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Fate of ’06 House Takeovers May Mirror ’08 Party Prospects

One of the reasons that some National Republican Congressional Committee strategists are hopeful of gaining seats next year, or at least minimizing further losses, is that they expect to win back some of the House seats that the party lost in last year’s Democratic wave. [IMGCAP(1)]

In any wave election, some of the victorious Members carried to victory are swept back out two years later. So how are the prospects of the 30 Democrats who took over Republican House seats in 2006?

Of the 30 seats taken over by Democrats a year ago, 12 seats appear not to be in play in 2008 — those now held by Reps. Michael Arcuri (New York’s 24th district), Bruce Braley (Iowa’s 1st), Joe Courtney (Connecticut’s 2nd), Joe Donnelly (Indiana’s 2nd), Paul Hodes (New Hampshire’s 2nd), Ron Klein (Florida’s 22nd), Dave Loebsack (Iowa’s 2nd), Patrick Murphy (Pennsylvania’s 8th), Ed Perlmutter (Colorado’s 7th), Joe Sestak (Pennsylvania’s 7th), Heath Shuler (North Carolina’s 11th) and John Yarmuth (Kentucky’s 3rd).

Some of these freshmen hold seats in clearly Democratic-leaning districts that were held by popular Republicans, such as the two Iowa districts. Without a strong wind at their backs, Republicans aren’t going to win back these districts.

Others are tossup districts where politically savvy Democrats will be hard to wrestle from office, such as Klein’s Florida district, Perlmutter’s Colorado district and Arcuri’s upstate New York seat. Similar to these are districts that tilt Democratic and could be ripe for a strong Republican challenge in a neutral or Republican-leaning political environment, such as Yarmuth’s district and Courtney’s.

Only a couple of those dozen seats are in Republican-leaning or conservative districts (Shuler’s and Donnelly’s).

Could Republicans eventually put one or more of those seats in play before November? Certainly. But at this point, none of the dozen looks highly vulnerable.

That means at the most 18 seats have any chance of returning back to the GOP column two years after Democrats took them over.

Of them, a handful stand out because of their fundamentally Republican nature. Rep. Nick Lampson’s Texas district is horrible for Democrats, and that’s why he probably is the single most endangered Democrat who won in 2006. Yes, the Republican field has evolved in such a way that it now lacks big-name local officeholders, but that doesn’t change Lampson’s dubious prospects.

Reps. Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Christopher Carney (Pa.), Tim Mahoney (Fla.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.) probably round out the top five ‘06 Democratic takeovers who are now vulnerable to a snapback.

Republicans have competitive primaries in three of those four districts (all but McNerney’s), a sure sign of the value of the GOP nomination, even in an election year that could be challenging for the party.

But those primary fields are very different across the districts. In the Kansas district, the ousted Congressman and the sitting state treasurer are competing for the Republican nomination, while in Pennsylvania, two businessmen without much political experience are among the leaders in the battle for the Republican nomination. In the Florida district, the top-tier hopefuls cut across the board in experience, and include a state legislator, a local officeholder and someone who hasn’t held elective office.

If Republicans get shut out in their efforts to win back these five seats, they better head to the storm cellar. If they can’t win any of these back, they are going to have a horrible cycle. Even winning only one or two of the five would be disappointing for them.

A Republican sweep of the five would be encouraging news for the GOP, but it wouldn’t guarantee that Democrats were having a rough cycle. The key to the elections could well be how well Republicans do in the rest of the 30 districts they lost in 2006.

The remaining 13 seats are, for one reason or another, Republican opportunities, but they will not fall easily.

Rep. Brad Ellsworth’s Indiana district gave President Bush 62 percent of the vote in 2004, but the freshman Democrat fits it well. The likely GOP challenger to Rep. Christopher Murphy in Connecticut, state Sen. David Cappiello, is a very strong recruit, but the year, and the district’s fundamentals, suggest the challenger will have a distinctly uphill battle.

Rep. Zack Space (Ohio) was elected only because Republican ethics problems gave the seat away, but the GOP doesn’t have the proven vote-getter in 2006 that party operatives would have wanted. John Gard was a strong Republican nominee in 2006 and he should be one again in 2008. But Rep. Steve Kagen (Wis.) beat him last time and now has the advantages of incumbency.

New York Democratic Reps. Kirsten Gillibrand and John Hall are in Republican- leaning districts, and the likely GOP nominees should have the resources to run strong races against them. But will voters fire them so quickly, especially if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is at the top of the state’s ballot?

If you are looking to see how the cycle is going for the Republicans, start with the most likely snapback candidates and then proceed to the longer shots. That should give you an idea whether the Republicans are playing any offense, or whether the party is completely back on its heels.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.