For House Dems, A Search For Second-Tier Races

By Scott Crass

Kate Upton has a an uncle in Kalamazoo, but if Democrats have their way, she won’t have an uncle in Congress come 2014. Fred Upton is the Chair of the powerful House Commerce Committee and last year, was held to just 54%, his lowest showing since he was first elected in 1986 at 33 (he carried populous Kalamazoo County by just 8 votes out of 117,000 cast). The tally was noteworthy because while his opponent ran an impressive campaign, he was not taken seriously by national Democrats. Beating Upton in ’14 swill not be easy. His chairmanship makes him well-armed money wise, and there was still an 11% spread between he and his opponent. But some Democrats would like to target him again, though others are more keen to wait until 2016, when Upton will have reached his limit at Commerce and turnout will be stronger in a Presidential cycle.

Upton is among the non-obvious, second tier of Republican incumbents that Democrats may come charging hard at as the campaigns proceed. But who may be some of the other targets?

We know about top tier targets. Gary Miller, Mike Coffman, Rodney Davis, and Steve Southerland either sit in swing districts or won races that were viewed as as flukes. They are already at the top of Democratic hit lists. So is Michelle Bachmann, who scraped by Jim Graves with under 51% in a year when Bachmann was probably saved by the top of the ticket (Graves has already launched a second bid). Add Jackie Walorski,and Daniel Webster, as rematches following narrow scrapes are apparent. But Democrats have 17 seats to make up if they hope to achieve the majority, which means they will have to convert races where the dynamics look decent into contests that are nip’n’tuck. And by the way, they also have to win them.

Let’s look at which races may develop late.

For Democrats, Upton’s southern Michigan colleague might bear more fruit. Since winning an election in 2006 (interrupted by a loss in ’08), Tim Walberg has consistently underperformed. He beat an under-funded organic farmer just 50-46% in ’06, and last year, despite the removal of Democratic Jackson County (Battle Creek), gave up 46% to another Democrat on zero radar screens. Romney won just 51% even in this rural district, and a semi-credible Democrat may make Walberg sweat harder.

In Grand Rapids, Justin Amash has made no secret of his desire to run for Carl Levin’s Senate seat. Senate Democrats would love it. Their colleagues on the House may not. Their view is that Amash will be easier to beat. If not, they have to hope the new Republican nominee is of similar mold of Amash, but even there, the stars would have to align right. Romney took 53%.

With questionable mental state-of-mind and a seat handed to him amid bizarre circumstances, Democrats would seem to have all the ammunition to take on Kerry Bentivolio in Michigan-11 except for, well, a candidate. Bentivolio, a reindeer farmer, once said he may be Santa Clause, and was fired from his job as a teacher for saying his one single goal was to make his students “cry at least once.” This is another very tough district. Obama won it with 50% in 2008 but took just 47% in ’12. Still, it is not that conservative and the local GOP has not been quiet about wanting to oust Bentivolio in a primary. But he’s thwarted their attempts to do so once before: in a primary for the special election. There will be some developments next year, it’s just a matter of which side they’ll be positive for.

A lesser surprise would be David Joyce. Were this an open seat, Joyce the race would truly be a tossup, but the fact that he will have been an incumbent for two years gives him a fairly big edge. The Democrats have one candidate Michael Wager. His resume in Cleveland area politics is not skimpy. He worked for Cleveland Congressmen Charles Vanick and Mary Rose Oakar, served as Finance Chair for Sherrod Brown, and has Lou Stokes as a law-partner. But he is not well known and Joyce is not particularly ideological. Ohio is a bellwether and this is one place where national issues come into play. It may be the NRA vs. the full kick-in of Obamacare. And Obama ran bdehind Obama here by 3%.

Lee Terry is a question mark. The eight-term Nebraska Republican found that objects in the rearview mirror were closer than they appeared, as his race against John Ewing was exceedingly close. Ewing has already decided to seek re-election as the Douglas County Treasurer and most Democrats know that Presidential year turnout is far more favorable than off years. But they shutter about letting Terry off the hook even if it’s for one cycle.

Then there are three sophomores Democrats thought wouldn’t be in Congress today. In ’12,GOP frosh, Sean Duffy, Joe Heck& Scott Tipton each faced “strong”challengers that had goods odds of wresting seats away, but who ultimately fizzled. The trio will still see grade “a” foes but the size of each incumbents margins make Democrats task more daunting.

Tipton and Duffy both scored unexpected high 12% wins,which make the task of even big-name Democrats difficult. But issues and personalities may mean tough races. Heck’s 7% win(with just 50%) came amid high turnout,but against foe who was slammed by local media for refusing to take positions on issues that were already law.

Heck faces a fairly big name in ’14, Erin Bilbray-Kohn, whose father represented NV-1 for eight years. But he left office in 1994, and the state has grown exponentially since then, meaning hundreds of thousands may never have heard of the Bilbray name. And mid-term turnout will help Heck more than the Democrats.

Tipton already has a trio of high ranking Democrats exploring a challenge to him, but a virtual McCain/Obama tie in 2008 blossomed to a 53% Romney showing in ’12. With Duffy, Democrats are not sure what went wrong. State Senator Pat Kreiltlaw’s loss was no surprise but Duffy’s 56% was. Duffy has had a history of making poorly thought out statements, but Obama took just 48%, down 5% from 2008.

In New York, Chris Collins was not thought to have run the better race in NY-27, but just barely edged Kathy Hochul. Presidential turnout probably put Collins through, and many think Hochul deserves a second chance. But it’s not clear she wants to and at this point, Collins hasn’t done anything to alienate voters in what is by far the most Republican district in New York (Romney 55%).

A number of columnists have mentioned eastern Pennsylvania as possible takeovers and Democrats will likely try. But I am skeptical about how vulnerable Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick really are. Obama carried both PA-7 and PA-8 in 2008, but lost them both narrowly in ’12 (Romney’s win in Fitzpatrick’s district was the smallest in the nation).

Both have positioned themselves as moderates. Both have been among the few Rs to back gun control, but this is soccer-mom territory. But first they need candidates. Democrats would love to recruit Joe Sestak to take on Meehan, but if he run for anything (which isn’t a given), it is more likely to be the opens Governor’s chair. Democrats have landed a candidate to challenge Fitzpatrick, and at first glimpse, he seems to be in the mold of Pat Murphy, a Marine who unseated Fitzpatrick in 2006 before having the favor returned in ’10. But Bucks likes their candidate

The Minnesota remap shifted Minnesota-2 about two points left, and Minnesota-3 just under two percent right. The result was that Obama carried both, but by the skin of his teeth. That leaves uncertain security to John Kline and Eric Paulsen. Most local Democrats say the only Democrat who could unseat Paulsen is State Senator Terri Bonoff, but since she lost the DFL nomination in 2008 (as Paulsen was seeking his first term), she has made very few overtures about running.

Kline already has one declared opponent, businesswoman Sona Mehring and DC Democrats seem to be rallying around her, for she would bring significant personal resources to the race. But ex-State Senator Mike Obermueller, who held Kline to 54% last year, is talking up the race again, and he may have the edge at the DFL Convention. The eventual Democratic nominee will be aided by the expected re-elections of Mark Dayton and Al Franken, but Obama and Klobuchar were performing strongly last cycle. The party may have better odds in 2016, when Kline could retire, as his tenure as Education Workforce Chair is term limited).

There are a few other long shots. Democrats swill take aim at Iowa’s Tom Latham but he has long shown an ability to thrive in tough districts (and a highly touted opponent has already exited the race). In Ohio, ex-Congressman Bob Gibbs. But while Canton is in the district, virtually everything else is rural (i.e, anti-Democratic), and Boccieri may yet be proceeded to seek a statewide post. In Virginia, Democrats have long talked about ousting Randy Forbes but he may be in line to chair Armed Services (Texan Mac Thornberry is next in line but has already tried for the position twice). And Democrats may still gun for Dave Reichert, whom redistricting greatly aided, yet still represents an area that Obama eked out a win. But Reichert, who never exceeded 53% in his first four runs, took 60% last year. While his foe was underfunded, he may not be out of the woods yet.

In closing, the playing field for both parties typically expands at the beginning of a cycle prior to shrinking as some races lose their fizzle pre-Election Day. Not all of these races will be there come that point. But it’s a sure bet at least some will. We’ll just have to wait to see which.

Author: SCOTT CRASS