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House Seats Slow to Come Open for 2004

With state legislatures across the country creating few competitive districts during redistricting last cycle, open seats continue to offer both parties the best chance of gaining ground in 2004. [IMGCAP(1)]

Unfortunately for those of us who relish a good political fight, that’s not saying very much.

So far only a dozen sitting House Members — eight Republicans and four Democrats — seem like good bets to give up their seats. And even that modest number would shrink if Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) ultimately decides to seek a fourth term in the Senate next year.

Six of the eight GOP open seats look as if they will afford no opportunity for the Democrats, while two of the four Democratic opens likewise appear to be safe. Only seats currently held by Reps. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Mark Foley (R-Fla.), Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) and Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) look potentially competitive.

Boyd’s district was carried by George W. Bush in 2000, and Toomey’s went for Al Gore.

So far, early developments in Pennsylvania’s 15th don’t look good for the Democrats. State Sen. Charlie Dent (R) is off and running for his party’s nomination and is the early favorite to win the open seat.

In Pennsylvania’s 13th and Florida’s 2nd, where Democrats have a numerical edge, Republicans are giddy about their prospects. That’s not to say that the Democrats can’t or won’t retain both seats, but they could have real fights on their hands.

A handful of other House incumbents are also mentioned as possible near-term candidates for higher office in 2004, including Reps. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) and George Nethercutt (R-Wash.).

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), of course, is running for president, and Reps. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), Chris John (D-La.) and David Vitter (R-La.) are likely to jump into open Senate races if they develop.

A couple of other incumbents, including Reps. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Porter Goss (R-Fla.), may simply walk away from Congress. A Young retirement would create a good Democratic opportunity.

But of the lengthy list, only two — Democrats Hoeffel and Marshall — had very serious contests in the previous cycle. Hoeffel won re-election 51 percent to 47 percent, while Marshall won an open seat by a single point.

During the past two cycles, I’ve rated a “dangerous dozen” open House seats that I believe are the most likely to turn over from one party to the other. This cycle, I may not be able to find a dozen opens that are at all vulnerable.

During the past eight nonredistricting elections (2000, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1990, 1988, 1986 and 1984), an average of 34 House incumbents have not sought re-election. While we could still reach that in 2004, the pace of retirements this cycle is slower than during 1998 (30 opens) or 2000 (33 opens).

And even if retirements pick up steam, they may not produce the competitive races that they did in the past. That’s because redistricting following the 2000 elections created more safe seats that won’t generate serious races even if they come open.

None of this is very good news for Democrats, who need to net 12 seats in order to hit the magic number of 218 in the House. They need more competitive races — and more open seats — than in the past.

One wild card can’t be ignored. If the 2004 cycle seems to turn against one of the major parties, retirements could skyrocket. The prospect of a Democratic presidential ticket led by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean could lead some House Democrats to call it quits this cycle. On the other hand, an economic downturn or public backlash against American causalities in Iraq could force Bush’s numbers to sink, and could encourage some Republican incumbents to reconsider their re-election plans.