GOP Sees Few ‘Safe’ House Seats

Times Staff Writer

Election day was five long months away, but Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) decided to air her first television campaign ad early to set the tone for what promised to be a tough reelection fight.

But when the ad was broadcast in June, it contained an embarrassing error. Pryce’s first name was spelled “Deboarah.” The blunder was especially surprising coming from the camp of a seasoned, seven-term incumbent and senior member of the House Republican leadership.

When it comes to hardball campaigning, however, Pryce is something of a rookie. She has not faced a serious challenge since she was first elected to Congress in 1992. But that has abruptly changed this year -- for her and for some other House Republicans accustomed to coasting to reelection.


With the political winds blowing squarely against the GOP, several senior lawmakers are facing unusually serious challenges that have forced them to dust off campaign tools that, in some cases, are a bit rusty.

In California, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) has agreed to debate a Democratic opponent for the first time in more than a decade. Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) has expanded his campaign staff beyond what had been a tight inner circle -- and spent more money in the process.

In Connecticut, GOP Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, in her 24th year in Congress, has already aired five expensive television ads. In New York, supporters of Republican Rep. James T. Walsh of Syracuse goofed at one event by distributing 4-year-old campaign literature.

With Democrats needing a 15-seat gain to win control of the House, most of their top targets are junior GOP lawmakers or perennially vulnerable incumbents in swing districts. But they almost assuredly will have to beat more-entrenched Republicans like Pryce to win a majority.

Amy Walter, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, sees such incumbents as “canaries in the mineshaft” whose fate will determine whether the GOP loses control of the House.

When Republicans won the chamber in 1994, their victory was built in part on the surprise defeat of several senior Democratic incumbents, such as then-House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington.

Republicans have one advantage that Democrats did not have in 1994. Then, many of the party’s incumbents did not realize they were in trouble until it was too late to do much about it. This year, GOP leaders already have sensed political danger and urged lawmakers to gear up.

“We are encouraging every incumbent to take their challenger seriously,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We have been telling them to be active, raise money now, get a team in place. Don’t wait until Labor Day to decide ‘I need a campaign.’ ”

Doolittle and Pombo, who normally would be shoo-ins for reelection, are facing tougher challenges mostly because of questions raised about their relationship with disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and other ethics issues. Both survived primary challenges in June, but they remain on the Cook Report’s list of the 42 most vulnerable GOP incumbents.

Pombo has already spent more money -- $1.6 million -- than during the entirety of any campaign since he first won his seat in 1992. For the first time in years, he has amassed a campaign staff that extends beyond the family members and two close advisors who in the past have handled his political affairs. Campaign manager Carl Fogliani, one of the newcomers, said the new resources were needed to respond to a deluge of attack ads from liberal political groups.

Doolittle, who has won more than 60% of the vote in every election for more than a decade, has ramped up his fundraising, collecting more than $1 million before the primary in early June. His agreement to debate Democratic candidate Charlie Brown is the first time since the mid-1990s that he has taken an opponent seriously enough to do so.

Other entrenched Republicans are running harder than ever because of voter hostility toward President Bush and Congress.

Walsh, a nine-term incumbent who had no Democratic opponent in 2004 and whose father once served in Congress, has dominated the politics of his district for years. But his pollster, Jeff Stonecash, said surveys indicated that Bush’s unpopularity could pose a risk to Walsh and other Republicans.

“Thank you, George Bush,” Stonecash said. “People have become willing to consider a challenger.”

Walsh is still favored to defeat his Democratic opponent -- former congressional aide Dan Maffei -- but he is not taking the election for granted. Walsh spent more than $100,000 on television ads in June, emphasizing his political “independence” and clout.

“All Republicans need to be aggressive in this environment,” Walsh said.

Some of his supporters created a problem for him recently when, at a local summer festival, they distributed a leaflet listing union endorsements he had not secured. Joe Rossi, political director for a local of the Service Employees International Union, complained. Walsh campaign spokesman Daniel Gage said he did not know who distributed the leaflets, which were 2002 campaign leftovers.

“Maybe they are out of practice,” said Rossi, whose union will probably endorse Maffei.

The political arm of the online liberal advocacy group this spring tried to whip up opposition to selected GOP incumbents with a series of TV ads accusing them of shilling for special interests that helped finance their campaigns. One target was Johnson, a moderate Republican who has had an iron grip on her district in Connecticut despite its Democratic leanings. This year, however, she faces her toughest challenge in years.

Her response to the MoveOn attacks was a tribute to the financial clout of longtime incumbents: She immediately dipped into her vast campaign treasury to air two rebuttal ads in April. She followed that up with three spots with positive messages. And she still ended up with $2.6 million in cash on hand at the end of June.

Pryce, who also was attacked by MoveOn ads, has won every election since her first with more than 60% of the vote.

Her district, which includes a swath of Columbus -- including Ohio State University -- and its affluent western suburbs, has been trending Democratic. In the 2004 presidential election, Bush carried it over Democrat John F. Kerry by fewer than 2,400 votes.

Pryce’s relatively moderate stance on social issues has served her well in the district in the past. But she is the fourth-ranking member of the conservative-dominated House GOP leadership and has, like most Republicans, supported Bush’s major initiatives. And she, like other Ohio Republicans, bears an added burden this year because the GOP-controlled state government has been wracked by scandals.

“The mood is not conducive to Republicans” in the state, said Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University.

Sensing vulnerability, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruited a strong challenger -- County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy -- and encouraged donors around the country to contribute to her campaign. Emphasizing Pryce’s party leadership role, Democrats are portraying her as a “rubber stamp” for Bush.

Pryce quickly realized that 2006 would be a hard-fought campaign for her, in part because of the involvement of the DCCC and MoveOn.

“It used to be one candidate against the next,” Pryce said in an interview. “As I see it now, I have three opponents” -- Kilroy, the national Democratic Party and outside political groups, she said.

In mid-May, she replaced her campaign manager with a more-experienced longtime Washington aide. She is spending more time in the district and less time fundraising for fellow Republicans. Her first television ad aired in June -- the one that drew hoots of derision for the misspelling of her name.

But the spot, which touted her success in bringing a new veterans clinic to Columbus, telegraphed the broader strategy that she and other endangered GOP incumbents hope will help them weather a political storm: focusing on local issues and emphasizing their work for constituents.

Meanwhile, in this race and others, Democrats’ prospects hinge largely on their ability to redirect voters’ attention to the national political landscape and the links between their local GOP House members and Bush’s unpopular policies.

In Pryce’s case, said Lucie Pollard, a local member of MoveOn, she “comes across locally as the nice lady down the street. But there’s increasing awareness now that how she’s voting is far from that.”



Some Republican House members, unaccustomed to hard-fought elections, find they are facing more serious opposition this year. How some of those members have fared in recent elections:

New reality

*--* Smallest % since First 2004 % 2002 % first Representative District elected of vote of vote election John Doolittle California 4th 1990 65% 65% 50%/1992 Nancy Johnson Connecticut 5th 1982 60 54 50/1996 Richard Pombo California 11th 1992 61 60 58/2000 Deborah Pryce Ohio 15th 1992 60 67 60/2004 James Walsh New York 25th 1988 90* 72 55/1996


*No Democratic opponent

Source: Almanac of American Politics