News

Democrats poised to capture U.S. House; GOP incumbents on the defensive

Steven Thomma
McClatchy Newspapers

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.--Republicans are in danger of losing control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 7, their brief September hopes for a surge of momentum burst by a barrage of bad news.

Republicans are on the defensive over Iraq, the Mark Foley House page scandal and nationwide angst about the country's direction, according to reports from key House races and interviews with independent analysts in Washington and battleground districts.

Republicans still hope that the perks of power -- money and district boundaries drawn to protect incumbents -- will shield them. But less than a month before Election Day, the Democrats appear poised to take the House, and with it gain the strength to stymie President Bush's agenda and the subpoena power to make him spend his last two years in office defending his first six.

Two respected independent analysts predicted last week that the Democrats will pick up at least the 15 seats they need to seize the House for the first time since 1994.

"The broad national environment has improved for Democrats," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. He forecasts Democratic gains of at least 15 seats and possibly as many as 25 to 30, up from his earlier range of 15 to 20.

"Democrats are moving up, some rapidly, in a wide range of competitive contests for the House," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who tracks House races closely. Sabato predicted Thursday for the first time that the Democrats would take the House by winning 221 to 225 seats, with 218 needed for control.

"Just a few weeks ago, President Bush and the GOP appeared to be staging a remarkable comeback that would have enabled the Republicans to retain their congressional majorities," Sabato said in a new analysis. "The Foley scandal and the deteriorating situation in Iraq have changed all that, and it is clear that as of mid-October, there is a Democratic gale a blowin'."

Dozens of interviews with voters, candidates and analysts in battleground House races confirmed that any bump the Republicans got in September -- when they focused national attention on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the threat of terrorism -- has faded. National attention has turned back to Iraq. Stories about former Rep. Foley's sexually suggestive messages to male House pages and the failure of House Republican leaders to stop him sooner didn't help the party either.

Here are snapshots of some close House races from around the country:

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Half the crowd cheered when Democratic challenger Ron Klein made his opening remarks at a recent debate with Republican Rep. Clay Shaw. Then it was Shaw's turn. When he finished, the other half cheered just as loudly.

The divided crowd reflects the district, evenly split on whether to stick with a 26-year Republican incumbent or go with Klein, a popular and well-financed state senator from Boca Raton.

The district along coastal Palm Beach and Broward counties leans Republican, but it gave Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry 52 percent of the vote in 2004.

Klein is trying to saddle Shaw with the national anti-Republican mood and widespread disapproval of the Iraq war.

That works with such voters as Elizabeth Bianco, 67, a retired real estate agent in Fort Lauderdale who's unhappy with the war and wants Democrats to apply more oversight.

"Republicans just haven't done that good of a job," said Bianco, a Democrat who has supported Shaw in the past but now backs Klein. "A new broom sweeps clean."

Shaw sticks with homeland security issues and his strong record on financing renewal of the Everglades, as well as his experience and seniority in Congress. He's also attacked Klein for being a career lobbyist.

"I just like Shaw; I like what he's done for Florida," said retired policeman Ed Casey, 63, walking on Fort Lauderdale's beach. "I think he's done a good job. You don't fix it if it's not broken."

-- Erika Bolstad

BATESVILLE, Ind. -- In southeastern Indiana, Democrats could retake the conservative but traditionally Democratic 9th District despite an influx of Republicans from bordering Ohio and Kentucky.

It's the third consecutive match-up between Republican Rep. Mike Sodrel and former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill. Hill won the first contest in 2002. Sodrel won in 2004 by fewer than 1,500 votes. A new Reuters/Zogby poll released Thursday put Hill ahead by 46 percent to 38 percent.

Hill has attempted to link Sodrel to disgraced former representative Foley, while Sodrel has insinuated that Hill isn't Christian enough. But the outcome may hinge more on the national mood.

Campaigning last week, Sodrel said he's closed Hill's lead and thinks he can hang on:

"If it's an anti-incumbent year, I mean, I've spent my life in the private sector. I've been in Congress 22 months. So I don't think the anti-incumbent thing works very well with me."

Hill said voters are turning against Republicans.

"The Republicans have been in control for a long time. ... I'd just ask people: Give us a chance to provide some checks and balances."

Rebecca Davies, a 52-year-old teacher, said she was voting straight Democratic out of anger over the Iraq war. "I think we need to send a message."

It's harder to find the same level of urgency among Republicans. Rick Hill, 53, a speech therapist, said he sees little difference between Sodrel and Hill.

"If Hillary Clinton was running, I'd definitely come out to vote against her," he said. But this year, "what's there to be excited about?"

-- Margaret Talev

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Collateral damage from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has put Republican Rep. John Doolittle on the defensive in California's 4th District, where Democrat Charlie Brown is painting the eight-term incumbent as "a poster child for the culture of corruption" in Washington.

The 4th District, which runs from the Sacramento suburbs to the Nevada and Oregon borders, has long been solid Republican territory, but no Democrat has mounted such a well-financed and organized campaign against Doolittle in at least a decade.

Doolittle's biggest problems are his longtime associations with Abramoff, whom he described as a "close friend," and with Brent Wilkes, who's acknowledged being the unindicted co-conspirator in the bribery conviction of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.

Brown focused radio advertisements on attacking Doolittle's work to help Abramoff secure a lucrative contract lobbying for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Doolittle has fired back, accusing Brown of being a closet liberal.

-- David Whitney

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Kentucky's 4th District features a rematch between Republican Rep. Geoff Davis and Democratic challenger Ken Lucas.

In 2002, Lucas narrowly beat Davis, then sat out 2004 to honor a term-limit pledge. Davis easily beat Nick Clooney, father of actor George Clooney, for the seat.

A recent Reuters/Zogby poll showed Davis ahead 42 percent to 36 percent, with 20 percent undecided.

Both men are staunch conservatives with military records.

Davis says he "inherited" the Iraq war, but he sticks by the president and says pulling out would be the wrong move.

Lucas says he regrets his initial support for the war. He says the war needs to go in a different direction, but he doesn't call for an immediate pullout and even says he'd support sending more troops if that would help end the fighting.

In TV ads, Davis accuses Lucas of voting for benefits for illegal immigrants and against prescription drug benefits for seniors.

Lucas said he voted to give benefits to legal immigrants, not illegal ones. Lucas also voted against Medicare Part D, which gives prescription drug benefits to seniors, as did a number of Republicans until they changed their votes under leadership pressure. Former Rep. Tom DeLay and others were later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for such tactics.

-- Steve Lannen of the Lexington Herald-Leader

In the mountains of western North Carolina, Republican Rep. Charles Taylor is playing a role he's not used to -- underdog. The eight-term congressman trails Democrat Heath Shuler by 51 percent to 40 percent, according to a recent Zogby/Reuters poll.

In the past, Taylor won by skewering his Democratic opponent as a dangerous liberal. Faced this time with a conservative Democrat with a locally famous name -- Shuler was a star quarterback for the nearby University of Tennessee and, briefly, for the Washington Redskins -- and a national mood hostile to Republicans, Taylor's had to adjust.

He's tentatively agreed to debate for the first time since 1994. And though the wealthy Taylor has always pumped his own money into his races, he's upping the ante this time, lending his campaign $1.6 million in September alone -- a lot for a mostly rural district.

"This is not the confident incumbent I've seen" in past elections, said Bill Sabo, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.

Shuler casts himself in ads as a down-home boy with "mountain family values." In a district hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs, Shuler rips Taylor for not voting against the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Taylor says he was on record against the trade pact, but his voting card didn't work the night the House passed it 217-215.

-- Tim Funk

DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick might've thought he had his suburban Philadelphia district figured out when he carried it in 2004 by 55 percent to 43 percent, even while fellow Republican George W. Bush was losing it.

Then his constituents grew more anxious about Iraq. And Bush grew more unpopular. Then the Foley scandal hit. Now Fitzpatrick is fighting to win a second term in a close contest with Democrat Patrick Murphy, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Iraq.

Fitzpatrick spent a lot of time last week defending his supporters' attacks on Murphy. He also rushed to distance himself from the Foley scandal.

"I was the first, perhaps ... to demand the immediate censure ... stripping of any benefits he's entitled to as a former member of Congress, ask for an outside investigation to the facts that led to his resignation," Fitzpatrick said of Foley. "I went on further ... that if the (House) speaker knew, a member of Congress knew ... that a child was at risk or a law had been broken ... they would be unfit for leadership and should resign their position of public trust."

That wasn't enough for Jim Bellerby, 56, a disabled veteran from Croydon, Pa. Bellerby said he's voting Democratic after supporting Republicans for 20 years.

"Fitzpatrick marches in step with Bush, always has, always will," Bellerby said as he waited at a Democratic rally featuring a tardy former President Clinton. "If he gets re-elected, his policies won't change. He'll stay the course on Iraq, stem-cell research."

-- William Douglas

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Virginia's 2nd congressional district should be solid Republican turf, a seaside area around Virginia Beach marked by church steeples and the towering ships of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet.

The district is heavily populated by military families and Christian conservatives; it's home to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network and Regent University. For years they've delivered easy victories to Republicans. Bush took 55 percent of the district vote in 2000 and 58 percent in 2004.

Not this year.

Republican Rep. Thelma Drake is struggling to hold her seat after two terms. Democrat Phil Kellam, Virginia Beach's revenue commissioner, leads Drake 46 percent to 42 percent, according to a recent Zogby/Reuters poll.

Democrats found a credible challenger in Kellam, the only elected Democrat in Virginia Beach and heir to a legendary political family there. If that gave the Democrats a chance to compete, Iraq and the Foley scandal are giving them a chance to win.

How military families vote will prove critical -- and some who salute their commander in chief in public might not be so supportive in the privacy of the polling booth, said Charles Dunn, a political scientist at Regent University.

Dunn said the Foley scandal could dampen already low enthusiasm among Christian conservatives. "They've been called on and called on, and the payoffs haven't been there. ... Christian conservatives are not as enthusiastic as they were."

-- Steven Thomma

TACOMA, Wash. -- On paper, it's two-term Republican Rep. Dave Reichert vs. Democrat Darcy Burner in the race for Washington's 8th District seat.

In the political world, it's Reichert vs. the Iraq war and Bush's low approval ratings -- and the Democratic line that's he too close to Bush.

"If he loses, it's got nothing to do with Dave Reichert," said Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University political science professor.

Democrats paint Reichert as an unquestioning party loyalist. One campaign mailing shows Reichert next to Bush under a headline that calls him "Rubber Stamp Reichert."

Reichert called the ad "comical" and said he doesn't agree with Bush and other top Republicans on every issue.

"I'm Dave Reichert. I'm different. I'm my own man," he said.

He cited his vote against drilling for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. He also voted to hold manufacturers of the gasoline additive MTBE liable when fuel leaked from underground tanks and seeped into groundwater.

Republicans portray Burner, a former Microsoft manager, as inexperienced.

A state Republican Web site parodies Burner's "Resume and Qualifications" with nothing listed under three categories, including "Elected Positions I've Held."

"I have 35 years (of) public service," Reichert said. "She has zero."

-- Paul Sand

ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht rode into the House on the anti-Democrat tidal wave of 1994. Now he's hoping a similar wave against his party doesn't wash him back out.

Facing Gutknecht is Democrat Tim Walz, one of nearly a dozen veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are trying to win seats in Congress this year.

In a southern Minnesota district known for its Jesse Ventura-style independence, Gutknecht doesn't have to stretch far to put daylight between himself and Bush.

He's made a mark nationally as an advocate of importing prescription drugs from Canada, which the Bush administration opposes. Normally an advocate of free trade, Gutknecht voted against the Central America Free Trade Agreement, fearing it would hurt his district's sugar beet farmers.

Gutknecht became a lightning rod of controversy this summer when he returned from Iraq and suggested that things there were getting worse. His proposal for a limited withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops, a mere month after accusing war critics of going "wobbly," turned him into a national poster child for Republicans losing heart over the war.

Walz, who spent 24 years in the National Guard, served in Italy in support of the Afghan campaign. While he's criticized the war, he doesn't favor the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Joseph Kunkel, a political science professor at the Minnesota State University at Mankato, said: "I think Gutknecht is taking Walz seriously, and if he doesn't, he could become the victim of a tsunami."

-- Kevin Diaz

-- -- --

(Thomma reported from Virginia Beach and anchored this story. Contributing were Margaret Talev in Indiana, William Douglas in Pennsylvania, David Whitney in California, Erika Bolstad in Florida, Steve Lannen in Kentucky, Kevin Diaz in Minnesota, Tim Funk, and Paul Sand in Washington.)

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