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Can Democrats Get Re-Elected by Voting Against Obama?

Correction Appended

The extent of Democratic losses in next year’s midterm elections will rest, in part, on the ability of Democrats elected in conservative or Republican districts over the past two cycles to survive aggressive GOP attempts to defeat them.

[IMGCAP(1)]More than four dozen districts sent a Democrat to Congress last year while casting a plurality of their votes for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president. Of the 49 Congressional districts where this occurred, 11 gave McCain more than 60 percent of the vote (see chart).

But not all of those 11 look equally vulnerable. Six of those successful Democrats won handily in 2008 (with at least 59 percent of the vote) — Reps. Charlie Melancon (La.), Ike Skelton (Mo.), Gene Taylor (Miss.), Dan Boren (Okla.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.) — and their electoral histories suggest that nothing short of a tsunami could seriously threaten them. Indeed, three of them (Skelton, Taylor and Gordon) proved their mettle more than a decade ago by surviving in 1994.

Obviously, retirements in any of the six districts would be disastrous for Democrats, which is why a possible Melancon Senate run is so disturbing to the party’s House strategists.

Purely from a statistical point of view, the most vulnerable House Democrats are the four who won election last cycle with less than 55 percent of the vote in districts where McCain scored comfortable wins. That includes Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Parker Griffith (Ala.), Walt Minnick (Idaho) and Travis Childers (Miss.), plus Rep. Frank Kratovil in Maryland’s 1st district. Kratovil won with just 49 percent of the vote while McCain was carrying the district with 58 percent.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) falls somewhere in between the vulnerable and less vulnerable lists, since he won with only 53 percent in a very Republican district but has survived repeated attempts to defeat him.

A handful of other freshman and sophomore Democrats in McCain districts also deserve mention.

Freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (Va.), who won a squeaker with 50 percent in a district that McCain won with 51 percent, should find himself in trouble because of possible lower Democratic turnout in nonpresidential years. Two other Democratic freshmen, Reps. Betsy Markey (Colo.) and Eric Massa (N.Y.), ousted controversial GOP incumbents in districts that were tight in the presidential contest (McCain carried both narrowly), though Markey’s 56 percent showing was considerably stronger than Massa’s 51 percent victory.

Elsewhere, freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.) knocked off a damaged GOP incumbent, winning with 57 percent in a district that McCain carried with 51 percent, while sophomore Rep. Christopher Carney (Pa.) was re-elected with 56 percent in a district that gave McCain 54 percent.

Of course, “vulnerability— is more than merely a district’s generic voter preference or even its recent electoral history. Candidate quality, fundraising and national mood are among the other relevant factors.

Democrats in conservative or heavily Republican districts are particularly vulnerable next year because crucial voters in those districts veered away from their traditional behavior in 2008.

Can these Democrats win re-election by voting against Obama initiatives — and with most House Republicans — on health care, climate change, spending and the stimulus package? Will that establish their “independence— and inoculate them from defeat?

The answer is, it depends. Have they bucked their party on all high-profile votes? Do they have other vulnerabilities? What kind of general election opposition have they drawn? How will President Barack Obama be regarded next November?

Some Democrats will survive by building records that seem in sync with district voters on hot-button issues and by emphasizing their differences with their own party and the president. Claims of “I’m an independent Democrat— and “I voted against my party— will work in some districts next year.

But at least a few of the House Democrats in Republican or conservative districts are likely to be defeated in 2010 as turnout trends and at least a touch of buyer’s remorse helps GOP challengers.

Those who survive next year will face additional difficulties in 2012 and 2014 as the “I’m an independent Democrat— argument sounds less appealing in the face of years of Democratic legislative activity.

Unless House Democrats who hail from such districts are rescued by redistricting, most of them will have an extremely difficult time surviving a second midterm election.

By 2014, voters are likely to be less enthusiastic about the Obama presidency than they are now, creating a political environment in which voters are willing to sacrifice Members of Congress whom they like in order to send a message of change.

By that point, it won’t be enough for moderate Democrats to point to their voting records. Their partisan connection will be enough to do them in, especially since six years of Democratic control of the White House and Congress is likely to entice stronger Republican candidates (who waited for the best year to run) into these contests.

Sound familiar? It should. For years, moderate Republicans survived in Democratic districts, but when voters decided that a fundamental change was needed, those Members found themselves out of a job.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Correction: July 9, 2009

The column misstated Rep. Chet Edwards’ (D-Texas) re-election percentage. He received 53 percent of the vote.

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