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Can Any of These House Underdogs Survive?

Remember their names: Reps. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Robert Dold (R-Ill.).

If any of these five House incumbents survive, it will surprise most dispassionate observers (including some in their own parties). But upsets happen, and each of these candidates has a scenario for victory.

Moments after Bass was declared the winner in November 2010, most political insiders figured he would be doomed in 2012. But considering his past electoral success, reports of his political demise could be premature.

Bass, the son of a former Congressman and the grandson of a governor, served a dozen years in Congress before losing by 7 points in 2006, a horrible year for Republicans nationally, to Paul Hodes, the same Democrat he had defeated by 20 points two years earlier.

Four years later, Hodes ran for Senate and Bass ran to reclaim his former seat. Democrats nominated attorney Ann McLane Kuster, whose father was mayor of Concord. Kuster’s grandfather served as governor and her mother served in the state Senate as a Republican. Her mother, Susan McLane, also ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for Congress in 1980.

In a mild upset, Bass won by just 3,550 votes (fewer than 2 points) in a huge Republican year. His narrow victory is one reason why so many insiders predicted his second tour in Congress would be brief.

Kuster is running again, and she is a formidable challenger. She ended March with $1 million in the bank compared to Bass’ $790,000. Democrats (and some Republicans) already count this seat as a takeover, and a May survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showing Bass and Kuster tied at 42 percent was further evidence of the Republican’s problems.

But Bass’ mild, New England manner shouldn’t be confused with political naiveté. He has been a survivor in a district that is far from automatic for a Republican — Barack Obama won it with 56 percent in 2008, and both Al Gore and John Kerry carried it as well — and his record of fiscal conservatism and moderation on social and environmental issues is in sync with district voters.

Georgia’s Barrow allegedly is serving his last term after Republicans redrew his district from one that gave Obama 54 percent to one that would have given Obama only 44 percent.

Though he supported the economic stimulus in 2009 and opposed repealing Obama’s health care law in 2010, he has cast enough votes to allow him to stress his “independence” from the national Democratic agenda, including his votes against passage of the health care reform and cap-and-trade bills, his support for the extension of the Bush tax cuts and his refusal to support Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker in 2011.

But Barrow’s ability to win re-election last time in the face of the Republican electoral tsunami shouldn’t give Democrats too much comfort. His opponent, Ray McKinney, raised little money and didn’t run a serious race. National Republicans never helped him. Barrow’s 57 percent victory was more a reflection of the challenger’s weakness than of anything else.

Republicans won’t pick a nominee until July or, more likely, a mid-August runoff.  None of the four Republicans in the race looks like a political powerhouse who can automatically take advantage of the re-drawn district’s Republican bent.

In Illinois, Schilling wasn’t expected to win in 2010, so it’s probably no surprise that nobody expects him to survive after the Democratic-controlled state Legislature redrew his already difficult district to make it even more Democratic.

But Schilling, who owned a pizza restaurant before he was elected to Congress, has a down-to-earth, blue-collar appeal that allowed him to win this very Democratic district in the first place. A May Public Opinion Strategies poll for the Republican’s campaign had him leading East Moline Councilwoman Cheri Bustos (D) by double digits, 51 percent to 35 percent.

However, that poll could be deceiving. Bustos’ fundraising is credible — she showed $470,000 in the bank at the end of March — and her standing in the GOP poll is more a reflection of her weak name identification than anything else.

Like Schilling, she is personable. And while her comments in videos on her website are filled with nothing more than boilerplate Democratic rhetoric, that could be enough given the partisan makeup of this district and the presidential year.

Utah’s Matheson once again is an underdog. So what else is new? I’ve seen this movie before. But this time the ending may be different.

Matheson always outperforms other Democrats in his district, frustrating GOP strategists who believe the seat should be theirs. Four years ago, for example, he ran 23 points ahead of Obama in the district, and two years ago he was re-elected by more than 4 points when almost every other vulnerable House Democrat was going down to defeat.

Matheson has not put together a typical Democratic record. He supported extending the Bush tax cuts and opposed his party on health care reform and cap-and-trade.

But Republican legislators redrew his 2nd district to give him new voters who don’t know him, and he is now running in the 4th district. Matheson has never faced a Republican opponent quite like Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs and the daughter of Haitian immigrants.

Love is black, Mormon, conservative and personable, an obvious change from the generic white state legislators that Matheson has usually faced and dispatched. National Republicans are likely to rally for Love’s candidacy, giving her the cash and notoriety that Matheson’s recent challengers have not had.

Finally, back in Illinois, Dold’s already difficult district was made even more inhospitable for him by redistricting.

GOP operatives were hoping Ilya Sheyman would be the Democratic challenger, but he lost the primary to businessman Brad Schneider, a mainstream Democrat. The Jewish community is not unimportant in this district, and Dold is widely seen as a reliable supporter of Israel. But Schneider, a mainstream Democrat who contributed in the past to the district’s previous Congressman, now-Sen. Mark Kirk (R), has been active on pro-Israel issues as well.

While the numbers are tough for Dold, he has the right profile for the district, and Obama’s appeal may be less than it was two years ago, even in this upscale North Shore district. Still, the Republican looks to be a clear underdog.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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