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The battlefield widens for House GOP seats

A tide of discontent has made a growing number of races competitive.

October 23, 2006|Ronald Brownstein, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

LA CRESCENT, MINN. — The temperature is dropping, but six-term Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) is sweating more than usual for this time of year.

In his last two campaigns, Gutknecht breezed to reelection with at least 60% of the vote. But when he stopped at an American Legion hall in this small southern Minnesota town Friday, he faced several tough issues, including the House page scandal, North Korea, Iran and the war in Iraq.

"The body count in October [in Iraq] is so high -- how do you feel about an exit strategy?" asked Shan Gruden, a retired teacher who supported Gutknecht in the past but remains undecided today.

Gruden's challenge to Gutknecht captures the dynamic that is widening the battlefield during the final weeks of the contest for control of the House of Representatives.

A growing number of GOP incumbents in seats once considered "safe" -- including Melissa A. Hart in Pennsylvania, Ron Lewis in Kentucky, Richard W. Pombo in Tracy, Calif., and Gutknecht here -- are struggling this month against a powerful current of discontent with the nation's direction, the performance of Congress and President Bush, and the war in Iraq.

Republican seats at risk have nearly tripled since January, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Then, 18 GOP seats were endangered; now, 48 are considered in play.

"The battleground is way broader than anyone thought was possible," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the liberal group

To take back the House, which they lost in 1994, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats -- something they could do, perhaps, without capturing any of these newly competitive seats. But Democratic strategists believe that if the party can break into this second tier of Republican-leaning districts, they could greatly increase their odds of building a majority large enough to survive for longer than two years.

In a measure of the party's growing optimism, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to announce Tuesday that it will begin airing advertisements in 11 new districts, including eight the party had not considered competitive until recently, party sources say.

Though both sides agree that many of these districts are growing more competitive, in most cases Democrats still face an uphill climb to reach 50%.

"It's one thing to be close," said Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, who is tracking the contest between Lewis and Democrat Mike Weaver. "It's another to defeat an incumbent."

At various points this year, for instance, Democrats have been optimistic about upsetting GOP Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave, whose eastern Colorado district Bush carried with nearly 60% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004.

Her Democratic opponent, state Rep. Angie Paccione, has pressed a spirited challenge, but Musgrave appears to have reestablished an advantage in polls after an advertising barrage from the national GOP that painted Paccione as an "out-of-touch ... liberal." Paccione says the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has shifted to other races the money it had planned to spend on TV ads on her behalf.

Republican operatives cite that sort of triage as evidence that Democrats lack enough funds to capture many of the GOP-leaning seats that now appear vulnerable.

"In order for them to make any of these races potentially come true, they have to spend money there, and it's unclear how much money they have left or how much in debt they are willing to go," said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Still, in elections characterized by a strong desire for change, such as 1974 and 1994, the current of discontent was powerful enough to sweep in even underfunded challengers. And whatever happens Nov. 7, it is already clear that Democrats have generated intense pressure on many Republicans who have not needed to run full-scale campaigns for years -- and did not expect to do so now.

Gutknecht appears to have legitimate competition," said Caledonia Township Chairman Kermit McRae, whose Minnesota town was one of Gutknecht's stops Friday. "Some years you get token competition, but this year the person is campaigning hard -- and what I see is the congressman is campaigning hard back."

The race between Lewis and Weaver in Kentucky's 2nd District, which rolls through rural areas southwest of Louisville, is also more heated than usual. In May 1994, Lewis, a Baptist minister, won the seat in a special election that foreshadowed the GOP landslide six months later.

Since 1994, he has never won less than 58% of the vote. Two years ago, Bush won the district with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

But this year, for the first time in a decade, Lewis is concerned enough that he is airing television ads, and local Republicans are uneasy.

"We're going to lose seats, a sure thing," said Clifford Owen, a Republican farmer from Larue County who said he would continue to vote for Lewis.

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