5 Surprises the Wave May Wash Out in November

by Stuart Rothenberg October 13, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Political waves create a great deal of uncertainty. If there is a wave, exactly how big will it be? Who could possibly be swept away in the tsunami?

In a cycle when Republican House strategists are talking about taking out Democratic veterans such as Budget Chairman John Spratt (S.C.), Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (Minn.) and Rep. Chet Edwards (Texas), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, strange things can happen.

Members assumed to be safe suddenly find themselves in tough races. We know Republicans are making a run at Democratic Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.) and Tim Walz (Minn.), but could Democratic Reps. John Yarmuth (Ky.), Niki Tsongas (Mass.), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.) or Russ Carnahan (Mo.) lose?

Here are a few incumbents who weren’t targeted at the beginning of this cycle (or even six weeks ago) but could find themselves in uncomfortable positions.

Rep. Dave Loebsack (Iowa’s 2nd district). Republicans have released a Tarrance Group poll showing the Democrat and GOP challenger Mariannette Miller-Meeks in a statistical dead heat. Democrats laugh at that assessment, citing their evidence that Loebsack is comfortably ahead and noting that he beat Miller-Meeks by 18 points two years ago.

Republicans argue that the Congressman is a bad candidate who has been very passive in his re-election campaign. Loebsack was a political science professor at Cornell College when lightning struck and he defeated veteran Rep. Jim Leach, a liberal Republican, in the wave year of 2006.

Loebsack represents the most liberal district in Iowa (which includes Johnson County, home of the University of Iowa). But unlike 2006 and 2008, he won’t be able to ride a Democratic wave this year.

In fact, two statewide Republican candidates this year, Sen. Chuck Grassley and gubernatorial nominee Terry Branstad, are running well in the district and statewide, and Republican enthusiasm in the state could help Miller-Meeks’ bid.

Neither candidate is awash in cash. Loebsack had raised $645,000 through June 30, while Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist who spent more than two decades in the Army (retiring as a lieutenant colonel), had raised $318,000.

Rep. Charlie Wilson (Ohio’s 6th district). The moderate Democrat represents a conservative district that starts just south of Youngstown and stretches south along the eastern part of the state. Republican challenger Bill Johnson is a businessman and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel with no political experience.

Johnson raised about $306,000 through June 30, just more than half of what Wilson took in. Republicans think this race is already close, and it is the kind of rural conservative district that might be so eager to send President Barack Obama a message that the Democratic Congressman might turn into collateral damage.

Rep. Mark Critz (Pennsylvania’s 12th district). This district is being completely ignored, and it is understandable why. After all, Critz beat Republican Tim Burns by a surprisingly comfortable margin in a May special election, and the Democrat now faces Burns in a November rematch.

Critz won the last contest, when Burns was a much ballyhooed candidate, so why shouldn’t he win again?

With Republicans running well at the top of the ticket in the state and blue-collar voters increasingly resembling those Reagan Democrats of years ago, the November electorate could be different enough from those voters who showed up for the special election that Critz could be in for a surprise.

Voters usually give incumbents just elected in a special election a full term to see what they can do. But voters aren’t in a “usual” mood right now.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (Maine’s 1st district). This Democrat doesn’t look like an incumbent at risk. Pingree is a freshman who worked for Common Cause and can credibly campaign as a good government reformer. (Her daughter, Hannah, is Speaker of the Maine House.) Of Maine’s two U.S. House districts, Pingree represents the more liberal one. Republican Dean Scontras hasn’t received a lot of hype in Washington, D.C.

But Pingree won an open seat with only 55 percent two years ago, and GOP operatives see her as “a polarizer in a state that doesn’t like polarizers.” And Pingree has made herself the focus of controversy by flying around on a corporate jet owned by her fiancé, a wealthy hedge fund chairman.

This is the same Pingree who testified before Congress by criticizing legislators who used private airplanes and said flying on corporate jets “contributes to the corrosive public perception that Members of Congress are more like the fat cats of Wall Street than they are like the rest of us.”

The Democrat said she is abiding by ethics rules, but the controversy may have given Scontras an opening in a state that exemplifies quirkiness — and hates hypocrites. This race could become closer than anyone expected.

Rep. Dan Lungren (California’s 3rd district). Lungren isn’t a Democrat or a complete surprise since he had an underwhelming victory two years ago against an underfunded challenger.

Insiders know the Congressman is in a tough race, but most casual political watchers don’t realize it. In a year when Democrats are on the defensive, Lungren almost appears to be trying to lose.

A less-than-sterling fundraiser who once again is running a lackadaisical campaign, Lungren faces Ami Bera, an Indian-American physician who is running an aggressive race. Bera showed $1.6 million raised through June 30, compared with $1.2 million raised for the Congressman.

Bera may be too liberal for the Sacramento-area district, but Lungren is one of the few GOP incumbents at risk in the middle of a GOP wave.