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Don’t Sign a Long Lease: House Newcomers Top Parties’ ’04 Hit Lists

So you think it’s too soon to look at Republican and Democratic House targets for 2004? Think again. It’s never too early to look for competitive races.

Combining anticipated retirements and weak showings this past November, it’s not hard to produce a very preliminary and incomplete list of districts to watch over the next 22 months.

[IMGCAP(1)] A number of squeakers are bound to produce hot contests, including the closest race of the cycle, Colorado’s 7th district — decided by just 122 votes.

Look for Republicans to make a major run at Utah’s 2nd district, where Rep. Jim Matheson (D) won by 2,015 votes over state Rep. John Swallow (R), who received late support from the National Republican Congressional Committee in November. Matheson’s district stinks for any Democrat, and his very narrow win will only encourage opponents.

Kentucky’s 4th district, a solid Republican seat where conservative Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas barely held on 51 percent to 48 percent against Geoff Davis, a mediocre GOP challenger, should also be a top Republican target. Lucas initially limited himself to the three terms (he’s now serving his third), so he’ll either have to leave the House or break his pledge. Either way, the Republicans certainly smell blood.

Surprisingly strong Republican showings in Texas — against Rep. Chet Edwards in the 11th district and against Rep. Charlie Stenholm in the 17th district — are likely to generate major Republican efforts next year even if the GOP-controlled Legislature

doesn’t redraw the entire state’s Congressional map.

Narrow Republican losses in Louisiana’s 5th district, an open seat, and New York’s 1st, where Republican Rep. Felix Grucci (R) was ousted, should produce active interest. Narrow Democratic victories by Jim Marshall in Georgia’s 3rd and Lincoln Davis in Tennessee’s 4th could generate serious GOP challenges unless the two incumbents quickly personalize the competitive yet Democratic-tilting districts.

Pennsylvania’s 17th, where Rep. Tim Holden (D) narrowly beat Rep. George Gekas (R), should be another Republican target. And Kansas’ 3rd, where Dennis Moore (D) held on for a 50 percent to 47 percent win over Republican challenger Adam Taff, is likely to see another hard-fought race, possibly with Taff trying again.

One new district on the GOP target list could well be Oregon’s 5th. Rep. Darlene Hooley (D) is a potential retirement, and her 55 percent to 45 percent win over a weak repeat challenger, Brian Boquist (R), is sure to create real Republican interest in 2004.

Democrats have at least as many early targets, based on November’s showings.

Narrow losses in Pennsylvania’s 6th, where Republican Jim Gerlach nosed past Democrat Dan Wofford (51 percent to 49 percent), and Texas’ 23rd, where Rep. Henry Bonilla (R) had a shockingly close race against Democrat Henry Cuellar (50 percent to 48 percent), are bound to attract Democratic Congressional hopefuls.

Losses by underfunded nominees in Alabama’s 3rd and Arizona’s 1st were close enough to encourage further Democratic efforts. Democrat Joe Turnham’s slim 50 percent to 48 percent loss to Mike Rogers (R) in Alabama should encourage Democrats to spend heavily there, as should Republican Rick Renzi’s unimpressive 49 percent to 46 percent victory over underdog George Cordova (D).

Georgia’s 11th and 12th, both drawn to elect Democrats, will surely be top targets. Moderate Democrats without lengthy arrest records or liberal baggage should be formidable contenders in both districts held by upset GOP winners.

Rep. Robin Hayes’ (R) 54 percent win over surprise challenger Chris Kouri (D) probably won’t dissuade a serious challenge in 2004. The same probably holds for Steve Pearce (R), who held on to an open GOP seat with a solid 56 percent of the vote. For Democrats interested in a career in politics, both Republican victories can be traced to underfunded Democratic nominees, not to the inherent strength of the two Republicans.

And in Kentucky’s 3rd, Jack Conway (D), who lost a hard-fought 52 percent to 48 percent race to Rep. Anne Northup (R), is considering a rematch.

Democrats may also be encouraged to take another shot at both Rob Simmons of Connecticut’s 2nd and John Sullivan of Oklahoma’s 1st. Simmons won re-election with 54 percent, but Democrats argue that his opponent, Joe Courtney (D), got off to a painfully slow start. And while Sullivan won another term with 56 percent of the vote, early GOP polling showed him to be very vulnerable.

Finally, Indiana’s 8th has got to be on the Democrats’ radar screen for 2004.

Republican Rep. John Hostettler (R) had yet another close call last year, defeating third-string Democratic candidate Bryan Hartke by an underwhelming 51 percent to 46 percent margin. Hostettler has been a Democratic target before, each time winning re-election. But Hartke was such a long-shot challenger that the tightness of the race has to get the DCCC’s attention.

The 2004 cycle is only just beginning, and candidate recruitment will, no doubt, be affected by President Bush’s performance and job rating. But the parties may once again have to scrape for targets, and that will make the Democrats’ job as difficult as it was in 2002.

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