (D) who is running for the U.S. Senate. If wealthy shopping mall heiress/2004 14th District nominee Capri Cafaro wins the nomination, Republicans believe she has enough personal baggage for this race to catapult to the top of their takeover opportunity list. Lorain Mayor Craig Foltin is the likely Republican nominee.

This column first appeared on Town Hall on April 21, 2006.