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House race in N.H. may be election day portent

In a tidal wave election, as happened in 1974 and 1994, entrenched incumbents get swept away by less-than-sparkling challengers. If such a wave seems to be building this November, keep your eye on Rep. Charles Bass, R –N.H. on Election Night.
Incumbent Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire -- a pro-business, socially libertarian Republican -- is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Paul Hodes in a year that has turned harsh for many GOP candidates.Ap File / AP
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In a tidal wave congressional election, as happened in 1974 and 1994, entrenched incumbents get swept away by less-than-sparkling challengers.

If such a wave seems to be building this November, keep your eye on Rep. Charles Bass, R–N.H. on Election Night.

Polling places in New Hampshire close at 8 p.m., so the Bass race could be an early warning signal for other centrist Republicans across the nation.

Bass is one of an always endangered, but resilient species: a pro-business, socially libertarian Republican from the Northeast.

He has voted for lower taxes and for funding the Iraq war, but split from most Republicans by voting against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages, and for allowing abortions to be performed in U.S. military medical facilities.

Unforgiving environment for GOP
First elected in the Republicans’ miracle year of 1994, Bass now faces an environment that has turned harsh and unforgiving for many GOP candidates.

His Democratic challenger, lawyer Paul Hodes, makes a simple argument: things are rotten in Washington and voters must react by booting Bass.

“We’re going to ask New Hampshire voters a pretty basic question: Have you had enough? Have you had enough of an imperial president and an ineffective, rubber-stamp Congress who just won’t face the real issues that are facing this country?” Hodes told a small group of Democratic supporters at a campaign stop last week at the Tea Birds Cafe on Main Street in the paper mill town of Berlin, N.H.

Bass said Democrats are trying to hype this race into something that appears more competitive than it truly is.

In 2004, Bass beat Hodes by 20 percentage points. The challenge for Hodes this time is to convince donors that he has the debating skill and is generating the grass-roots excitement that will lift him to victory.

Three indicators that Bass may be in for a difficult race:

  • Kerry won his district with 52 percent in 2004, making Bass’s district one of only 18 in the country that went for Kerry but is represented by a Republican House member.
  • Hodes raised more in campaign funds in the first quarter of the year than did Bass.
  • A scandal in the Granite State has sent three Republican operatives to prison and may alienate independent voters from GOP candidates.

In 2002, a telemarketing company hired by Republicans swamped Democratic Party and firefighters’ union phone lines on Election Day, sabotaging Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Bass has survived strong challenges in the past: in 2002, Democrat Katrina Swett, the wife of the man Bass defeated in 1994, spent $1.4 million to try to oust Bass. He spent $886,000 and defeated Swett by 16 percentage points.

Support for Bush
On House roll call votes in 2005, Bass voted with the Bush administration about two-thirds of the time, according to a tally done by Congressional Quarterly magazine.

Bass is a longtime ally of President Bush who has nicknamed him “Bassmaster.”

Asked whether Bush will campaign for him in his district, Bass said, “That will be my choice” and then let out a loud laugh. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

Bass portrays himself as non-partisan. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to work with Democrats, I get lots of Democratic votes, that’s why Paul Hodes isn’t going to win,” Bass said Friday.

“Voters in general have a pretty dim view of the president and of the work Congress has done. But I also believe that 12 years of constituent service, of breaking with the party where I thought it was in the interests of New Hampshire and the nation (will make) most people see me as being quite different from the standard mold,” he said. “If there’s anybody in Congress that defines independence it has to be me.”

And he argues that 2006 isn’t 1994. “I spent three hours in Salem today: we went all over the place, the town house, the senior center, the country stores, and when I ran in 1994 and beat Dick Swett, there was real anger out there. There’s none of that today,” Bass said in an interview Friday.

But he sounded worried that anemic turnout among Republicans might undermine his bid for a seventh term.

Democrat pounds away
Meanwhile, Hodes pounds away in small gatherings such as in Berlin and large ones, like the New Hampshire Democratic party convention last weekend where 800 turned out.

Bush and Congress “have given us the incompetence of Katrina and Iraq; they’ve given us the corruption of Abramoff and DeLay, but it hasn’t stopped there, because that corruption has been right here in New Hampshire with phone-jamming scandals from the Republican National Committee,” Hodes told his Berlin audience.

He said, “The machine is broken and Charlie Bass is just a cog in a broken machine. He’s a nice enough guy, but he’s been ground up and spit out….When I go to Washington I’m bringing my backbone with me.”

Hodes contrasts Bass unfavorably with another New Hampshire New Republican, David Souter, with whom Hodes had a memorable job interview back when Souter was the New Hampshire attorney general and hired Hodes to work on his staff.

Life-changing meeting with Souter
“It was an event that changed my life,” Hodes said. “I had never met somebody who impressed me so much. And the qualities he impressed me with are qualities that are very important to public service in New Hampshire: fiercely independent, absolute integrity, a real backbone….”

Hodes seems less commanding than some other House candidates we’ve seen this year — he still glances down at his notes during his speech and some of his rhetoric has passed its sell-by date (“putting people first” and “this election is not about me, it’s about us.”) But voter disenchantment and sagging Republican morale may make this less significant than it would be in a typical election year.

University of Maryland political scientist Thomas Schaller, the author of a forthcoming book on how Democrats can build a non-Southern majority, puts the Bass-Hodes battle in its wider context: “In the rectangle formed between New Hampshire, Delaware, Iowa and Minnesota are nearly four dozen moderate, (Nelson) Rockefeller-style Republican incumbents who find their usually-safe districts suddenly in the Democrats' crosshairs. If Bass survives he will be one of the fortunate ones. But if he doesn't he will be part of a larger, regional story.”