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Right vs. not-so left in House races

Simon is a Times staff writer.

The prospects for big Democratic gains in the House, amplified by advances in the Senate and a White House victory, have spurred grave Republican warnings of a shift to the left that could bring increases in spending, taxes and regulation.

But if anything, a number of potential Democratic newcomers have been running well to the right of their party’s leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Competing in traditional GOP strongholds, many are campaigning on pledges of fiscal discipline, gun rights and “family values.”

If elected, they could pose a problem to party leaders at a time when Democrats hope to gain control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency for the first time since 1994.

“I own seven guns, and nobody’s going to take them away from me,” said Walt Minnick, a Republican-turned-Democrat in Idaho who is one example of the hopeful Democratic class of 2008. Minnick is in a close race against a wobbly first-term Republican in a district that President Bush handily won in 2004.

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In Alaska, Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat challenging longtime Republican Rep. Don Young, pledged to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a step opposed by most Democrats in Congress. “I can’t wait to go to Washington, D.C., and tell Nancy Pelosi that she’s wrong about ANWR,” he said.

In Kentucky, Democrat David Boswell, in a tight race for an open seat previously held by a Republican, declared in a TV ad: “I’m pro-life, against higher taxes, and I will protect our 2nd Amendment rights. You can count on it.”

And in Virginia, Democrat Glenn Nye, challenging a two-term Republican incumbent, has even said he would vote to extend Bush’s tax cuts, which have been criticized by Democratic leaders as favoring the wealthy.

After gaining control of the House in 2006 for the first time in 12 years, Democrats are expected this year to pick up 20 to 30 additional seats, and perhaps more.

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As the election nears, Republicans have stepped up their warnings. “One-party dominance can be very dangerous,” says a TV ad for Chris Hackett, a GOP congressional candidate in Pennsylvania.

House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, whose party controlled Washington for much of the last eight years, warned in a recent memo of “a frenzy of new government programs and pork-barrel projects.”

But a number of the potential Democratic newcomers are running in conservative-leaning districts. Their election could present Pelosi with a bigger majority, but not one likely to follow lock-step behind her.

“The bigger majority, the harder it is to control,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. “A lot of these conservative Democrats have been running against Republicans who have said, ‘You can’t let the Democrats take control because they’ll go on a spending spree.’ So they’ll be particularly sensitive to that.”

The new moderates could serve as a “brake” on liberal lawmakers who see this as their time to act on a range of issues, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

All 435 House seats are up for election, as they are every two years, and most incumbents are expected to coast to reelection. Democrats now outnumber Republicans, 235 to 199, with one vacancy.

The potential Democratic pickups underscore Republican troubles in a year when popularity of the GOP has plunged along with the stock market. Democrats have benefited from a campaign war chest flush with money, and the GOP has been forced to defend 30 open seats, compared with eight for the opposing party.

A big Republican loss is likely to prompt a shake-up in the House GOP leadership, perhaps costing Boehner his post.

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The signs of a potentially big Democratic year can be found from Connecticut -- where Rep. Christopher Shays is in danger of losing the last GOP-held House seat in New England -- to Alaska, where 35-year House veteran Young, a key player on land issues important to the West, stands to lose his seat. Democrats even have a shot at winning a seat in Wyoming that Republicans have held since Dick Cheney, now the vice president, won it from a Democrat in 1978.

The races feature an eclectic bunch. Dennis Shulman, a New Jersey Democrat, rabbi and psychologist, is seeking to become the first blind member of the House since 1941. Larry Joe Doherty, the former star of the courtroom TV show “Texas Justice,” is the Democratic candidate for House in -- where else? -- Texas.

When Democrats won a House majority in 2006, they did so without an incumbent Democrat losing. They may not be so lucky this time. Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney won a Florida seat in 2006 after Republican Rep. Mark Foley resigned over revelations that he sent sexually explicit messages to male congressional pages. Now, Mahoney is embroiled in his own scandal after admitting to extramarital affairs.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a 34-year House veteran, faces a sudden backlash after saying that some Pennsylvania voters may not support Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama because they are “racist.” He apologized, but he still faces an uproar.

Still, Republicans are much more on the defensive. In one Florida district, Republican Rep. Tom Feeney aired a TV ad apologizing for his “rookie mistake” in going on a golf trip to Scotland with “corrupt lobbyist” Jack Abramoff in 2003.

In one California district, Democrat Charlie Brown, a retired Air Force officer, is in a tight race with GOP state Sen. Tom McClintock. The Republican incumbent, John T. Doolittle of Roseville, has come under scrutiny for his ties to Abramoff and is retiring.

Democratic candidates are competing on GOP turf by sounding in many cases like their Republican foes.

In Alabama, Democrat Bobby Bright, the mayor of Montgomery, is in a tight race against Jay Love, a Republican state legislator, for a seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Terry Everett.

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Love has attempted to portray Bright as a liberal who takes “big campaign bucks” from national Democratic leaders. But Bright has worked to distance himself from party leaders, running a TV ad flashing the words “conservative,” “pro-life” and “pro-gun.”

“Bright has hardly mentioned the Democratic Party,” said Jeremy Lewis, a political science professor at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala.

A number of the potential newcomers to the House, if elected, are likely to become members of the influential “Blue Dog” coalition, a group that currently numbers 49 fiscally conservative Democrats who insist that any spending increases be offset by budget cuts or tax increases.

The Blue Dogs could complicate efforts to increase spending for domestic programs, such as health and education, that Democrats contend were neglected under years of GOP rule.

“We don’t believe that Congress, as an independent branch of the government, should be cheerleader for the White House,” said Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog. “Whoever is elected president, it’s our job to work with them when we can, but more importantly, to oversee the spending that occurs by the administration.”

The election of more conservative Democrats also could undercut efforts to restore a ban on new oil drilling off much of the U.S. coast. Instead, the House is more likely to take up legislation allowing states to make drilling decisions.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the House

Democrats won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives in 2006, taking control for the first time since 1994. Democrats are poised to expand their majority in next week’s election.

The House before the 2006 election:

Democrats: 203

Republicans: 232

The House currently (1 vacancy):

Democrats: 235

Republicans: 199

House projections for next week:

Democrats: 260-271

Republicans: 164-175

Sources: Cook Political Report; Rothenberg Political Report; Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball.


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