- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

One of the last lines of defense that Republicans hope will repel the Democrats’ attempts to win back the House are the thicker “fire walls” they installed in their congressional districts under reapportionment.

Although Republican campaign officials think other factors will help them maintain control of the House — including what even some Democrats say is the Republicans’ stronger voter-turnout operation — they say their earlier efforts to redraw congressional districts to account for population changes after the 2000 census will thwart many challenges on Election Day.

Three top Democratic takeover opportunities are in Republican-leaning Ohio, where a gloomy political climate has raised Democratic hopes of a major comeback in the state.

They are:

• The 1st Congressional District, where Rep. Steve Chabot faces a tough rematch with Democratic challenger John Cranley, a Cincinnati City Council member who ran against him in 2000.

• The 15th Congressional District, where Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, a Democrat, is aggressively challenging Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce.

• The 18th Congressional District currently held by Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty Friday to federal corruption charges and will not seek re-election. Republican state Sen. Joy Padgett is running against Democratic lawyer Zack Space.

All of them are on elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg’s list of “pure tossups,” but Republican officials said the districts have been redrawn to withstand just the kind of aggressive Democratic offensive they expect in November.

“Both the 15th and 18th district lines were changed and strengthened after the 2000 census, as was the 1st district,” Ohio Republican state Chairman Bob Bennett said.

“I feel good about where we are and feel we’ve turned the corner, though it doesn’t mean we don’t have a battleground here. We do,” he said.

Election analysts compare the political environment this year to that of 1974, when Democrats gained 49 House seats, or to 1994, when Republicans won 52 congressional seats and took control of the House.

But election analysts who have studied the changing political makeup of congressional districts and the increasing power of incumbency say sophisticated redistricting technology has made many more districts virtually invulnerable to all but the strongest anti-incumbent wave.

“All the available evidence in the 2002 and 2004 elections is [the Republicans] have created a fire wall, because very little moved from one side to the other. It was almost static,” said Rhodes Cook, a nonpartisan election analyst.

“Democrats only have to win 15 seats to take control, but the playing field is smaller now than it was, fewer races are in play, incumbents are safer, and because of the way they’ve drawn the district lines, they are more fortified,” he said.

“I can see powerful factors rubbing up against each other of nearly equal size, but I’m reluctant to predict a Democratic takeover, because I appreciate the Republicans’ successes,” Mr. Cook said. “They know how to win of late, and the Democrats don’t.”

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