Sabato’s Crystal Ball: THE FRESHMAN FIFTEEN
This month, the Crystal Ball has compiled an endangered species list of sorts: members of the House of Representatives who have their work cut out for them if they seek political survival beyond 2008. At this point, we can sort the vulnerable into two stacks: the “Freshman Fifteen” and the “Scandalous Six.” We’ll keep you in suspense by saving the latter for next week.
First up, we’re taking a look at congressional newcomers (One Republican and 14 Democrats) who were freshly elected to the House last November and have yet to entrench themselves fully in Washington. Several of them–such as Jerry McNerney of California and Tim Mahoney of Florida–won in districts that would have easily stayed in GOP hands save for the fact that scandal-plagued incumbents mortally wounded themselves. Those unique circumstances won’t be present in 2008, so these kinds of districts are natural pickup opportunities for the other side.
The strong anti-GOP waves we witnessed in 2006 may be somewhat tempered by the time of the next slate of elections. So it follows that several freshman Democrats in districts that are essentially toss-ups–or even normally favor Republicans–could be in grave danger if political winds shift. Still, keep this in mind: in 1976, just two of the 76 Democratic freshmen (3 percent) were defeated in the first election after the anti-Nixon Democratic wave in 1974. In 1996, two years after the Republican wave of 1994, 12 of the 73 Republican freshmen (16 percent) when down in defeat. In 2008, there will be a more modest number of Democratic freshmen standing for reelection (42 in total), but how many, if any, will they lose once the final votes are counted next November? Will it be one or two seats (Ã¡ la 1976), six or seven seats (Ã¡ la 1996) or some larger total unmatched in recent history?
Also, before our GOP readers start pegging prospective one-term wonders for defeat, be warned that anything and everything can change in the next sixteen months. There are many yet-to-be-determined factors that will have deep and significant effects on the performances of these newcomers in next November’s elections. Although individual circumstances will prevail in some cases (think strong candidate recruits or monumental gaffes), larger systemic circumstances will affect each race.
First and foremost, the blockbuster race for the presidency in 2008 is sure to cast a long shadow over congressional races. For example, if a House incumbent represents the same party and state as one of the two major party presidential candidates (think Rick Renzi and John McCain) expect the value of coattails for lower-ballot candidates to be multiplied. Conversely, if an incumbent is of the opposite party of their state’s favorite son (or daughter) presidential candidate, their troubles could multiply. Of course, if either party nominates a presidential candidate predisposed towards one of the ideological extremes, it is possible endangered incumbents of that party will pay for it at the polls regardless.
Avid Congress-watchers will note that the Crystal Ball has omitted mention of several Democratic freshmen who could face stiff challenges come 2008. Among these wet-behind-the-ears officeholders are Pat Murphy (PA-8), Joe Courtney (CT-2), and John Yarmuth (KY-3), to whom we will give the benefit of the doubt, given that they represent districts that lean towards Democratic presidential candidates in a presidential election year.
For now, It’s off to the races we go!