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Still Struggling to Find Even Just a Dozen ‘Dangerous’ Open Seats

It’s less than five months until Election Day, yet I still can’t find even a dozen open House seats that could well change party control.

I’m not looking only for seats that are likely to change control, or even for those that are true tossups. No, I’m merely looking for districts with a one in three chance of switching control. And I still can’t find a dozen districts that merit inclusion on the list. [IMGCAP(1)]

The small number of open seats that could flip in November continues to be a major problem for the Democrats, who insist that their party has some chance at a majority in the House this fall.

Democrats may be able to knock off a handful of GOP incumbents, but they’ll need to add a number of Republican open seats to their column to have any chance of talking about a Democratic-majority House.

Here are the current open seats most likely to switch party, with the first six districts significantly more likely to change than the last four. (I’ve excluded Texas’ districts since redistricting makes comparisons difficult.)

Kentucky 4th. This district should be an obvious Republican pickup, but I’ll admit that I’m less confident about the outcome than I was when Rep. Ken Lucas (D) announced his retirement. Democrat Nick Clooney still looks too liberal for the district, and his visibility over the years is a double-edged sword. But Geoff Davis, the 2-to-1 winner in the GOP primary, isn’t the most intimidating Congressional candidate I’ve seen, and polling — admittedly very early polling — still shows Clooney with the lead. Now that the general election is getting started, the district’s basic Republicanism should show its colors. If and when that happens, Davis’ chances should improve markedly.

New York 27th. Rep. Jack Quinn’s retirement gives the Democrats an excellent shot at a gain here, given the generally Democratic nature of the district. The Republicans have rallied around Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples, while the Democrats face a multi-candidate primary. Al Gore won the district rather easily, 55 percent to 41 percent, in 2000. If the Democrats can’t win this one, they aren’t going to win back the House.

Louisiana 3rd. Can Rep. Billy Tauzin pass along his House seat to “Little Billy?” We’ll see. The retiring Congressman, who was first elected in 1980 as a Democrat and switched to the GOP only before his 1996 re-election, represents a swing district that will be up for grabs. Two self-described moderate Democrats, former American Sugar Cane League President Charlie Melancon and former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) aide Charmaine Caccioppi, are fighting to make the runoff. Billy Tauzin III, who is expected to join one of the Democrats in the runoff, has name ID but looks even younger than his 30 years. This seat is clearly a problem for the Republicans.

Washington 8th. The retirement of Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) creates a GOP headache in this swing district. Each party has a primary, but King County Sheriff Dave Reichert has received most of the publicity on the Republican side. The Democratic primary has been causing some dissension. Businessman Alex Alben has been campaigning for months, while radio talk show host Dave Ross recently became a candidate. The state Democratic chairman wooed Ross into the contest even though some Democrats had already started to rally behind Alben’s bid.

Colorado 3rd. While this district favors the GOP, the Democrats have a strong candidate in state Rep. John Salazar, brother of Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, the likely Democratic Senate nominee. The Republicans face a primary. At this point, the general election looks like a tossup.

Louisiana 7th. Republicans have a shot to capture Senate hopeful Rep. Chris John’s Congressional seat, and party insiders have rallied behind heart surgeon Charles Boustany. Three Democrats are battling it out for an expected spot in a runoff. The district is competitive.

Pennsylvania 13th. State Sen. Allyson Schwartz (D) begins as the favorite to hold this seat for the Democrats now that Rep. Joe Hoeffel is running for the Senate. While the district, which includes parts of northern Philadelphia and suburban Montgomery County, leans Democratic, GOP nominee Melissa Brown almost upset Hoeffel two years ago and is a credible candidate. Schwartz used her name ID and financial advantage to win the Democratic nomination, but Brown is a confident, tenacious campaigner.

Nebraska 1st. Democrats know the numbers favor the GOP, but they think that the winner of a divisive three-way Republican primary, conservative activist Jeff Fortenberry, is just the kind of candidate they can beat in November. State Sen. Matt Connealy hopes to pull off an upset in a district left open by retiring Rep. Doug Bereuter (R).

Washington 5th. Democratic businessman Don Barbieri should have the financial resources he needs to run a quality campaign, but this district gave George W. Bush 57 percent in 2000 and Eastern Washington is conservative territory. Democrats hope a late GOP primary will produce a weak candidate.

Pennsylvania 15th. Democratic strategists continue to push businessman Joe Driscoll’s candidacy, but that still looks like wishful thinking on their part. Driscoll barely won a competitive primary, and state Sen. Charlie Dent is a proven votegetter. Yes, the district is inherently competitive, and a national Democratic wave could help Driscoll. But the Democrats still have plenty to prove here, and Driscoll will struggle to overcome the carpetbagger label.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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