The Magazine

The Blowout Belt

The most vulnerable Republicans are found in a five-state swath, from Indiana to Connecticut.

Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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Evansville, Indiana

Republican congressman John Hostettler is standing, a bit stiffly, in front of the federal building in Evansville. The midterm congressional election is two weeks off, and this is his lone public event of the day. Beside the portable podium is a blowup of the obituary page of the Evansville Courier & Press from nine days earlier. All the stories are blotted out but one--a short piece, little more than a squib, about Hostettler's receiving the Homeland Defender Award from a group called 9/11 Families for a Secure America. Hostettler is upset.

Running the story on the obit page was a "callous indignity" to the families of 9/11 victims, he says. That placement was painful to "grieving families," "insulting," and, worse still, "insensitive to the people of the nation." Hostettler says the newspaper should apologize. But "to date the response has been I could write a letter about how important the award was."

It was a peculiar event, even for Hostettler. He is a campaign oddity. He has the distinction of being regarded as the most endangered House member in the most treacherous strip of the country for Republicans in the November 7 election. Yet he's pursuing reelection as if the political environment were unchanged from his five earlier reelection battles when Democrats confidently targeted him for defeat and wound up frustrated.

He's raised little money and is likely to be outspent by his Democratic opponent, Evansville sheriff Brad Ellsworth, by roughly 3 to 1. Hostettler has never hired outsiders to do polling, develop a campaign strategy, or create TV ads--nor has he this year. His sister, Karen Hammonds, is his campaign manager. And though President Bush won 62 percent in Hostettler's district in 2004 and remains relatively popular here, the congressman has spurned a Bush visit.

Hostettler's on-my-own approach may prove foolhardy this time around. His district sits within a five-state stretch of territory--from Connecticut, through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and ending with Indiana--that Republican pollsters and Democratic consultants alike expect to be the most fertile ground for Democrats to pick off Republican House incumbents. For Republicans, it's a potential blowout belt. Demo crats could gain enough seats in these five states alone to make their takeover of the House of Representatives a certainty.

A quite attainable goal is 10 pickups. If Democrats manage this, all they will need to take control of the House is to win five open seats held by Republicans. Five open seats where Democrats are leading are Mark Foley's in Florida, Jim Nussle's in Iowa, Tom DeLay's in Texas, the Arizona seat along the Mexican border, and a Colorado seat in the Denver suburbs.

Of course, nothing is ever assured in politics. And the blowout belt is a 5-10-15 matter. If Republicans close the campaign with a strong finishing kick, they could limit their losses in the five states to 5 seats. More likely, they will merely blunt Democratic momentum in the closing days, limiting Democrats to a pickup of 10 seats. But should Democrats actually generate the "wave" that the media are breathlessly hoping for, the Republican death toll will rise to 15 (or more) in the blowout belt.

All the reasons behind the anti-Republican mood nationwide also apply in the blowout belt. The war in Iraq is unpopular. The president has lost support, as evidenced by his low job approval. The economy, strong as it is, hasn't produced a feeling of prosperity. And there's the six-year itch, the inclination of voters after a half-dozen years of a presidency to turn against the party in the White House. It afflicted even the great presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (loss of 72 House seats in 1938), Dwight Eisenhower (loss of 13 Senate and 48 House seats in 1958), and Ronald Reagan (loss of Senate control in 1986).

But the blowout states are also special cases, making Republican prospects even bleaker. In New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the Republican party is collapsing at the state office level. George Pataki, retiring as New York governor after 12 years, leaves behind a shrinking state party bereft of competitive statewide candidates. In Pennsylvania, Republicans picked an untested, ex-professional football player, Lynn Swann, to run for governor, with predictably negative results. Republicans hoped a liberal third-party candidate would siphon off Democratic votes and allow Senator Rick Santorum to win a third term with less than 50 percent of the vote. But the Green party candidate was ruled off the ballot.