Why it's an uphill climb for House GOP

Image: Vito Fossella
Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., arrested for drunk driving this week, faces a challenging re-election race.K. Wolf / AP file

Snapshots from four races across the nation reveal how things look for House Republicans with Election Day six months away.

House Republicans are already facing 29 retirements among their 198 incumbents.

In a body with 435 members, random, regrettable events always manage to strike sooner or later — but for Republicans, it just happened in a competitive congressional district.

On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Rep. Vito Fossella, who has represented New York’s 13th district since 1997, had been arrested for drunk driving in Alexandria, Va.

“Last night I made an error in judgment,” Fossella said in a statement.

“As a parent, I know that taking even one drink of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car is wrong. I apologize to my family and the constituents of the 13th Congressional District for embarrassing them, as well as myself.”

Who has more money?
In addition to this mishap, there’s also a money disparity that reveals all isn’t as it should be for the long-entrenched GOP incumbent.

Incumbents normally have more than a two-to-one cash advantage over challengers in House races.

Yet Domenic Recchia, a Democrat running against Fossella, had nearly $100,000 more cash in his campaign war chest than his competitor did at the end of March.

But maybe the prognosis isn't as bad for Fossella as it might seem: there are in fact two Democratic candidates running for Fossella’s seat and they'll have to duke it out with each other in a very late (Sept. 9) primary — unless party leaders persuade one of them to step aside.

Recchia will square off against Steve Harrison, who lost to Fossella in 2006. As of March 31, Harrison reported having about $91,000 in campaign cash.

Fossella has already spent more than $600,000 on direct mail, strategic consultants, polling and other expenses.

He is one of the few northeastern House Republicans to have survived the decimation of 2006, when voters ousted 11 GOP incumbents in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Fossella’s district, which encompasses the borough of Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, has been an enclave of Republican loyalty in heavily Democratic New York City.

President Bush carried the district by ten percentage points in 2004, and Fossella hasn't had a tight re-election race since he won his seat in 1997.

Meanwhile a couple of hundred miles north of Fossella’s turf, in an upstate New York district which Bush won with 53 percent of the vote in 2004, Democratic freshman Rep. Michael Arcuri has no Republican opponent as of now.

There is talk that a local Republican businessman, Richard Hannah, is about to enter the race. But if Republicans can’t field a well-funded opponent in what was, only two years ago, a Republican district, it will free the Democrats to spend money elsewhere.

Just an hour's drive west on the New York Thruway is the congressional district that has long been represented by Republican Jim Walsh who decided to retire after surviving a nail-biter in 2006.

His Democratic foe Dan Maffei is running again. Only this week did the Republicans find a candidate, Dale Sweetland, to oppose Maffei. To start fundraising on May 2 is daunting. Maffei already had more than $675,000 in the bank at the end of March.

Meanwhile in Macon, Ga., three-term Democrat Rep. Jim Marshall who represents a district Bush won with 56 percent in 2004, has nearly three times as much cash on hand as his Republican challenger, retired Air Force Gen. Rick Goddard.

But Republicans say this will be a competitive race. After all, Marshall barely held on to his seat even during the 2006 Democratic wave.

Marshall spoke well of Bush's Iraq policy in January 2007 when almost no Democrats would do so.

According to a Congressional Quarterly analysis, Marshall voted in alignment with Bush 37 percent of the time on key votes last year, making him the House Democrat most in accord with the president, which tells you something about this district.

Of course, Democratic performance in House races on Nov. 4 hinges partly on their presidential candidate and whether that person acts as a dead weight on Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning districts such as Marshall’s.

Democrats have money advantage
Most conditions look exceedingly good for Democrats at this point. For instance, by the end of last year, Democratic House candidates had raised more than $200 million, while GOP candidates had raised $57 million less.

The high point for House Democrats in recent decades came during President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide when the voters rejected Republican Barry Goldwater, who took a lot of Republicans down with him.

House Republicans lost 37 seats in that debacle, giving Democrats a total of 295 seats in the new Congress.

It's unlikely that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hit that mark on the night of Nov. 4.

Goldwater was from Arizona as is John McCain, but McCain is no Barry Goldwater.

One of the crucial questions for the fall campaign will be whether McCain's "green" stances on issues like global warming will lift GOP House candidates in environmentally-minded states such as New Hampshire and Minnesota.

“The key number to watch is 192. From the late 1950s to 1994, the GOP could never win more than 192 seats in the House,” said John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“This ‘glass ceiling’ led to the perception that the House GOP was a permanent minority. If Republicans come out of the 2008 election with more than 192 seats, they will have an outside chance of regaining the majority in 2010,” he said.

“But if they fall below this level, they will be in danger. They might not be a permanent minority, but majority status will be a distant prospect.”