House Republicans are so confident of making major electoral gains this year that they’re now daring some senior Democrats not to retire and instead face defeat at the ballot box.
Incumbency usually is considered a near-guarantee of re-election, and minority parties usually wait for long-serving lawmakers to retire to compete for their seats. But Republicans say top Democrats have had some tough votes on President Obama’s plans that make them vulnerable this year to opponents without records tied to the party’s national agenda.
“There are some that I always wanted to retire,” Republican Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday. But this year, he said, “it might be easier to defeat them.”
The California Republican listed three Democrats with an average of 24 years in Congress: 14-term Rep. Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia, chairman of a spending subcommittee; 14-term Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, chairman of the Budget Committee; and nine-term Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.
Republican campaign operatives said Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, a 17-term incumbent and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also could be vulnerable.
Democrats counter that they’re ready for a bruising battle and that there’s a long a list of Republican incumbents who are also in danger. Among them are Rep. Dan Lungren of California, in his eighth term; Rep. Mary Bono Mack, in her seventh term; and Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, in his sixth term.
They said Republicans had been counting on a bigger wave of retirements among Democrats, but more Republicans than Democrats have said they’ll give up their seats to retire or seek another office.
“For months you had Republicans jumping up and down talking about how there was going to be this tidal wave of retirements, just like there were in 1994. We’ve said all along there are going to be some retirements, there always are, but it’s going to be nothing like 1994, and it hasn’t been,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
He said they’ve been preparing their incumbents for the past year for a fight - the party that controls the White House almost always loses seats in the first midterm elections - but said Republicans have their own challenge from the right, in the form of “tea party” activists.
“Since Day One, our battle-tested Democratic incumbents have been focused on creating jobs, helping the middle class and fixing the economic mess that the Republicans created,” Mr. Rudominer said. “We will remind voters while House Democrats are fighting to deliver progress for the middle class, Republicans are standing with Wall Street and fighting to turn back the clock to the same Bush policies that brought our economy to the brink of collapse.”
Democrats also count more than 50 districts where Republican incumbents or challengers are engaged in divisive primaries that could sap the GOP’s energy come November.
Despite Mr. McCarthy’s confidence in unseating long-serving Democrats, incumbency remains a powerful force.
Republicans acknowledged that in 1994, the last time they rode a wave to sweep control of Congress, they had mixed success going against Democratic lawmakers in Republican-leaning seats who had voted for President Clinton’s agenda.
Of 10 Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who had voted for the 1993 tax hikes and the Brady Bill that ushered in new gun restrictions, seven lost re-election. Of the 19 Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who voted for one of those two bills, Republicans unseated seven.
This year, the key votes Republicans say will sink Democrats are the $862 billion stimulus package, Democrats’ fiscal 2010 budget, the “cap-and-trade” approach to climate change and the health care bill.
Usually only toxic incumbents are worse off than fresh candidates from the same party. That was the case when Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who was facing a campaign finance scandal, dropped his re-election campaign in late September 2002 as he was trailing badly in the polls to Republican Doug Forrester.
New Jersey Democrats turned to former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who easily defeated Mr. Forrester and kept the seat in Democratic hands.
But this election cycle, a number of incumbents appear to be worse off than new candidates.
On the Republican side, party leaders last year concluded that Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky was weaker than any new Republican candidate. They pressured Mr. Bunning to drop his bid for re-election.
In Connecticut, embattled Democratic Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s decision to drop out of the race has turned the Senate seat from a possible Republican pickup to a likely Democratic hold.
Mr. Dodd had trailed potential Republican candidates in the polls, but Richard Blumenthal, the likely Democratic nominee now that Mr. Dodd has dropped out, leads the Republican candidates by about 20 percentage points.
Republicans say the overall election environment puts them in much better shape than they could have imagined just a few months ago.
In October, an ABC/Washington Post poll showed Democrats leading Republicans by 12 percentage points in a generic ballot test. The latest version of the poll, released this week, showed Republicans have taken a three-percentage-point advantage.
The generic ballot test - where voters are asked if the congressional elections were held today would vote for a Democrat or a Republican for their local seat - is considered a good barometer of the parties’ congressional fortunes.