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Democratic Efforts To Expand ’04 Playing Field May Yield Little

We can expect that Democrats will recruit challengers for Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), Max Burns (Ga.), Anne Northup (Ky.) and other Republicans who won narrowly in 2002 and represent competitive districts. But this time around, Democrats are promising to do more in their quest to take back the House after a decade in the minority. [IMGCAP(1)]

Democratic House Members and party strategists are promising to put more Republican-held seats into play, thereby increasing their opportunities in 2004 and subsequent election cycles. But a quick look at the national map and a scan of potential targets demonstrates that it’s easier to talk about “expanding the playing field” than it is to make it happen.

Finding new targets of opportunity requires taking on GOP incumbents who represent competitive or Democratic-leaning districts and who haven’t faced stiff tests recently. Not surprisingly, those same incumbents have generally been re-elected in landslides.

In 2002, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had at least three races in which allegedly credible candidates challenged entrenched, allegedly vulnerable Republicans, and all three bombed. David Fink drew 40 percent against Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) in a 50.9 percent Bush district. Two other Democrats running in stronger Bush districts also failed. Wayne Hogan drew 40 percent against Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), and Jim Simon drew an embarrassing 33 percent against Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.).

Where might Democrats look to take on entrenched GOP incumbents in 2004 in their efforts to broaden the playing field? Here is a list of districts.

Arizona’s 8th. Last year, Rep. Jim Kolbe drew 63 percent to crush challenger Mary Ryan (D), but George W. Bush drew just less than 50 percent against Al Gore. Democratic strategists see Kolbe’s district as a long-term opportunity.

Connecticut’s 4th. Rep. Christopher Shays won with 64 percent in 2002, while Bush received just 43 percent of the vote in 2000, and that makes Shays a prime “expanding the playing field” target.

Delaware At-Large. Rep. Mike Castle is a Delaware icon, so it’s not surprising that he drew 72 percent in his last run. Republican presidential hopeful Bush drew just 42 percent of Delaware’s vote in 2000.

Florida’s 10th. Rep. Bill Young was unopposed in 2002, and he’s been held under 60 percent of the vote only once since first being elected in 1970. But Bush drew just 47.4 percent of the vote there. Young is a potential retirement, and an open seat would be competitive.

New Jersey’s 2nd. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has never won with less than 60 percent in his five elections, but Bush drew an anemic 42.7 percent in this southern New Jersey district. If LoBiondo moves on in the next few years, this seat would become a top Democratic target.

New Jersey’s 3rd. Rep. Jim Saxton’s district has drawn interest before. But challenger Susan Bass Levin (D), who was hyped by the DCCC during the 2000 cycle, drew an anemic 41.2 percent at the same time Bush was getting only 43.3 percent in this district.

New Jersey’s 4th. Rep. Chris Smith won 66 percent last year, but Bush drew just 46.6 percent. Will Democrats test Smith with a top-tier opponent?

New York’s 3rd. Rep. Peter King received an intimidating 72 percent in 2002, but Bush carried just 45 percent of the vote in the same district.

New York’s 13th. Rep. Vito Fossella won re-election with 70 percent in 2002 in his Staten Island/Brooklyn district, a half-dozen points better than he did in 1998 and 2000. But Bush took only 44.5 percent against Gore.

New York’s 25th. Rep. Jim Walsh had competitive races in the early and mid-1990s, but his past three wins have been at about 70 percent. Bush drew only 45.5 percent of the vote.

New York’s 27th. Rep. Jack Quinn has proven himself to be a terrific politician. While his district gave Bush only 41 percent of the vote, he was re-elected in 2002 with 69 percent.

Pennsylvania’s 7th. Rep. Curt Weldon won 66 percent in his last race, but Bush drew only 47.2 percent.

Pennsylvania’s 8th. Rep. James Greenwood is a moderate Republican and won 63 percent in his 2002 re-election bid. But Bush carried just 46.2 percent of voters.

Washington’s 8th. House Democrats would like to see Rep. Jennifer Dunn run for the Senate because they think they could win the open seat. Dunn drew 60 percent in a rematch against Heidi Behrens-Benedict, but Bush attracted 47.3 percent of voters in 2000.

For Democrats looking to expand the number of Republican-held seats in play, this list must be deflating. How do you recruit a serious opponent for Fossella, Shays, Castle or LoBiondo when they appear unbeatable? And does the party commit valuable financial resources to challengers with little or no chance of winning (without a wave, of course) in the hopes of merely “expanding the playing field?”

Finally, remember that the Republicans have a number of districts where the tables are turned. For every Jack Quinn and Jim Saxton, there is a Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who wins in a 66 percent Bush district, or Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), who wins in a 55.5 percent Bush district.

The Democrats will find new opportunities when long-term GOP incumbents retire and if a wave develops next year. But they’ll have a hard time creating those opportunities themselves in 2004.

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