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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* 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.