It’s a Roller Coaster for Some House Hopefuls

by Stuart Rothenberg October 20, 2010 · 10:45 AM EDT

One of the interesting things about elections is how races ebb and flow. Some incumbents who seemed to have no chance to survive a couple of months ago are still hanging in there, even giving themselves a real chance to win. On the other hand, some presumably safe incumbents suddenly look to be in serious trouble.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick looked all but cooked six weeks ago, but she has a chance to squeeze out another term, in part because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s on again, off again commitment in the Phoenix market appears to be on once again.

Republican Paul Gosar, a dentist with little political experience, has proven to be a mediocre fundraiser, forcing the National Republican Congressional Committee to carry the advertising load in the 1st district race. Both parties agree that the race is now within the margin of error, a dramatic reversal from earlier, when the Congresswoman trailed badly.

Also in Arizona, 5th district Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) has rallied and now has a chance to win. GOP challenger David Schweikert hopes that his third run for Congress is the charm, and the changed political environment from 2008 — when he lost by 9 points to Mitchell — could be enough to help him to victory. But if the challenger wins, it will be a much heavier lift than it appeared just a month ago.

In North Dakota, veteran Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) is proving that initial reports of his demise were exaggerated. Weeks ago, I spoke with someone who told me that Pomeroy had privately acknowledged that his chances of surviving this midterm were small, and early polling suggested that GOP challenger state Rep. Rick Berg was headed to a relatively clear victory.

While the two parties have different polls showing who is ahead, they agree Pomeroy and Berg are in a dogfight. The cycle still favors the Republican challenger, but the Congressman is not going away.

Rep. Frank Kratovil also isn’t going quietly into the night. The Maryland Democrat faces a 1st district rematch against Republican Andy Harris, who lost a squeaker to Kratovil two years ago. Given the Republican and conservative nature of the district, Kratovil wouldn’t seem to have much chance of surviving, even though he hasn’t always toed his party’s line. But Kratovil still has a fighting chance to survive, and that alone is a noteworthy accomplishment.

Rep. Travis Childers is a terrific politician whose retail skills have never been in doubt. But the Mississippi Democrat’s district — combined with the nature of the midterm as a referendum on President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — seemed to guarantee his defeat. However, Republican challenger Alan Nunnelee isn’t setting the world on fire, and recent polling suggests Childers has a chance to win another term in the Magnolia State’s 1st district.

Then there is the case of Rep. Joe Donnelly. The Indiana Democrat’s district came into play after national Republicans launched TV attacks during September. The NRCC smelled blood, as did the DCCC, which spent or reserved hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend the Congressman. But Donnelly’s aggressive advertising, in which he took on Pelosi almost as much as the GOP, has helped him improve his prospects in the 2nd district.

For every Democrat who has improved his position, there probably are two or three who once thought they were safe but are now scrambling to try to hold on to victory.

In Tennessee, Rep. Lincoln Davis (D) turned down a gubernatorial bid almost certainly because he figured he could squeeze out another term in Congress before Republicans redistricted him to political oblivion. But his prospects have been sinking, and while Democrats have tried to demonize challenger Scott DesJarlais by using divorce documents to portray him as dangerous and unstable, GOP insiders think the challenger is ahead in the 4th district race.

After winning re-election in 2008 by a 20-point margin, Rep. Zack Space (D) looked to be headed for an easy re-election in Ohio’s 18th district. GOP hopes improved after they recruited state Sen. Bob Gibbs to run, but his fundraising turned out to be mediocre. Republican dollars recently started to pour into that race, and Space’s poll numbers remain mediocre. Now the Congressman has become a prime Republican target and is in great danger.

Rep. John Salazar (D) won re-election with 62 percent of the vote two years ago in Colorado’s 3rd district. In 2006, he defeated the Republican who is challenging him this cycle, Scott Tipton, by 24 points. So it’s probably not a surprise that Tipton didn’t seem like much of a threat this time.

But this is a very different cycle, and Tipton, now a member of the state Legislature, is a very different candidate. Republican insiders insist this race is a dead heat, and even if it isn’t quite that close, it’s definitely a contest.

Rep. Allen Boyd hasn’t been threatened in years. The Florida Democrat won re-election in the state’s 2nd district with 62 percent of the vote in 2008, and few thought he’d be a serious Republican target this time. But funeral home owner Steve Southerland is for real, while Boyd is far under the crucial 50 percent mark and appears headed for defeat.

None of the early highly vulnerable Democrats may end up winning if the voters’ desire for change is strong enough, and all of the safe-turned-vulnerable Democratic incumbents may yet find ways to win. But the 2010 campaign has already proven to be a roller coaster, and it could take a few more twists and turns for these and plenty of other candidates in the next two weeks.