A Fixer-Upper

Democrats will need luck and local support to win back the House

David Moberg

A solid majority of Americans tell pollsters they think the country is headed in the wrong direction. But as the congressional campaigns got underway in earnest this September, it seemed all too likely that after November 2 the House of Representatives will continue down that same wrong path — with a Republican majority under the strong conservative discipline of Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) and Majority Leader Tom The Hammer” DeLay (R.-Texas).

The tide can still turn, but most pundits think the odds for a Democratic victory have worsened since early summer. If the Democrats do pick up the additional 11 seats they need to gain control of the House, it will be because of a range of local political circumstances, not a national wave of resentment against Republicans or support for a compelling Democratic program — since there isn’t one. However, a fighting comeback by Kerry, worsening conditions in Iraq, or continued economic difficulties could alter the political climate enough to tip many tight contests.

A decade of losses 

For all but a few years from the New Deal until 1994, Democrats controlled the House, which was typically more liberal than the Senate. But Republicans have held the House since 1994 when Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America sparked a national Republican resurgence. In 2002 Democrats theoretically had a similar opportunity to regain a majority but failed partly because they failed to mount a cohesive national strategy against Bush and Republican congressional leaders.

Over the past decade, House members have served as the shock troops of conservative Republicanism, whether attacking Clinton or supporting the Bush agenda (even pressuring him from the right at times). Indeed, if Kerry wins, a Republican-controlled House may cause him more grief than a Republican Senate.

Texas two-step

The number of competitive races is relatively small, in large part because redistricting in most states heavily favored protection of incumbents, who in any case have strong financial and political advantages. However, the Texas legislature made the Democrats’ task much harder by imposing a highly controversial remap that created five strongly Republican districts where incumbent Democrats have been forced to run, in two instances battling incumbent Republicans.

The Democrats start with the tough task of defending their five Texas incumbents running in districts that are now all considered 60 percent or more Republican. Nevertheless, Texas AFL-CIO spokesman Ed Sills says, They’re all very different races. We think there are excellent chances in all, but particularly in three or four of them.” 

Charles Stenholm, by far the most conservative of the Democrats and a candidate who runs campaign ads showing him with President Bush, may parlay his seniority and agriculture policy influence to victory despite the worst odds on paper. Chet Edwards and Martin Frost are both moderates with some historic base in their new districts who face strongly contrasting right-wing Republicans. Running as moderately progressive on economics and conservative on social issues, Max Sandlin has some experience winning in a predominantly Republican district, unlike moderate Nick Lampson from a previously Democratic region. 

In all these races, however, there’s a chance for some resentment boiling up against the Republican redistricting strategy and in favor of well-known Democratic incumbents, particularly after the indictment in late September of three top DeLay aides for illegally using corporate funds in 2002 to win the Republican majority in the state legislature that forced the new districts through.

East Coast openings

While the Republicans pose serious challenges for some other Democratic incumbents or open seats, especially in the Midwest and South, they are on the defensive in many more races scattered around the nation.

In New York, moderate pro-union Republican Rep. Jack Quinn from the Buffalo area is retiring from a district that Al Gore won strongly in 2000. That’s one the Democrats can and should win,” says Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Democratic Assemblyman Brian Higgins. Although Republican Nancy Naples, a Wall Street executive who became county comptroller, is considered a relatively strong candidate, Higgins is a moderately progressive candidate with substantial union support and good political skills who may benefit from voters’ continued focus on job losses. 

In two other races, Democrats have longer-shot opportunities to take seats away from Republicans. Samara Barend, a 27-year old organizer who played a leading role in getting a new interstate highway approved, has solid support in her upstate district, which is being vacated by Amo Houghton, but it is one of the most Republican districts in the state. In what could be an exciting ideological clash, Frank Barbaro, a judge who was previously one of the most progressive, pro-labor members of the Assembly, could pose a serious challenge to three-term conservative Rep. Vito Fossella in the Staten Island district that Gore carried.

Scattered chances

But there are also promising prospects in other regions of the country.

In Colorado, Democrats may be buoyed by Kerry’s comparatively strong showing and by a vigorous campaign for U.S. Senate. State Rep. John Salazar, older brother of the promising Democratic candidate for Senate and a member of an established Hispanic farming family, has a good chance in an open Republican seat in the far west of the state despite its strong vote for Bush in 2000. Also, Democratic county prosecutor Dave Thomas is considered a tough challenger for freshman Republican Bob Beauprez, who won by only 121 votes in a district that went for Gore. 

Nearby in Arizona, Paul Babbitt, brother of former Governor Bruce Babbitt and from the long-established Arizona family, is running in a sprawling district in the northeast of the state with a Democratic edge in registration against a narrowly elected conservative first-termer, Rick Renzi, who is not considered an effective campaigner.

In Washington state, Democrats are eyeing two quite different open Republican seats. One in the rural east has been held for a decade by George Nethercutt, who upset Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley and is now running for Senate against incumbent Patty Murray; the other, in the Seattle suburbs, has been held by Republican Jennifer Dunn, a conservative Republican partisan who occasionally casts moderate votes on environmental and social issues. In those respective districts, Spokane businessman Don Barbieri and talk-show host Dave Ross are both moderate political neophytes who are running against Republicans politically at least as far to the right, if not more so, than the retiring members of Congress.

Down the center

There are fewer opportunities for Democrats to pick off Republican seats in the Midwest, but strategists in Illinois think that businesswoman Melissa Bean may prevail in her second run against ultraconservative Rep. Phil Crane from the northwest collar county” area around Chicago. Bean, a moderate who pledges to energetically seek funds for transportation and other district needs, attacks Crane as a seat warmer” (which she actually uses as a campaign gimmick to give donors) who has accomplished little. Much of the growing, newer population doesn’t know 35-year veteran Crane (except perhaps for his admission to alcohol treatment four years ago) and trends slightly Democratic despite the overall Republican edge. State Sen. Terry Link, chair of Lake County Democrats, thinks that Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama’s blow-out lead over archconservative Alan Keyes could help tip the electorate to Bean.

Enemy territory

Even in the South, Democrats have a chance to pick up seats, most notably in the southeast district of Georgia, which includes several university towns. It’s a heavily Democratic district, which Gore won 54 to 45 percent, but it’s represented by a very conservative freshman Republican, Max Burns. Underfunded by comparison, county commissioner John Barrow, from Athens, nevertheless has good prospects of winning a district designed by state Democratic legislators for their party.

Although these and other viable Democratic challenges span the country, the congressional races are not so much a manifestation of a strong national party as a grab bag of promising candidacies rooted in local circumstances. But if enough of them win to make a majority, then the likely Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, at least has the possibility of forging them into a cohesive, progressive force. It’s getting that majority that won’t be easy.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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