- Associated Press - Monday, August 30, 2010

WILMINGTON, Del. | John Carney of Delaware is a rarity in a campaign season of foreboding for Democrats, a practicing politician with a strong chance of winning a Republican-held seat in Congress in November.

Not that Mr. Carney is interested in attaching any national significance to his race. “I’ll support [President Obama] when I think he’s right and I won’t when I think he proposes something that isn’t in the best interests of Delaware,” he said.

But with House Republicans on offense in dozens of races in all regions of the country, victories by Mr. Carney and a few others challenging for GOP-held seats - most prominently in Louisiana, Hawaii and Illinois - could prove a last line of defense for Democrats in their struggle to maintain their majority.

After picking up 55 seats combined in the last two elections, “there was less territory to move into. But we were determined to maximize whatever opportunities there were on offense,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the party’s House campaign committee.

“That was something that did not happen in 1994,” he added, referring to the last time the Republicans won control of the House.

Republicans must gain 40 seats this fall to capture the House majority, and a struggling economy coupled with strong voter dissatisfaction gives them numerous targets to achieve their goal.

They don’t dispute that a few of their own are at risk, but say the national trend is moving inexorably their way.

“By October, the Democrats are going to realize they have more defensive places” than now appears, and less money to go after GOP-held seats, predicted Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In Delaware, Mr. Harrison said, the party’s preferred contender, Michele Rollins, “has a very good shot in what frankly for us is a tough state to run in.” The primary is Sept. 14.

To understand why Mr. Carney, 54, has a chance to take away a GOP-held seat is also to understand why there are so few races like his around the nation.

Most important was the decision by popular nine-term Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle to give up his seat and run for the Senate, although other factors are working in the Democrat’s favor. In one sign of the Democrats’ national woes, Mr. Castle is a strong favorite to win the seat once held by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Unemployment in the state was 8.4 percent in July, a full percentage point below the national average, and has declined each month since March. As Mr. Biden’s home state, Delaware is also on a dwindling list of those states where polls show a plurality views Mr. Obama favorably rather than unfavorably.

Democrats enjoy a huge advantage in voter registration in the state, which has only one congressional district. Forty-seven percent are Democrats, 29 percent Republicans and 23 independent.

Nor is there significant evidence yet that political experience - which has proved toxic in other states - is viewed negatively by large portions of the Delaware electorate. A two-time lieutenant governor who lost a gubernatorial primary in 2008, Mr. Carney is regarded as the favorite against either Ms. Rollins or her GOP primary rival, businessman Glen Urquhart.

Additionally, “the Republican primary is working to his advantage” by pushing the contenders to the right, said Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat who outpolled Mr. Carney in a primary two years ago.

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