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U.S. House special elections provide clues to shape of November showdown

Edward Lynch, a Republican running for Congress in South Florida for a second time, says he can tell a marked difference between the mood of the electorate now and during his first campaign two years ago.

“This year, they gave me a standing ovation,” Lynch said of a recent campaign event. “Last time, they spit on me.”

He’s a candidate in one of five special elections in the coming weeks to fill vacant House seats that could provide clues about just how ugly November could be for the Democratic Party. The GOP hopes that a disaffected public soured on the economy and the healthcare overhaul translates into large gains in this year’s congressional races.

Democratic strategists are less worried about the April 13 election pitting Lynch against Democrat Ted Deutch in this heavily Democratic district than they are about coming face-offs in Hawaii, Pennsylvania and New York. All are shaping up to be close contests -- and a GOP victory in any would resonate both politically and symbolically. A seat in a fifth race in a conservative Georgia district is widely expected to remain in Republican hands.

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The contests have “the potential to be the next turning point in this election cycle,” said David Wasserman, who follows House races for the Cook Political Report. “If the Democrats hold onto all their seats, it will be difficult for Republicans to claim they can execute in these regions.”

They can also serve as a windows into the way campaigns will frame issues in this fall’s races, with Republicans hammering Democrats over the healthcare bill and spending, and Democrats casting Republicans as do-nothings who advocate the privatization of Medicare and Social Security.

Hawaii traditionally tilts toward the Democrats. But the two Democrats in the May 22 election, former U.S. Rep. Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, could split the vote, handing the seat to Republican Charles Djou. A win for Djou arguably would be comparable to Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s insurgent win in Massachusetts in January.

The candidates, along with three others, squared off in a debate last week, with Case seeking to paint Djou as an obstructionist, citing his opposition to the economic stimulus package and the healthcare overhaul. Djou in turn blasted the healthcare bill as too expensive and ineffective.

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A close race is also expected in the southwestern Pennsylvania district that was represented by the late Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha for four decades. Two recent polls show Democrat Mark Critz with a narrow lead over Republican Tim Burns in the May 18 election. But in a worrisome sign for Critz and his party as a whole, independents appear to be breaking toward Burns in large numbers. That same phenomenon drove Brown’s win in Massachusetts.

Murtha’s former district is the only one in the nation that backed John F. Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 but went for John McCain four years later.

Murtha’s legendary acumen for showering federal dollars on his district provides an interesting wrinkle in the race. While many candidates on both sides this year are likely to portray themselves as Washington outsiders, Critz, a former aide to Murtha, can argue that he can best perpetuate the tradition of delivering the goods. “The Democrats will portray Burns as anti-earmark,” Wasserman said, a label that would be welcomed by candidates in other races.

Republicans have cautious hopes in both states but are quick to concede they are the underdogs, so as not build expectations. Democrats, conversely, say that the pressure is on the GOP to prove it can win these elections, citing the party’s pledge to retake control of the House. Republicans lost special contests in New York and California last year.

“They cannot lose any one of these elections and continue to claim they have the momentum -- the blocking and tackling -- to win on the ground,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

A more secure seat for the GOP can be found in northwestern Georgia, which will become open once Rep. Nathan Deal officially resigns to run for governor. The district, one of the most conservative in the nation, gave three-fourths of the vote in 2008 to McCain. Once a GOP nominee is settled upon by party leaders, he is expected to cruise to victory.

A prize for Republicans, however, looms in northwestern New York, with a spirited race forecast for the seat of former Rep. Eric Massa, a Democrat who resigned this month amid allegations of sexual harassment. A date for a special election has yet to be set by Gov. David Paterson, but the moderate district has the potential for changing hands.

Massa’s troubles don’t help, said Matt Bennett, a political analyst with the centrist think tank Third Way. “You’ve got a guy who has thoroughly humiliated himself, and that will not make it easy for any Democratic candidate,” he said.

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While the stakes for the candidates in all these elections may seem puny --after all, they all must face voters again in November -- Bennett said that the value of even a short-term congressional incumbency can’t be overstated. “You are Congressman Whoever at that point. It makes it much easier to win [in the fall],” Bennett said. “The first thing they do when they take office is to send out a million tons of franked mail.”

joliphant@latimes.com


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