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Endangered Species: Few Competitive House Races in 2006

Only 13 House seats shifted party control last year — a mere drop in the bucket in a chamber with 435 districts. Two years earlier, even fewer seats shifted control. Clearly, the combination of districts drawn to heavily favor one party and the power of incumbency have made House takeovers rare.

But party strategists won’t stop looking for House targets. So where can they look? [IMGCAP(1)]

The top targets are likely to come from those Members of Congress who won squeakers in November. The list includes one freshman who won with less than 50 percent of the vote — Indiana Republican Mike Sodrel — and three other freshmen who won election with less than 51 percent: Republican Randy Kuhl (N.Y.) and Democrats Charlie Melancon (La.) and Brian Higgins (N.Y.).

Of the four, Higgins looks safest for 2006. In November, he beat the toughest opponent he could have faced (Nancy Naples), and he benefits from a solidly Democratic district.

Newly elected House Members who emerged from close races (though not squeakers) in 2004 should also get plenty of attention. The list includes Reps. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), John Barrow (D-Ga.) and John Salazar (D-Colo.).

Barrow is at risk because his comfortably Democratic district could be altered dramatically by the Georgia Legislature before 2006. And the very Republican nature of Bean’s district all but guarantees a major GOP effort against her. Reichert and Salazar could be somewhat tougher to knock off next year.

The third category includes Members of the House who are in at least their second term and have shown political weakness.

Topping this list is sophomore Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), who won with 51 percent in November and who clearly has not solidified his hold on the southeastern Pennsylvania seat, which has trended Democratic. He certainly will face a major challenge again.

After Gerlach is Rep. Christopher Shays (R), who drew 52.4 percent of the vote and may face the same opponent next year. While the moderate Congressman ran an energetic effort, his district has become a problem. A more ambitious Republican Congress, prodded on by a conservative president with a big agenda, is likely to create even greater difficulties for Shays.

Colorado Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R), an outspoken conservative, could face another test after her unimpressive 51 percent showing last year in a GOP-friendly district.

Veteran Republican Reps. Rob Simmons (Conn.), Heather Wilson (N.M.), John Hostettler (Ind.), Charles Taylor (N.C.) and Bob Beauprez (Colo.) could also face formidable opponents next time. All won surprisingly convincing victories in November, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will have to look somewhere to find targets. Two DCCC press releases aimed last week at Simmons prove the point.

GOP Reps. Robin Hayes (N.C.) and Phil Gingrey (Ga.) improved on their 2002 showings, but not enough to dissuade opposition. Hayes’ margin over a young political neophyte and Gingrey’s over a badly underfunded challenger should generate opposition in 2006 (though new lines could solidify Gingrey).

Among Democrats, Texas Rep. Chet Edwards’ 51.2 percent victory isn’t likely to dissuade strong opposition next year. Reps. Stephanie Herseth (S.D.) and Darlene Hooley (Ore.) won with about 53 percent of the vote, a number that could be low enough to generate a credible opponent for each. Rep. Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) improved his showing from 52 percent in 2002 to 54.6 percent in 2004, but a strong challenger would put him at some risk.

The next category includes long-term incumbents (all of them Republicans) whose showing plummeted in 2004.

New York Rep. Tom Reynolds, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, drew just 55.6 percent in November, down from almost 74 percent two years earlier. That’s a dramatic drop, especially against an unheralded (though wealthy) challenger. California Rep. David Dreier was held under 54 percent, a drop of 10 points. Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Henry Hyde (Ill.) also performed measurably worse last year than they did in 2002.

None of these veterans looks truly ripe for the picking, but their 2004 showings may encourage unusually strong challengers.

The final category — and the most important one — includes potential open seats that weren’t in play last year but could see spirited competition without an incumbent seeking re-election.

Iowa’s Democratic-leaning 1st district where Rep. Jim Nussle (R) has managed to solidify his base, would become an obvious Democratic target if Nussle, as expected, runs for governor next year. The same holds true for two GOP-leaning districts: Rep. Mark Kennedy’s in Minnesota and Rep. Katherine Harris’ in Florida, if either or both run for the Senate. (Though some insiders believe that Harris’ district would actually be easier to hold with a less controversial Republican nominee.)

On the other hand, if Ohio Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland runs for governor, his 6th district could see a partisan firefight.

Finally, Democrats will eye senior GOP Members, such as Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula, who just turned 80 and lost a bid for Appropriations chairman, and 74-year-old Rep. Bill Young of Florida, the panel’s outgoing chairman. If either retires, expect a real fight.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.