- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tight races are becoming the norm for Republican House incumbents as they scramble to combat a building Democratic momentum, the fallout from a faltering economy and campaign missteps.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann certainly can attest to the latter.

The Minnesota Republican suddenly is in a tight re-election battle after recent remarks on MSNBC’S “Hardball,” where she said she was “very concerned” that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama “may have anti-American views.”

The comments caused a serious backlash and helped propel her Democratic challenger, Elwyn Tinklenberg, into a race many political experts say has become too close to call.

“The race has definitely changed in the past week,” said Minnesota Democratic Party spokesman Eric S. Fought on Wednesday. “The whole world was able to see the Michele Bachmann we in Minnesota know - someone who is truly erratic, lacking the temperament and judgment necessary to serve in Congress.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the fundraising arm for House Democrats, has poured more than $1 million into the race following Mrs. Bachmann’s comments.

Adding to Mrs. Bachmann’s troubles, the DCCC’s Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, last week pulled its television advertising campaign for Mrs. Bachmann.

A recent DCCC internal poll shows Mrs. Bachmann leading Mr. Tinklenberg 42 percent to 38 percent, with 15 percent undecided - unimpressive numbers for a Republican incumbent in a Republican-leaning district.

Mrs. Bachmann won the heavily Republican Twin Cities-area district in 2006 with just 50 percent of the vote, beating Mr. Tinklenberg, who earned 42 percent.

Minnesota is far from being the only state still in play in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 elections.

“For House Republicans, already dark days are getting darker,” said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report.

Democrats wrestled control of the chamber from Republicans in 2006 for the first time in a dozen years and hold a 236-to-199-seat advantage. Though Republicans had hoped to stem the Democratic tide and win back some seats this year, political forecasters say voters are prime to expand the Democrats’ mandate by at least two dozen seats on Nov. 4.

The Cook Political Report says Democrats will increase their majority by 23 to 28 seats - up from a 20- to 25-seat gain the report predicted in early October.

Also, Rothenberg Politial Report last week said Democrats should pick up 27 to 33 seats in the chamber, an increase from its earlier prediction of a 25- to 30-seat gain.

“We just continue to see Republican numbers falling,” said Nathan Gonzales, Rothenberg political editor. “It’s both at the presidential level and trickles down to congressional races.”

Polls show voters blame Republicans more than Democrats for the economic crisis and trust the Democrats more to handle the economy, a political ankle weight that Republicans are finding difficult to escape.

The faltering campaign of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain is further hurting Repubican candidates running for office, political experts say.

“We’re seeing McCain underperform in districts all across the country, and that’s very different than we thought the situation was going to be when he secured the nomination,” Mr. Gonzales said. “John McCain was supposed to help … with independent voters because of his reputation and style, and that just is not the case.”

Another highly vulnerable Republican incumbent is Ohio’s Rep. Steve Chabot. Democratic challenger state Rep. Steve Driehaus and his party have railed against Mr. Chabot for his loyalty to President Bush.

The seven-term incumbent only defeated his Democratic challenger 52 to 48 percent in 2006, and all signs point to an even closer race this year. The district includes central Cincinnati, a Democratic bastion where the party has waged an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign.

Both candidates hold fiscally conservative, anti-abortion positions. However, Mr. Driehaus is riding on a pro-Obama wave that is strong in the district’s urban core, while Mr. Chabot is swimming against an anti-incumbent tide that has swept southwestern Ohio and elsewhere.

“It’s not like [voters] are making a radical departure from the type of politician that they’ve elected from the west side of Cincinnati before,” said Driehaus spokesman Joe Wessels. “They just see somebody [in Mr. Driehaus] who is maybe a little safer in these difficult times.”

Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, the lone Republican House member from New England, is facing a battle for a 12th term in office. Mr. Shays had a close call in the 2006 election, winning by just 3 percentage points, and polls show an even tighter race this year.

Democratic challenger Jim Himes has hit Mr. Shays hard for his support of the Iraq war. And despite the Republican incumbent’s almost 22 years in office, the southwestern Connecticut district leans Democratic.

In Alaska, Republican Rep. Don Young is facing the political fight of his life as Democratic challenger Ethan Berkowitz is posing a serious challenge to the 18-term incumbent.

Mr. Young, who has been tainted by his association with the “bridge to nowhere” and the Veco oil corruption scandal, won a tough primary race by about 300 votes.

Several polls this month show Mr. Berkowitz, a former minority leader in the Alaska Statehouse, with a 6 to 9 percentage point lead.

Republican Party officials dispute those poll numbers and warn against counting Mr. Young out, as Alaskans haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress since former Sen. Mike Gravel was re-elected in 1974.

Mr. Berkowitz “is ineffective, he’s not a fighter, and he’s an extreme liberal, which in Alaska is a death sentence,” said state Republican Party spokesman McHugh Pierre. “He doesn’t represent the views of the majority of Alaskans.”

Mr. Pierre added that pork-barrel projects that Mr. Young has sought for Alaska, such as the infamous bridge to nowhere - in which the lawmaker tried to steer more than $200 million for the construction of an enormous bridge linking mainland Alaska to a sparsely populated island - are welcomed by Alaska voters.

“People in Alaska are saying, ‘Hey, we really want this bridge; it’s not a bridge to nowhere, it’s a bridge to our development,’” Mr. Pierre said.

Democrats are making the first serious attempts in years at two Republican strongholds in the Miami area held by Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who won his eighth term in 2006 with 60 percent of the vote, faces a formidable Democratic challenger in Raul Martinez, a former longtime mayor of Hialeah, the district´s largest city. Several political analysts have handicapped the race as a toss-up.

The Republican’s young brother, Mario, faces Democratic challenger Joe Garcia, who outraised the incumbent $513,000 to $392,000 during the second quarter of the year.

“There’s a little dissatisfaction with incumbents, especially Republican incumbents, so it almost wouldn’t matter who the Democrats put up,” said George Cvejanovich, chairman of the political science department Miami’s Barry University.

A collapse in South Florida’s once-booming housing market is hurting the incumbents, the professor said.

Still, many political observers say the two districts’ largely conservative electorates will send the brothers back to Washington next week.

Not all House incumbents who are in danger of losing next month are Democrats.

First-term Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney of Florida already was facing a tough re-election battle even before news broke this month that he had paid hush money to a former mistress to keep quiet about the extramarital affair.

Most election forecasters now predict a win for Mr. Mahoney’s Republican challenger, Tom Rooney. Mr. Mahoney ironically won the east in 2006 after Republican Mark Foley resigned amid charges of inappropriate contact with male House pages.

Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, a 12-term Democratic incumbent from eastern Pennsylvania, beat Republican opponent Lou Barletta by 12 percent points in 2006. However, Mr. Barletta, with generous backing from his party, is again challenging Mr. Kanjorski. Most political analysts agree the incumbent is in danger of losing his seat.



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