Grudge matches could decide which party controls the House

Some of the most competitive House races this cycle are between Democratic incumbents and the Republican challengers they bested in years past.

It’s the winners of these grudge matches that could decide who holds the Speaker’s gavel in January.

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“Unlike those outsider challengers who’ve garnered lots of press, it’s the former members who’ve been able to tap their old fundraising contacts to build strong war chests and build solid campaigns,” said Tim Sahd, editor of House Race Hotline, an analytical Beltway newsletter. “They’ve done this before and know how to win.”

Aside from former members running for their old jobs, several Republican candidates who came close to winning and failed are making another attempt to win a seat.

The Democrats like to call these candidates “retreads.” And officials scoff at the challengers’ attempts to positions themselves as outsiders when they’ve been through a campaign or served in office before.

“Voters are once again rejecting these fatally flawed candidates just as they are rejecting Republicans’ agenda to privatize Social Security and Medicare, provide tax breaks for corporations that ship American jobs overseas and remov[e] the new checks on Wall Street,” said Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Meanwhile, Republicans hope 2010 proves to be a wave year that will catapult these challengers into enough seats to translate into a GOP majority.

“These Democrats not only face strong Republican challengers in a political environment that has changed drastically in the past two years, they also have to defend an unpopular agenda they have supported against the will of voters in these districts,” said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Here are the 10 best grudge matches this cycle:

Arizona-05

Since unseating former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) in 2006, Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) has faced only one challenger.

Former Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert (R) ran against Mitchell in 2008, when the GOP first targeted the Democrat. Mitchell, however, spent some $2 million and staved off the challenge, with help from the DCCC.

This cycle, Schweikert once again emerged from a crowded primary field with the GOP nomination in hand — although this time he took a more solid 37 percent of the vote. He’s been calling Mitchell “desperate” to cling to power, while Democrats have labeled the challenger a “slumlord” for having an eviction notice served on a 12-year-old.

Florida-22

Rep. Ron Klein (D) is once again facing Republican Allen West, whom he defeated in 2008.

West, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army, retired from the service after a 2003 incident in Iraq wherein he fired two gunshots next to the head of an uncooperative, hooded detainee.

Klein trounced West by 10 points in 2008, outspending him by a 4-to-1 margin. 

But West has emerged as a darling of the conservative movement and won’t be at such a financial disadvantage this cycle. He had $2.25 million banked as of Aug. 4. Klein reported having some $2.8 million cash on hand in the same period.

One sign of how heated this race could become: Democrats recently circulated a mailer that has West’s real Social Security number on it. The Republican called it a “new low.”

Maryland-01

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) held this district for 18 years before retiring in 2008. 

Freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) won the ensuing open-seat race, but not by much, defeating Republican Andy Harris by fewer than 3,000 votes despite being outspent by almost $1 million.

Harris is back for another go-round with Kratovil, and the Democrat is wasting no time on pleasantries. He released his first attack ad last week, targeting Harris’s support of the controversial “fair tax” plan. “We can’t afford Andy Harris’s idea,” says one man in the ad.

Michigan-07

There’s a donnybrook brewing between Rep. Mark Schauer (D) and his 2008 foe, former GOP Rep. Tim Walberg.

The freshman Democrat took the seat from Walberg last cycle after the Republican had held it for a single term. Walberg is campaigning to get it back, but the DCCC and Schauer’s labor allies are closing ranks around him. Walberg, meanwhile, is getting outside help from groups such as the Iowa-based American Future Fund. The NRCC’s independent expenditure arm went up in the district last week.

The two rivals have been trading barbs over who was tougher on Wall Street. Walberg voted against the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program and Schauer voted against releasing the second wave of that money.

New York-24

Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) defeated Republican Richard Hanna by only 4 percent in 2008, but a new poll should give him hope that the self-funding businessman won’t narrow that gap in 2010.

The two-term Democrat leads Hanna 48 percent to 40 in a Siena Research Institute poll released Monday. However, the poll of 605 likely voters — the first independent survey of the race — had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. 

It wouldn’t be the first time Arcuri didn’t take Hanna seriously. Last cycle, Hanna spent close to $1.1 million, much of it on ads the Democrat opted not to answer. That won’t be the case this cycle. The DCCC went up with an ad Tuesday hitting Hanna on Social Security.

Ohio-01

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus rode the Democratic wave in 2008, defeating seven-term Rep. Steve Chabot (R) by five points.

The 57-year-old Chabot opted against taking early retirement. He recently told The Hill that 2010 is going to be his party’s wave year, in part because Cincinnati native Rob Portman is running for Senate and could help drive turnout in the 1st district.

Moreover, Chabot has sought to capitalize on the anger over Driehaus’s vote for healthcare reform, which has stirred up anti-abortion activists in the conservative-leaning district.

Ohio-15

Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) knows about close races. In 2006, she lost to Rep. Deborah Pryce (R) by about 1,000 votes. In the open-seat race following Pryce’s retirement in 2008, she bested former banking lobbyist Steve Stivers (R) by a 1 percent margin.

Stivers, like Kilroy, thought to try his luck again — despite the less-than-ideal environment for anyone with “bank” and “lobbyist” associated with his or her name. “I don’t think we need another bank lobbyist in Washington,” Kilroy recently told The Hill.

Still, polls show this race is heading to another nail-biter finish.

Pennsylvania-08

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) was the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, defeating Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick by about 1,500 votes in 2006. Murphy had an easier race in 2008, winning by more than 50,000 votes. That same year President Obama won the district by 10 points over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Pennsylvanians’ views of Obama have since soured, and Fitzpatrick is fighting for his old job. 

Murphy has shown he’s ready for a tough contest. He released his first TV ad targeting Fitzpatrick last week. “As a congressman, Mike Fitzpatrick took care of everyone but you,” the Democrat says in the 30-second spot.

Pennsylvania-11

Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta (R) hopes the third time is the charm when he faces Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski again in November. Barletta ran against Kanjorski in 2002 and 2008. He succeeded in closing the gap with the Democratic incumbent from 13 points in his first run to four last cycle.

Barletta is known for his tough anti-illegal immigration stance, but he’s steered away from major controversy this time around and has kept his focus on the economy.

With the anti-incumbent sentiment brewing this cycle, Barletta hopes he’ll finally be able to knock off the 13-term incumbent.

Virginia-11

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) represents a district heavily populated with government contractors and businesses that have benefited from the Obama administration’s stimulus spending. As such, he’s not the ideal target for Republicans looking to capitalize on anger about government spending. Still, that hasn’t stopped businessman Keith Fimian (R) from taking another stab at unseating the Democrat.

Democrats successfully labeled Fimian as “too extreme” on issues like abortion last cycle, when he lost to Connolly by 12 points. The second time around, Fimian has tried to keep the focus on taxes and spending, but he still faces an uphill climb against the freshman Democrat.