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.

Scandals have ripped apart Ohio Republicans. Governor Bob Taft pleaded guilty to failing to disclose a gift, an innocuous but highly publicized misdemeanor. His approval rating has dipped below 20 percent. Congressman Bob Ney pleaded guilty to accepting favors from lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The state lost approximately $10 to $12 million invested in rare coins through a prominent Republican coin dealer. Worst of all, Ohio lost more than 210,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2005, and its unemployment rate is a full percentage point above the national average. Since Republicans hold all statewide offices, they're getting the blame. Besides, they've allowed the Ohio tax burden to become the third heaviest in the nation.

In Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels has taken two bold and probably necessary steps that have backfired politically. One was to impose daylight saving time throughout the state, which previously operated under a mixed bag of time standards. The other was to privatize the Indiana Toll Road, leasing it to a Spanish-Australian joint venture for $3.8 billion. Daniels, who's not up for reelection until 2008, became a drag on the Indiana Republicans running this year.

Grover Norquist, the conservative Washington operative, has a compelling theory about declining Republican prospects in the blowout belt. Those states have been dominated by "Lincoln Republicans," he says. The party created in Northern states by Abraham Lincoln believed in fighting slavery and preserving the Union. Once those goals were achieved, it had no ideology, no set of firm beliefs. It became an establishment party, thriving on power and patronage. In a bad Republican year like 2006, such a party has little pull with average voters, Norquist says.

He contrasts Lincoln Republicans with Reagan Republicans in southern, prairie, and western states. The Republican party that grew up in those states in recent decades was based on conservative beliefs. And this ideology holds Reagan Republicans together in good years and bad, Norquist says. Indeed, Democrats have mounted few serious challenges this year in the South, where Reagan Republicans are strongest.

A related factor is the emergence of a Republican voting bloc of religious conservatives who make up more than 40 percent of the party's electorate. They are now the most reliable Republican voters. But while they are a powerful force among Republicans in the South, prairie, and West, they are in short supply in the North. This is still another reason for the disproportionate number of vulnerable Republicans in the Connecticut-to-Indiana belt.

Let's look at the five states:

*CONNECTICUT. This was initially seen as a likely graveyard for Republican moderates, specifically House members Chris Shays, Nancy Johnson, and Rob Simmons. All three are vulnerable in a state with a weakening Republican party. But when threatened, moderates can be mean. All three turned out to be tough campaigners. When Shays's Democratic foe, Diane Farrell, brought in Massachusetts senator Teddy Kennedy, Shays raised Chappaquiddick: At least House Speaker Denny Hastert, blamed for tolerating Foley's flirtation with Capitol pages, hadn't plunged his car into the water and left a dead woman behind. Shays, like Senator Joe Lieberman, has bravely stuck to his pro-Iraq war position (with modifications). Johnson aired a TV ad zinging her opponent, Chris Murphy, for insisting that NSA eavesdropping on phone calls by suspected terrorists should be done only under a judge's order. "Liberal Chris Murphy says: 'No, apply for a court order even if valuable time is lost.' Chris Murphy--wrong on security, wrong for America.'" Simmons is given the best chance of winning, Johnson second, Shays third. If only one of them loses, that will be a vic tory for Republicans. Lieberman, running as an independent, is a strong favorite for reelection. The Republican Senate candidate, Alan Schlesinger, will be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote.


* NEW YORK. What can be said to sugarcoat the status of a party that will lose the three top statewide races by lopsided margins and as many as four House seats? Not much. Republican embarrassment will be greater still if Eliot Spitzer is elected governor and Hillary Clinton reelected to the Senate with more than 70 percent of the vote. It's possible, raising a legitimate fear that the rout at the top of the ticket will lead to blowouts in the House races. The national media have done their part to promote Democrats. A Democratic candidate, Michael Arcuri, for an open Republican seat got a boost from the Washington Post, which put him among "an uncommonly high number of good looking [Democratic candidates]." Arcuri's friends "tease him about his fashion-magazine persona." Another Democratic candidate, Eric Massa, was featured in an adoring piece in Money magazine about the financial sacrifice he and his family have made for the sake of his candidacy. Both Arcuri and Massa are slight favorites.

In a deal with Democrats, House seats in upstate New York were gerrymandered to give Republicans an edge. But the Republican advantage in registered voters is misleading. To use Norquist's term, those voters are Lincoln Republicans, unreliable in a pinch. Even supposedly entrenched Republicans like Tom Reynolds, who heads the House Republican Campaign Committee, are vulnerable. The Foley affair, in which Reynolds played a minimal role, jolted his campaign: One poll showed him 15 percentage points down. His opponent is an eccentric ex-Republican businessman named Jack Davis. He switched parties after being silenced at an upstate appearance by Vice President Cheney, during which he had been complaining noisily about the Bush administration's free trade policy. Aided by a heavy dose of TV ads, Reynolds has recovered from the Foley setback, but his reelection remains in doubt. If Republicans lose only a single House seat in New York, which is still possible, they will be ecstatic.


* PENNSYLVANIA. Bush's reelection campaign made a Herculean effort to win Pennsylvania in 2004, but John Kerry took the state 51 to 48 percent. And that was when the political environment was favorable to Republicans. Now it's not. Republican House member Don Sherwood is in trouble because of an affair with a woman who says he choked her. A visit to his district by Bush probably wasn't enough to save him. Just as vulnerable is Republican Curt Weldon, whose home was recently raided in a federal investigation of his role, if any, in steering contracts to his daughter. Two Republican congressmen in the ever-more-liberal suburbs of Philadelphia, Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick, have waged impressive campaigns but could lose. Republicans are strong in the state legislature, but the truth is that Pennsylvania is basically a Democratic state and becoming more so. A loss of two House seats is probably the best Republicans can do.


* OHIO. Tom Reynolds, as House Republican campaign chief, looked at Ohio last summer and called it "ground zero." It's the only state where a weak economy trumps the war in Iraq as the worst issue for Republicans, who have had other problems here besides. The Republican candidate to replace Ney, state senator Joy Padgett, filed for personal bankruptcy after her and her husband's personal and business financial records were seized. If she wins, her congressional salary might be tapped to pay off debts. And just last week, the chief of staff to Governor Bob Taft attacked Ken Blackwell, who's running to succeed Taft, in a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal. (Both are Republicans.) "There can be no doubt that the current political climate in Ohio is poisonous for Republicans," the letter said. "But to suggest that Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, is a helpless victim burdened only by his [Republican] brothers and sisters is absurd." Blackwell trails Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland by a mile.

While the mainstream media have huffed and puffed about nasty Republican campaign ads, they've ignored the cheap shot taken at Deborah Pryce, a member of the House Republican leadership. "Deborah Pryce's friend Mark Foley is caught using his position to take advantage of 16-year-old pages," an announcer says in ads placed on Christian radio touting Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy. The suggestion is that Pryce knowingly tolerated Foley's misconduct, an implication for which there is no evidence. Nonetheless, Pryce is threatened with losing her Columbus-based seat. Again, a loss of only one seat in Ohio would please Republicans.


* INDIANA. The myth about Indiana is that it's a Republican state with solidly Republican House seats. Actually Indiana is unfailingly Republican only in presidential contests. Three House Republicans are now in jeopardy, each of them in a classic swing district. Chris Chocola's seat in South Bend was Republican in the Reaganite 1980s and Democratic in the Clintonian 1990s. With neither party dominant in 2006, Chocola faces a tough fight to win a new House term. So does freshman Republican Mike Sodrel in southern Indiana. Sodrel was once viewed as the most vulnerable House Republican in the nation, but he's run an effective campaign against the Democratic incumbent he beat in 2004, Baron Hill.

That leaves Hostettler as Mr. Vulnerable. His opponent, Brad Ellsworth, is one of the least liberal Democratic House candidates this year. He's pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-Marriage Protection Amendment. And he's signed a pledge not to vote for any tax increase. But Ellsworth isn't as far ahead--23 percentage points--as a college-conducted poll suggested. A rule of thumb in politics is that all college polls should be disregarded.

Hostettler has been behind before. In fact, he usually trails in opinion polls and then wins. His supporters seem to be out of the reach of pollsters. Yet they show up as volunteers on Election Day and turn out a larger-than-expected Hostettler vote. So it would be a surprise but not a total shock if Hostettler eked out another victory. Should he pull this off in a political climate as bad as today's is for Republicans, it would signal that the Democratic dream of sweeping Republicans out of dozens of House seats is not to be. Stranger things have happened in politics.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.