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Eight House Incumbents to Watch for Clues

Looking for clues about November? If so, you might keep your eyes on a handful of House incumbents seeking re-election. Their fate could tell you a great deal about the mood of the voters, the ability of candidates to separate themselves from the top of the ticket and the importance of individual candidates and campaigns.

Robert Dold (R-Ill.)

Sen. John McCain (R) drew less than 36 percent of the vote in this redrawn district four years ago, and President George W. Bush (R) drew just 46 percent in the district when he sought re-election in 2004.

Freshman Dold stresses his independence from his party on issues such as funding for Planned Parenthood, and he notes that voters in his upscale district are sophisticated and returned moderate Republican current Sen. Mark Kirk to Congress for years. But Democrats charge that Dold isn’t as independent as he likes to claim, and the challenger, businessman Brad Schneider (D), has ammunition.  

One wild card could be Israel. Both nominees are held in high regard by the pro-Israel community, but could President Barack Obama’s uncomfortable relationship with the current Israeli government affect how Jewish voters view the House candidates?

Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.)

Moderate in style but conservative on tax and spending issues, Hayworth is another freshman in a competitive district. It went for Obama in 2008 and for Bush in 2004.

Running against her is Sean Patrick Maloney (D), who served in the administrations of Democratic New York Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, as well as for President Bill Clinton. Maloney hopes to paint Hayworth as too conservative and extreme, and he should have the resources to mount a strong effort. But she is attacking him as a political insider who doesn’t live in the district.

If Hayworth can hold this seat, it is good news for Republicans in swing districts around the country.

Allen West (R-Fla.)

West is a controversial conservative freshman who doesn’t mince his words, which is exactly why Democrats think they can beat him. A hero to anti-
establishment conservatives who tire of compromise, West is running in a new district that already looks heavily polarized. Obama won it with 51 percent in 2008, while Bush carried it with 50.5 percent four years earlier.

Democrat Patrick Murphy, the son of a wealthy businessman, charges that West is an extremist who exemplifies House Republicans’ refusal to work with Democrats. But in a sense, Murphy is irrelevant. The question is whether voters in this competitive district want to fire the Congressman or not. If West wins, it could say something about Democrats’ strategy of trying to make the GOP Congress, the tea party and outspoken conservatives the issue in 2012.

Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.)

Like fellow Illinois freshman Dold, Schilling’s Democratic district was made even more Democratic by redistricting. But unlike Dold’s district, Schilling’s is rural and blue-collar. McCain drew just less than 39 percent of the vote in it.

The Congressman (who owned and ran a pizza parlor before his election) gets high marks from insiders who say he learned the ropes on Capitol Hill and is an energetic, enthusiastic campaigner.

Democrat Cheri Bustos is a former alderwoman who served as a public relations executive for a nonprofit health system. In theory, she should be able to tap the district’s partisan bent, especially given Democratic messaging about Republican support for “tax cuts for millionaires.” But given the importance of blue-collar voters in the district, Schilling has a real chance to hold on in what would have to be regarded as an upset. Democrats have been counting on winning the seat for months.

David Cicilline (D-R.I.)

Can a district in which Obama won almost two of every three voters in 2008 possibly elect a Republican to Congress this year? Not if voters in November’s elections evaluate every race primarily on the basis of the party of the candidates. But GOP challenger Brendan Doherty certainly has a chance to pull off an upset.

Doherty, who served as colonel of the Rhode Island State Police and superintendent of the Department of Public Safety, doesn’t shy from his working-class background. Cicilline, a former Providence mayor and freshman who turned back a primary challenge with surprising ease, has had to answer charges that he misled voters two years ago about Providence’s financial shape.

Doherty is a one-time boxer who eventually earned degrees from Roger Williams University. Cicilline holds a B.A. from Brown University and a law degree from Georgetown University. You get the picture.

Mark Critz (D-Pa.)  

Critz, who survived a tough Democratic primary against fellow Rep. Jason Altmire, must hold on to Johnstown-area working-class voters who were so loyal to his predecessor and boss, the late Rep. John Murtha (D). Critz won a special election by stressing his differences with national Democrats, and he has started his re-election campaign doing the same thing. But now he has a voting record.

McCain and Bush each drew about 54 percent in the redrawn district, so Keith Rothfus (R), who lost a squeaker to Altmire two years ago, must be regarded as a real threat to Critz.

Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

Widely liked and still standing after the GOP wave of 2010, Matheson faces one of the stiffest challenges of his career in a redrawn district that is overwhelmingly Republican.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love (R), the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is poised, articulate and personable. She started well behind Matheson but apparently has closed the gap quickly after being greeted as a rock star at the Republican National Convention.

Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.)

Hochul was an upset winner in a 2011 special election, and her attacks on her GOP opponent over Medicare were a big reason. But she was hurt by redistricting (which moved the district to the east), and while the Republican nominee, former Erie County Executive Chris Collins, has plenty of detractors, even within his own party, McCain carried the district by almost 10 points.

If Medicare gets traction for Democrats again this year, the personable and hardworking Hochul has a good chance to survive. But if the issue has lost some of its bite and the Congresswoman’s personal appeal isn’t enough to overcome the district’s partisanship, Hochul could find herself on the wrong side of the results.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.