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At first glance, the numbers don't look good. First-term presidents almost always lose allies in Congress during mid-term elections-and President Bush has no margin for error. If Democrats pick up six seats on Election Day-just 1.5 percent of the 435 races-they'll take over the legislative machinery of the House and deal a serious blow to the president's agenda.
But as is so often the case with statistics, those numbers can be deceiving. Strategists in both parties concede that only two dozen or so races are truly competitive, and those are more or less evenly divided between the parties. Thus, if Republicans have 12 risky seats, Democrats have to win fully 50 percent of them while holding onto every one of their own marginal districts.
Given such a small playing field, the parties won't have to spread their resources-or their attacks-to thin. Look for record spending in many of the contested districts and negative ads that start earlier than ever. Nobody ever said democracy was cheap.
While many pundits are prognosticating from inside the Beltway, WORLD has spent much of the spring out in the field, talking to candidates, campaign managers, and local experts. Here's our early overview of the closest races. In coming months we'll update these contests, telling you who's up, who's down, and who's mounting an unexpected challenge.
Georgia 3rd district
Democrats in Atlanta have always regarded Saxby Chambliss as something of a fluke. After all, he was a GOP congressman from central Georgia, where Democratic loyalties go back generations. Following the 2000 census, those state lawmakers chopped up and reassembled his district into an unrecognizable hodgepodge of 31 counties, and Mr. Chambliss announced he would leave the House to run for the Senate.
Three Democrats jumped into the race, certain that the newly drawn 3rd District would revert to its pre-Chambliss voting patterns and send a Democrat to Congress. But Calder Clay, a commissioner in the district's most populous county, disagrees. The lone Republican in the race has already raised more money than any of the Democrats, and a recent poll shows him in a dead heat with his main rivals.
"While people around here might associate with the Democratic Party at local levels, they will split their ticket and vote for a good conservative Republican at the national level," Mr. Clay insists, and the numbers seem to back him up. President Bush won here with 52 percent of the vote in 2000, and GOP congressional candidates fared even better that year, at 58 percent.
With no primary opposition, Mr. Clay can keep putting money in the bank while the three Democrats spend theirs on a race that could turn nasty-and will certainly tilt far to the left. After the Aug. 20 primary, the winner will have only a few weeks to unify his party, raise new cash, and run back toward the center. Still, Democrats drew the lines here to give themselves what they consider a safe district, so Mr. Clay faces an uphill fight. (Leans Democrat)
Maryland 8th district
If the House of Representatives were ever evenly split, Connie Morella is the Republican mostly likely to pull a Jeffords and switch parties. The liberal Republican has represented the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C., for 16 years, voting with the Democrats as often as not.
Still, national Republicans will spend millions to reelect her this year, if only to keep the Speaker's gavel away from Dick Gephardt. Although Democrats face a four-way primary, the likely nominee is state Del. Mark Shriver, a member of the extended Kennedy clan. He's already banked $1.3 million, far outdistancing Ms. Morella.
Besides money, demographics are a concern here. By extending the district into majority-black Prince George's County, state lawmakers boosted the combined minority vote from 35 to 44 percent. That's sure to spell trouble for Ms. Morella, who depends on affluent white voters to keep her in office. (Leans Democrat)
Alabama 3rd district
Thanks to redistricting, this eastern Alabama district that used to lean Republican is now considered a tossup. In so-called generic ballot polls, 39 percent of voters call themselves Republicans; 38 percent identify as Democrats.
GOP incumbent Bob Riley is bowing out to run for governor, and he has endorsed state Rep. Mike Rogers to replace him. Mr. Rogers faces only token opposition in his primary, but Democrats are braced for a tough race between a well-known state representative and the former chairman of the state party.
With an easy primary and an attractive, conservative candidate, Republicans are well-positioned to hold this seat. Plus, Bob Riley's name at the top of the ticket will help turn out conservative voters from his old congressional district, adding another point or two to Mr. Rogers's total. (Leans GOP)
Georgia 11th district
Bob Barr, one of the most conservative members of Congress, used to represent many of the voters in this newly gerrymandered district. But the new 11th District looks nothing like Mr. Barr's old one. It now includes many more Hispanic voters in the Atlanta suburbs, and the percentage of black voters has doubled.
With Mr. Barr running in a neighboring district, Republicans have a three-way primary on their hands. State Sen. Phil Gingrey, a pro-life OB-GYN, leads the pack in both fundraising and name recognition.
Democrats tried to clear the field for Buddy Darden, the incumbent Mr. Barr defeated in 1994. But businessman Roger Kahn thumbed his nose at the party establishment and announced he'd spend millions of his own dollars on the race.
With tough primaries on both sides, this seat could be determined by just a few hundred votes. (Tossup)
West Virginia 2nd district
In 2000, Shelley Moore Capito became the first GOP member of Congress from this state in 20 years. But she won with just 49 percent of the vote, so Democrats immediately began gearing up to take the seat back in 2002. Their standard-bearer this year will be either former W.Va. Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman or Jim Humphreys, the wealthy trial lawyer who spent $6 million of his own money campaigning for the same seat two years ago. The primary is May 16. (Leans GOP)
Mississippi 3rd district
Two incumbents are facing off here after Mississippi lost a House seat in the 2000 census. Roughly half the voters in the new third district were formerly represented by Republican Chip Pickering, the other half by Democrat Ronnie Shows. Mr. Shows is a conservative, pro-life Democrat, but this race may turn on perceptions of the national parties rather than local issues: Senate Democrats blocked the nomination of Mr. Pickering's father to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, reinforcing the ideology gap between Democrats in Mississippi and those in Washington. (Leans GOP)
Maryland 2nd district
When GOP Rep. Bob Ehrlich announced he was running for governor, Democrats in Annapolis wasted no time in gerrymandering his suburban Baltimore seat. By adding several downtown precincts to the district, they more than tripled the black vote to some 27 percent. That's a huge problem for Helen Bentley, the patrician GOP congresswoman who held the seat for years and now wants it back. Democrats have united behind Baltimore County Executive "Dutch" Ruppersberger, erasing the possibility of a divisive primary-perhaps the GOP's best hope of retaining this seat. (Leans Democrat)
Colorado 7th district
This newly created suburban district, which nearly circles the city of Denver, went for Al Gore by a mere 2,000 votes two years ago. But despite the district's competitiveness, the GOP had a hard time recruiting a top-tier candidate, leaving the party with a messy primary on its hands.
Bob Beauprez, a wealthy banker and former state party chairman, is considered the front-runner, thanks to his good connections and his fundraising ability. But he's an uninspiring campaigner who talks endlessly of the bottom line while avoiding debates over ideology. Former ambassador Sam Zakhem and state policy director Rick O'Donnell have flashier personalities but limited funds. And Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers has alienated much of his own party by clashing with his boss, Gov. Bill Owens.
Right now, the main hope for the GOP is that the Democratic primary will be equally fractious. Three candidates are vying for that nomination, but former state Sen. Mike Feeley looks like a prohibitive favorite. (Leans Democrat)
Nevada 1st district
The city of Las Vegas doesn't seem like the most likely place for a strong Republican campaign. But Lynette Boggs McDonald, a black city councilwoman and a committed conservative, may be the GOP's best hope for knocking off a Democratic incumbent.
Ms. McDonald doesn't have a primary, mostly because no sane Republican would run in a district where Democrats hold a 35,000-vote advantage in party registration. Come November, she'll face Shelley Berkley, a liberal Democrat and a darling of the service unions that dominate the city. Thanks to those union ties, the incumbent has raised roughly $800,000 more than her challenger.
So what makes the race competitive? Ms. McDonald won her last city council election with 70 percent of the vote, proving her ability to attract Democrats and independents. Also, thanks to redistricting, many of the voters in the 1st District have never even seen Ms. Berkeley's name on the ballot; they were previously represented by Republican Jim Gibbons in the 2nd District.
Finally, despite her deep pockets, Ms. Berkley has always been an underperformer. In her previous two races, she trailed 5-6 points behind the popular Democrats at the top of the ticket. This time around, the Democrats have no Senate race and no real hope for governor, so Ms. Berkley is the top of the ticket. With no coattails to ride, she may have a tough time beating a very attractive challenger. (Leans Democrat)
Arizona 1st district
Arizona earned this enormous new district-almost the size of Pennsylvania-with its fast population growth in the 1990s. Because this is basically a GOP state, at least six Republicans are vying for the nomination. Lobbyist Sydney Hay is the most conservative and probably the front-runner, as well. But she'll face a stiff challenge from millionaire insurance executive and political novice Rick Renzi, and Sedona Mayor Alan Everett may be tough, as well.
Republicans can hardly expect a walk in November. The northern part of the district includes the city of Flagstaff, home of Northern Arizona University and the hard-core environmentalist wing of the state Democratic Party. The Democrats have a seven-way primary, led by Fred DuVal, a Clinton administration alumnus. Steve Udall, a more conservative challenger, is a member of an Arizona political dynasty, but he'll likely find it tough to motivate the party's left-wing base in the Sept. 10 primary.
A Hay-DuVal race in November would be a classic matchup of conservative vs. liberal and would be sure to attract national attention. Democrats enjoy an 8-point advantage in registration, but rural Democrats here tend to vote Republican for federal offices, and George W. Bush beat Al Gore by about 12,000 votes. (Tossup)
New Mexico 2nd district
After 11 terms, GOP Rep. Joe Skeen is stepping down, setting up a tough race in southern New Mexico. The three-way Republican primary was considered a tossup until Mr. Skeen unexpectedly endorsed Ed Tinsley, a political novice who owns a chain of steakhouses. Mr. Tinsley, a folksy conservative, now looks likely to face either a Democratic state senator or the mayor of Las Cruces in November. Although Democrats hold the advantage in registration, Mr. Skeen always managed to garner significant support among conservative Democrats, and Republican operatives believe Mr. Tinsley can put together the same sort of winning coalition. (Leans GOP)
Nevada 3rd district
Some 5,000 new residents move to Las Vegas every month, and most of them settle into the suburbs that make up the new 3rd Congressional District. Party registration is evenly divided, but Republicans believe the continued influx of suburban voters will give them an advantage by Election Day. State Sen. Jon Porter, the GOP candidate, already represents many of the voters in this district, so he enjoys the advantage in name recognition. But Democrat Dario Herrera, a 28-year-old county commissioner, will receive tons of union money, helping to keep this race close. (Leans GOP)
Indiana 2nd district
Two years ago Chris Chocola, a wealthy political unknown, nearly upset Democratic Rep. Tim Roemer by charging that the congressman was a carpetbagger who lived in Washington, not northern Indiana. (He didn't even bother to get an Indiana driver's license.) When Mr. Roemer announced that he'd retire in 2002, the Democrats in charge of redistricting tried to turn the carpetbagging issue around on Mr. Chocola: They redrew the district lines, leaving his house just outside.
Mr. Chocola is running in the 2nd District anyway, arguing that he has strong ties here. Besides, he says, former Rep. Jill Long Thompson, the likely Democratic nominee, can't very well make an issue of it, since she last served in Congress from the other side of the state and recently moved to the 2nd District just so she could run there.
Questions of residency aside, the Chocola campaign argues that Ms. Thompson is too liberal for the district. Mr. Roemer, after all, was a pro-life, moderate Democrat, while Ms. Thompson is pro-abortion. That won't play well in a district anchored by South Bend, home to the University of Notre Dame.
To help Ms. Long, legislators extended the district southward to Kokomo, a blue-collar city with strong auto workers unions. But Mr. Chocola is campaigning hard there, on the belief that many of those union workers are pro-life and pro-gun. National Republicans see this as one of their best opportunities to pick up a Democratic seat, but the well-connected Ms. Thompson is certain to wage an expensive, negative campaign. (Leans GOP)
Michigan 10th district
Formerly home to Rep. David Bonior, one of the top Democrats in the House, this Detroit-area district was re-drawn to add three Republican-leaning counties. (Mr. Bonior is retiring to run for governor.) George Bush took 51 percent of the vote in the old 10th District, but almost 56 percent in the new one.
That's good news for GOP Secretary of State Candice Miller, who will likely face Macomb County prosecutor Carl Marlinga in November. She's not taking anything for granted, though. In March she managed to win an almost unprecedented endorsement from the Teamsters union, which rarely, if ever, backs GOP candidates for Congress. Combined with an almost simultaneous nod from the National Federation of Independent Business, the endorsements send a signal that she has broad-based support in this Rust Belt district.
She also has plenty of money: Her $800,000 war chest is almost twice as big as her opponent's. Still, Republicans know this won't be an easy race. The AFL-CIO, a bigger, more influential union than the Teamsters, has endorsed Mr. Marlinga, and the Democrat has already begun spreading the word that Ms. Miller "compared the union movement to communism" back in 1983. (Leans GOP)
Iowa 4th district
National Republican leaders are worried about Rep. Tom Latham-worried enough that President Bush flew in for a rare House fundraiser that pulled down $500,000. (The president has been concentrating his fundraising almost exclusively on Senate and governor's races.)
Why the concern? Because although Mr. Latham is an incumbent, redistricting has given him almost an entirely new set of constituents. He formerly represented the northwest part of the state, a conservative bastion where Gary Bauer won the strongest backing of his short presidential campaign. Now, however, Mr. Latham finds himself facing the more moderate voters of northern and central Iowa. He'll have to spend heavily to increase his name recognition and to defend some of his more controversial votes.
His opponent is John Norris, a former aide to popular Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. A slew of Democrats with White House ambitions-including Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman-have already contributed to his campaign, and Al Gore will likely do a fundraiser. With plenty of money and logistical support from the national party, Mr. Norris could well pick off a GOP incumbent. (Tossup)
South Dakota at-large
With its big footprint and small population, South Dakota gets only one seat in Congress-but it will be one of the most hotly contested in the nation. Incumbent Republican John Thune is running for the Senate, and candidates from both parties have come out of the woodwork. The GOP primary will be especially contentious, with Gov. William Janklow jumping into the race mostly because he doesn't like former Sen. Larry Pressler, who was assumed to be the frontrunner. The Democratic candidates aren't as well known, but that could work to their advantage if the Republicans torch each other during the primary. (Tossup)
New Hampshire 1st district
Republican Rep. John Sununu created a stampede when he announced he was leaving the House to run for the Senate. The state's most urbanized congressional district, including Manchester and the seacoast town of Portsmouth, has been a Republican stronghold for two decades-but it's hardly a sure thing this November.
State Rep. Martha Fuller Clark nearly upset Mr. Sununu two years ago, and she's running unopposed on the Democratic side this time around. In addition to her high name recognition in the district, she also enjoys the advantage of a rich husband: In 2000, she spent some $700,000 of family money on the race, and she's already given herself $200,000 this election cycle.
The crowded Republican field includes three typical New England "moderates" and two outspoken conservatives. One of those conservatives, businessman Sean Mahoney, is generally considered the frontrunner. He's young, engaging, and bright (Harvard MBA), and he can afford to write his own checks to keep up with the free-spending Democrat. State Rep. Fran Wendelboe argues that she's the only conservative with a voting record in this race, and her sex may help blunt a statewide feminist charge. (Every likely Democratic nominee for major office in New Hampshire this year is a woman.)
Whoever emerges from the Sept. 10 primary is going to face a well-financed opponent with a kindly, grandmotherly image and a pile of cash. But in a state that has staunchly resisted both income and sales taxes, Ms. Clark has voted to tax everything from video rentals to greens fees. If Republicans can pin her with the label of tax-and-spend liberal, this seat should stay in GOP hands. (Leans Republican)
Maine 2nd district
Stavros Mendros hasn't registered on the national radar screen yet, but he could soon emerge as the rarest of political animals: a conservative GOP nominee in a state where the party is dominated by liberals like Olympia Snowe and William Cohen.
The 34-year-old state lawmaker faces a tough primary field. Kevin Raye and Tim Wookcock, former aides to Ms. Snowe and Mr. Cohen, respectively, have strong Washington ties that help in the fundraising department. But Mr. Mendros believes his electoral base in the southern part of the district (he took 70 percent of the vote in an area with just 16 percent Republican registration) gives him an advantage if the GOP leaders, both from Bangor, split the northern vote.
The Democratic primary is just as messy. Seven Democrats are running, including a state senator, a former state senator, a wealthy dairy farmer, and the openly gay daughter of a former governor. State Senate president Mike Michaud has the backing of organized labor, but he's also pro-life and pro-gun, so he'd be almost impossible for a liberal Republican to beat in the fall. (Tossup)
Connecticut 2nd district
Two years ago, a little-known Republican named Rob Simmons beat Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson, a 20-year incumbent, in this eastern Connecticut district. Democrats immediately vowed to take back the seat, but then came Sept. 11. Mr. Simmons, a former CIA officer and a Vietnam veteran with two bronze stars, suddenly acquired a national profile-not to mention a national network of financial backers. Still, this district registered some 25,000 more Democrats than Republicans, and a crowded Democratic primary field is being winnowed without bloodshed. (Tossup)
Connecticut 5th district
Redistricting has thrown two incumbents into a single race, guaranteeing a brutal (and brutally expensive) campaign. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 13,000, so GOP Rep. Nancy Johnson starts with a distinct disadvantage. But she had even more Democrats in her current district, and she managed to hold that for 20 years. James Maloney, the Democratic incumbent, faces two disadvantages: He's banked $1 million less than Ms. Johnson, and some voters fear he would be a lame duck from day one, since he promised when first elected in 1998 that he would not serve beyond 2004. (Leans GOP)