Taking Back Congress

With Bush and the Republicans on the brink, a look at ten key races the Democrats have targeted in their effort to reclaim the majority

Democratic Congressional candidate Joe Sestak talks with veteran Jerry Gavin at Sestak's campaign headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, on October 4th, 2006. Credit: Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

It has been twelve years — dating Back to Newt Gingrich's revolution of 1994 — since Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives. And it has been thirty-two years since, thanks to Watergate, they enjoyed what veteran political analyst Charlie Cook refers to as a "big goddamn tidal wave" — the kind of national electoral upheaval that sweeps the ruling party out of power, regardless of the size of its war chest.

"It's a hell of a sight to behold, and if you haven't seen one yourself, it's hard to imagine it can really happen — particularly for Democrats," Cook says. "But right now it's almost like there's an invisible hand pushing the Democrats forward and pulling the Republicans back."

At issue is no longer whether the GOP will lose seats in November — it will. According to recent polls, fifty-five percent of Americans say they would rather vote for a challenger than an incumbent — a level of backlash that is seven points higher than it was during Gingrich's '94 revolution, when the Republicans picked up fifty-two seats.

The real question today is whether Republicans will lose one chamber of Congress — or two. While retaking the Senate remains a stretch for Democrats, even GOP leaders concede privately that the Democrats are likely to pick up the fifteen seats they need to capture the House. Only fifty of the 435 seats up for grabs in November are truly competitive — thanks to the advantages of incumbency, even a patently corrupt politician like Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat caught with $90,000 of bribe money in his freezer, is breezing toward re-election. Yet Democrats are targeting thirty-four GOP seats this fall — while the National Republican Congressional Committee concedes that it can "play offense" against only ten sitting Democrats.

"In the past, the Republican advantage has always been they had so much money that if there was a hole someplace they could plug it," says Cook. "The question is now: Are there just so many holes that even they don't have enough money to plug'em all up?"

The coming weeks will tell: In an attempt to minimize their losses, Republicans have unleashed $45 million in attack advertising — some of it redolent of the worst of Willie Horton politics. "You'll only see them become more desperate," says Rep. Nancy Pelosi, slated to become Speaker of the House should Democrats retake the majority. "We are going to restore the balance of power that our Constitution calls for — a system of checks and balances with the proper oversight." And there's nothing Republicans fear more than Democrats with subpoena power — "so you'll see very personal attacks launched on our candidates in the coming days," Pelosi says.

Among the hard-fought campaigns being waged this fall, ten races stand out. Each is a showdown in a swing district that would normally favor Republicans — the kind of seats, in other words, that Democrats must win if they hope to retake the House. To make inroads in red districts, the party has reached beyond its traditional base to recruit some surprising candidates — a three-star admiral, a former NFL quarterback, even a few hard-right conservatives who have defected from the Republican Party. Although they are pitted against some of the GOP's most powerful incumbents and prodigious campaigners, Democrats are genuinely optimistic about these ten bellwether races. Win only two, they believe, and the party will likely be on track to regain the majority. Win seven or more, and Cook's "big goddamn wave" could sweep Democrats to power in both houses of Congress.

"We have the edge in these races," says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, co-chair of Red to Blue, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's multimillion-dollar effort to recapture the House. "But it's all going to depend on turnout — and the national mood going into the final days."

Ohio 15th District (Columbus)
Rep. Deborah Pryce (R, Seven terms)
County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D)
Top Issue: The Republican leadership

With Tom Delay in political exile, the race against Pryce — the GOP's deputy whip and fourth-ranking member — represents the Democrats' best chance to make Republicans pay for the party's rampant corruption and unquestioning support of the president's far-right agenda. Pryce not only spearheaded Bush's effort to privatize Social Security, she also benefited from at least ten fund-raisers hosted by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"More than any other contest in this country, this race offers us an opportunity to send George Bush a message," says Kilroy, who has a track record of winning in the district. "Deborah Pryce is not just a foot soldier — she's a general who has rubber-stamped every bad idea to come out of the administration for the last six years."

In a normal year, a candidate of Pryce's stature would be expected to tout her high rank and close ties to the president. Instead, Pryce is omitting her party affiliation from her campaign ads — billing herself as an independent. "A lot of people are trying to run away from the Republican leadership and the president," says Van Hollen. "But it's very difficult for her to do."

The NRCC is so desperate to hold onto Pryce's seat that it has actually stooped to Red-baiting her opponent. "Kilroy is somebody that the National Committee of the Communist Party is promoting," says NRCC spokesman Carl Forti. Such charges are unlikely to play with voters, however: In her conservative pantsuits and silky blouses, Kilroy comes across more like a Midwestern CEO than a socialist firebrand. She favors withdrawing American troops from Iraq — where the war has killed or wounded nearly a third of the soldiers in the Marine reserve unit stationed in Columbus.

Pennsylvania 7th District (suburban Philadelphia)
Rep. Curt Weldon (R, ten terms)
Retired Vice Adm. Joe Sestak (D)
Top Issue: The Iraq War

This could prove to be the marquee matchup in the nation. A retired three-star admiral, Sestak can be summed up in two words: dream candidate. The highest-ranking military officer ever to run for the House, Sestak served as director of defense policy under Clinton, commanded a 15,000-man battle-carrier group in both Afghanistan and Iraq, holds a doctorate in government from Harvard and retired from the service in January to care for his daughter, who was stricken by a brain tumor. A charismatic speaker, Sestak has also been out-fund-raising Weldon — a rare feat for a political novice running against an entrenched incumbent.

Weldon, by contrast, acts more like a frustrated secret agent than the powerful vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. He keeps a model "suitcase nuke" in his office and has claimed — citing his own "impeccable clandestine source" — that Iranians were plotting to fly a plane into a nuclear reactor near Boston. In his latest move, Weldon proposed a novel — and unconstitutional — approach to Iraq: removing Bush and Rumsfeld from the chain of military command and giving the generals in the field authority to bring the troops home when they see fit.

"Curt Weldon still believes Iraq was the right decision and — despite all studies saying otherwise — still believes that there are WMDs there," says Sestak, who calls the war a "tragic misadventure" and demands a "date certain" for withdrawing U.S. troops. "We must redeploy in order to refocus our attention on the global security to enhance America's security."

Sestak is running in a district that is ripe for a Democratic takeover: The 7th is one of three suburban Philadelphia districts — all currently represented by the GOP — that threw their support to John Kerry in 2004. In the neighboring 6th District, Democratic challenger Lois Murphy is expected to oust GOP incumbent Jim Gerlach, and in the 8th, Iraq vet Patrick Murphy is giving incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick fits.

Connecticut 5th District (New Britain)
Rep. Nancy Johnson (R, twelve terms)
State Sen. Chris Murphy (D)
Top Issue: The Medicare fiasco

The anti-incumbent fervor stirred up by the defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary threatens to oust no fewer than three GOP representatives in Connecticut. But the key race involves Johnson, who represents the most conservative district in New England outside of New Hampshire. Johnson, 71, drew national ire over the Medicare benefit she co-sponsored in 2003 that actually prohibits the federal government from negotiating discounts on prescription drugs for the elderly. "The benefit was written for and by the drug industry," charges Murphy. "And seniors throughout the district are going to be holding her accountable in November."

Only thirty-three, Murphy has passed major health-care legislation of his own, spearheading a landmark state effort to spend $100 million on the embryonic stem-cell research that Bush used his first and only veto to block. And Murphy has already established a track record of toppling incumbents: As a recent graduate of Williams College, he upset a fourteen-year veteran in the state legislature by literally knocking on every door in the district — some of them twice.

"Chris is a rising star," says Van Hollen. "He brings to this race a great mix of both the policy and the politics."

Murphy is once again hitting the streets. He has embarked on a forty-one-town door-knocking tour — and is reaching out to younger voters by posting a daily video of the effort on You Tube. But the GOP incumbent is bankrolled by corporate backers, many of them from outside the district. "Nancy Johnson is a pit bull," says Forti of the NRCC. "She has got a million more dollars in the bank, and she's already been on TV for weeks attacking Murphy for raising taxes twenty-seven times."

Given the widespread anger among voters, however, a big war chest might not be enough this time. "At the end of the day, Nancy Johnson's money and her campaign skills may allow her to squeeze out a victory," says Stu Rothenberg, a respected political handicapper. "But the environment's very bad. If the election is primarily about change, Nancy Johnson can be portrayed as part of the problem."

New Mexico 1st District (Albuquerque)
Rep. Heather Wilson (R, four terms)
State Attorney General Patricia Madrid (D)
Top Issues: Iraq, gas prices

Madrid was heavily recruited to run by both Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, and it's easy to see why. The attorney general — all sixty inches of her — is a pull-no-punches fighter who has racked up a record that rivals even Eliot Spitzer's in New York. She has successfully sued WorldCom, GE and Chevron, among others, bringing in $480 million to the state's coffers, and has repeatedly taken the Bush administration to court over its atrocious environmental record. And as the state's first Hispanic attorney general, Madrid gives the Democrats their best-ever shot in a district that, atleast on paper, ought to swing their way: The population is forty-three percent Hispanic, and registered Democrats handily outnumber Republicans.

Yet since the district was first drawn up in 1968, voters have elected only Republicans. And Wilson, the incumbent, is certainly no slouch: A Rhodes scholar, she served in the Air Force and chairs a House subcommittee on national security — a distinct edge in a district that is home to an Air Force base. But her support for the administration makes her vulnerable. "she has voted right down the line on every aspect of this war and its conduct," Madrid says. "She didn't ask the hard questions — or looked the other way — when the president went into this war with a phony coalition on phony intelligence."

For her loyalty, Wilson has been richly rewarded. In June, Bush swept into New Mexico for a fund-raiser that netted $375,000 for Wilson. Then, in one of the most ironic moments of this year's elections, Wilson promptly turned around and used the money to bankroll ads touting her independence from . . . George W. Bush.

"This is a great race," says Rothenberg. "Wilson is tough. She's admired. But Madrid is a great campaigner. There's going to be a ton of national money in this race. It's going to be a squeaker."

California 4th District (South Lake Tahoe)
Rep. John Doolittle (R, eight terms)
Retired Air Force pilot Charlie Brown (D)
Top Issues: Corruption, veterans

If the Republican culture of corruption is truly on the ballot in November, it's likely to make the difference in this northeastern district of California. What has long been a red bastion in a deep-blue state is suddenly up for grabs, as Brown has pulled within two points of the scandal-tarred incumbent.

Doolittle has been linked to not one but two major scandals. He accepted more than $64,000 from Abramoff and his patronage network — and helped the corrupt lobbyist secure a contract with the Northern Mariana Islands, an American protectorate that Doolittle has worked to preserve as a haven for sex slavery and sweatshops by exempting them from immigration and minimum-wage laws. Doolittle also intervened on behalf of defense contractor Brent Wilkes — the man who bribed former Rep. Duke Cunningham — earmarking $37 million in the Navy budget to buy superfluous sonar equipment from Wilkes.

Brown, by contrast, served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and finished his career in Air Force intelligence, coordinating reconnaissance flights over the Iraqi "no-fly zone." His son Jeff is now on his fourth tour of duty as a pilot in Iraq. A pro-gun, pro-choice conservative who serves on the police force in the Sacramento suburb of Roseville, Brown was a lifelong Republican — until the Bush administration abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism.

"Charlie Brown has magnificent credentials," raves Pelosi. "If we had Charlie Brown in many more races in the country, we would be guaranteed a victory in November."

Indiana 8th district (Terre Haute)
Rep. John Hostettler (R, six terms)
Sheriff Brad Ellsworth (D)
Top Issue: Immigration

The district is known as the "Bloody Eighth" for its epic congressional contests — and this year's race looks to be no exception. Hostettler, the incumbent, is a fire-breathing soldier of the religious right who has managed to stay in office by running shoestring campaigns that rely on a tightknit network of grass-roots supporters. He refers to his office as his "ministry" and once took to the House floor to demonize Democrats for what he called their "long war on Christianity."

Hostettler has a lonely history of extremism: He was one of only eleven representatives to vote against the aid package for Katrina victims, and one of only three to oppose the Violence Against Women Act. And at town-hall meetings he holds, he shows a PowerPoint presentation that depicts the invasion of America by illegal Mexican immigrants.

But if Hostettler is a true reactionary, Ellsworth is an old-fashioned conservative. He's pro-life and pro-gun, a genial sheriff who talks tough on crime, opposes gay marriage and supports making illegal immigration a felony. "The joke here locally," he says, "is that it's hard to tell a Republican from a Democrat." Indeed, Ellsworth joined the party only because it was Democrats on the county commission who fought to provide his department with bulletproof vests when he was a young deputy.

In other words, Ellsworth is a great fit for this conservative district, which went heavily for Bush in 2004. Almost alone among Democratic challengers, he has managed to out-fund-raise his incumbent opponent by more than three to one. But since June, the NRCC has been making up the deficit by airing attack ads reminiscent of the infamous Willie Horton spots that helped install Bush's father in the White House. The ads purport to profile criminals whom Ellsworth's office allegedly turned loose — even though the murderer in the most prominent spot was actually out on a judge-ordered work-release program.

To date, the spots haven't moved the poll numbers: Ellsworth has surged to a healthy lead. And with the seats of fellow incumbents Chris Chocola and Mike Sodrel also up for grabs, the Republicans may find their resources stretched thin in Indiana. Says Rothenberg, "I don't think the NRCC is going to rescue John Hostettler this time."

North Carolina 11th District (Asheville)
Rep. Charles Taylor (R, eight terms)
Former NFL QB Heath Shuler (D)
Top Issues: Ethics, jobs

Shuler, a former first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins, is no stranger to the recruiting process. But he was unprepared for the ferocity with which he was courted to run for office by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the DCCC. Shuler was eager to serve the district where he led his high school team to the state championship in 1990, but he had concerns about the strains public office would place on his family. So Emanuel kept calling — from his backyard barbecue on Sunday, while dropping his kids at school on Monday morning, then again while picking them up on Monday afternoon.

"He not only did this one day, he did it for, like, two straight weeks," Shuler says in his West Carolina twang. "He is probably the most persistent person I've ever met."

That's how the Democrats bagged one of the brightest stars of its 2006 class, a plain-spoken, plainly conservative Southern Democrat with the kind of Jack Kemp cred that comes only with an NFL tenure. The son of a mail carrier, Shuler is seeking to oust Taylor, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and one of the wealthiest men in the state. Taylor has been dogged by ethics questions concerning his Blue Ridge Savings and Loan, where two of his associates have pleaded guilty to bank fraud and money laundering. The criminals both implicated Taylor in their schemes, under oath, but the congressman has yet to be called before a grand jury or questioned by the FBI.

Taylor built much of his fortune while serving in Congress, partnering with a former KGB general to form the first American bank in post-Soviet Russia. And he has used his political clout to benefit his cronies: In a recent appropriations bill, Taylor inserted an earmark to pay for a program, managed by one of his foreign partners, that sends Russian students to study at North Carolina universities — even while he was voting for record cuts to college aid for students in his own district.

Shuler is campaigning on jobs in a region whose manufacturing economy has been devastated by free trade. But it is his character and local roots that make this race worth watching. "This district is always on our watch list," says Rothenberg. "And it always follows the same pattern: Taylor's opponents attack him as beholden to the Russian mob — and then Taylor writes himself a check, spends a million bucks or two, and blows his opponent out of the water by painting them as liberals. But Shuler is going to be hard to portray as a left-wing yahoo who is going to vote with the Nancy Pelosi Democrats."

Arizona 5th District (Tempe)
Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R, six terms)
Former Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell (D)
Top Issues: Immigration, ethics

Mitchell is a larger-than-life figure in Tempe. "There are not many people running who've got a thirty-foot statue erected in their honor," notes Van Hollen of the DCCC. "That's a nice place to start from." As mayor for sixteen years, Mitchell oversaw a renaissance of Tempe's decaying downtown, and he can not only claim his statue — thirty-five feet, to be exact — but City Hall itself, now known as the Harry E. Mitchell Government Center.

His opponent, Hayworth, is a Republican revolutionary from the class of 1994 who doesn't shy from the spotlight. A regular commentator for Fox News, he advocates arresting and deporting all 12 million of the nation's undocumented immigrants. Such demagoguery, while impractical, does offer a noisy distraction from Hayworth's ethical lapses. The congressman's wife has pocketed more than $100,000 as the sole employee of his fund-raising committee, and Hayworth is reportedly under investigation for his ties to Abramoff, having been the beneficiary of five fund-raisers in the disgraced lobbyist's luxury skyboxes.

Despite Hayworth's vulnerabilities, the district has been gerrymandered in a way that makes it an uphill fight. Republicans outnumber Democrats eight to five, and Mitchell is relatively unknown to voters in Mesa, Scottsdale and the Phoenix suburbs who outnumber his base in Tempe. "This district leans Republican," concedes Van Hollen. "It's not a slam dunk by any means."

New York 24th District (Cooperstown)
State Sen. Ray Meier (R)
District Attorney Mike Arcuri (D)
Top Issue: Minimum wage

"Every cycle, there are a handful of races where it's as if the parties are looking at two completely different contests," says Rothenberg. New York's 24th is one of them. "The Democrats look at this race and think they're going to steal a Republican seat," he adds. "And the Republicans look at the same race and say, 'What are they talking about?' " To wit: The NRCC touts a survey showing Meier leading by eleven points, while Democrats point to a poll that has Arcuri up by fifteen.

Partisanship aside, this open seat is a blue-chip race between two capable candidates. Meier is a technocrat of long standing in New York's state senate — more conservative than departing Republican incumbent Sherwood Boehlert, but not a zealot. "He's got great name identification up there," says Forti, who calls the 24th the second-strongest GOP district in New York. "This is one that we think we're going to win and, in the end, win pretty easily."

Democrats believe that Arcuri has the edge in charisma — and is a better ideological fit for the district. A former all-American football star at Albany State who holds a black belt in tae kwon do, Arcuri earns high praise from DCCC spokesman Bill Burton as "a badass Italian prosecutor." And an effective one too: During Arcuri's tenure, the local murder rate has fallen by nearly two-thirds. "He has already run — and won — in the most conservative part of the district," notes Van Hollen.

For Arcuri, the dividing line in the race is support for working-class families. Meier has voted twice to block a raise in the state minimum wage — while the GOP Congress has raised pay for its own members by $30,000 a year. "This is an issue that transcends politics," Arcuri says. "People need to be able to afford health insurance, housing and food for their families — and yet the minimum wage is at a sixty-year low when you factor in inflation. That's shameful."

Minnesota 6th District (Twin Cities exurbs)
State Sen. Michele Bachmann (R)
Patty Wetterling (D)
Top Issue: The middle-class squeeze

"I'm a little unusual," says Wetterling, "in that I've not been in federal office but I've already passed federal legislation." Wetterling, whose eleven-year-old son was kidnapped at gunpoint in 1989, was the driving force behind the passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act requiring every state to implement a child-sex-offender registry. She also led the fight, in Minnesota and nationally, to issue Amber Alerts for missing children.

Challenging Wetterling for this open seat is Bachmann, a charismatic state senator who won the GOP primary by staking out the far, far right. Bachmann is a creationist who insists that evolution "has never been proven," an unbridled hawk who believes "we should not remove the nuclear response" in dealing with Iran, and a raging homophobe who accuses the gay community of "targeting our children."

"We're night and day on every topic," says Wetterling. "She home-schooled her kids and voted against education on the state level. I taught secondary math."

The 6th District was a stronghold for Bush in 2004. But Wetterling has run for this seat once before and nearly scored an upset victory, giving her superior name recognition and making the GOP nervous. This is a contest Republicans feel they must win, which explains why Bush felt the need to swing through Lake Minnetonka in August for a fund-raiser that pumped more than half a million into Bachmann's campaign.

"If the Democrats can win a race like this," Rothenberg says, "they're certainly taking back the House."