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Freshmen to Face Tough Races in ’10

Many of the Democratic House candidates who flipped seats in traditionally Republican districts on Tuesday have instantly become GOP targets for 2010 — before they even assume office.

Of course, Democrats have heard that line before.

“I’m sure that a lot of the pundits will say about 2010 what they said about 2008, which is that Democrats will have to be on defense,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said at a post-election news conference on Wednesday. “They were wrong about 2008 because as the results show, we not only protected the gains we made in 2006, we stayed on offense.”

Asked if defense or offense is the name of the game for Democrats next cycle, Van Hollen, who is not seeking another term as DCCC chairman, would only say that “the jury is still out” on exactly how 2010 will take shape.

Indeed, if President-elect Obama struggles in his first two years and the economy continues to drag, it’s hard to say who might pay the price.

But a list of House winners who clung to victory with 55 percent or less of the vote on Tuesday shows opportunities continue to exist for Democrats. It’s a list that actually includes more Republicans, 33, than Democrats, 29 (although as of press time several close races had not yet been called).

Notably, Republicans won in seven of the 10 races where the victor took less than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday. The exceptions were low-percentage Democratic victories in Nevada’s 3rd district, Alabama’s 2nd district and Michigan’s 7th district.

In Nevada’s suburban Las Vegas 3rd district, former state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus (D) defeated Rep. Jon Porter (R) 47 percent to 42 percent, with third-party candidates picking up about 10 percent of the vote. But with voter enrollment figures having swung firmly in the favor of Democrats in the district, Titus will begin her re-election campaign in a good position. However, Alabama’s highly conservative 2nd district — where Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) defeated state Rep. Jay Love (R) — appears almost certain to be a GOP target next cycle. In Michigan, state Sen. Mark Schauer (D) prove to be a fundraising machine as he won a conservative seat over a freshman Republican Congressman who never made a secret of the fact that he did not like to raise money.

“Republicans can’t say we don’t have opportunities,” GOP pollster Glen Bolger said on Wednesday. “There’s lots of targets of opportunity now because we’ve given away a whole lot of seats. … What we have to do is look at the ’06 seats we lost and ’08 and prioritize.”

Republicans said Wednesday that there are several races where Democrats essentially got a free pass this cycle because of an environment that so favored Democrats.

One Member who falls on that list, in Republicans’ eyes, is Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), who took 55 percent on Tuesday. The freshman Member (who won an upset victory in 2006) was certainly helped by a good Democratic environment and the fact that his highly touted opponent simply didn’t pan out.

As expected, many of next year’s vulnerable Members are incoming freshmen whom the opposition is hoping to knock off before they can establish themselves and take full advantage of the power of incumbency.

Nearly half of the Members that appear on the 55-and-under list will be freshmen in the next Congress. Six out of the 10 Members who took 50 percent or less on Tuesday are incoming freshmen.

In order to make it over the hump to reelection, Democratic pollster Alan Secrest said freshman Members should already be looking ahead to 2010.

“It’s always difficult with freshmen who are eager to govern and want to put campaigns behind them and want to get into the swing of things in Washington,” Secrest said. “The [freshman] candidates themselves will need to take seriously the task ahead of them.”

Republicans will certainly be targeting those freshmen in districts where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) performed well in the presidential race despite the poor national environment overall.

One of those targets lies in Idaho’s 1st district, where businessman Walt Minnick (D) defeated Rep. Bill Sali (R) in an overwhelmingly conservative area. Some Republicans have called Sali his own worst enemy when it came to campaigning and feel confident they can win back the seat next cycle with him out of office.

Many of the victors with the lowest winning percentages hail from tossup and swing districts, but the two candidates with the lowest winning percentage represent districts that are clearly Republican territory.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) bears the distinction of winning her seat with the lowest percentage. The occasionally controversial Congresswoman took 45 percent, although it should be noted that Schmidt faced conservative businessman David Krikorian, who ran as an Independent, as well as physician Victoria Wulsin (D) on Tuesday. Wulsin took 37 percent in the race while Krikorian garnered 18 percent. Last cycle, Schmidt beat Wulsin by a single point in a district President Bush carried with 64 percent in 2004.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) wasn’t too far behind Schmidt, winning a narrow victory in what should have been an easy re-election for the freshman. Bachmann’s low vote total can’t just be attributed to the third-party candidate who took about 10 percent of the vote Tuesday; her infamous gaffe on cable television late in the cycle nearly cost the Congresswoman her political life. Democrats view her as a fundamentally flawed candidate and believe it will be only a matter of time before she sticks her foot in her mouth again. She will certainly be on Democrats’ target list next cycle.

One Member who did not make the 55-and-under list but who will probably be in the mix of Republican targets next cycle is Kansas Rep. Dennis Moore (D). In a Democratic wave election year, Moore won 56 percent of the vote Tuesday, 9 points down from his 65 percent victory in 2006.

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