Election-year survivors face new tests in 2012

Republican and Democratic lawmakers who survived recent wave elections are facing new tests this year.

With congressional approval ratings at record lows and redistricting, incumbents on both sides of the aisle have reason to worry.

Experience in close races will help some members, especially a group of seasoned lawmakers who have shown resilience in the face of prior electoral adversity and are running for their political lives once again.

Political handicapper David Wasserman of the non-partisan “Cook Political Report,” pinpointed the reasons why certain lawmakers defied the odds in the past, and assessed their chances on Election Day.

The list of The Hill’s survivors follows.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.)

California’s former attorney general has had to defend his Sacramento-based district over the past several cycles, against considerable ammunition from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Even though the GOP-leaning district helped Lungren when it was drawn in 2002, it has since become more Democratic as demographics have shifted in the Golden State. In 2008, the district voted for Obama, but Lungren was able to hold on. His district has shifted so much that Wasserman considers Lungren the “underdog” in his rematch with Ami Bera, who fell short in 2010. This race is rated a Toss-Up by The Hill.

Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa)

Frustrated Republicans have targeted Boswell over the last decade, but come up short. Boswell won competitive races in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010. This year, Boswell is facing Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a close friend of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). This contest is a Toss-Up.

Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)

The Democratic lawmaker, who rode the tidal wave of 2006 into office, survived the 2010 GOP shellacking.

Wasserman said, “Donnelly ran ads against [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.]. He effectively savaged his own party to win and he just barely did so.” Given the option to run for reelection against his GOP 2010 foe, Donnelly opted to run for the Senate this cycle.

Few gave him a chance to win in the red state of Indiana, but he is running a strong race against Republican Richard Mourdock, who defeated Rep. Dick Lugar in the primary. The Hill rates this Senate race a Toss-Up. Republicans are expected to win Donnelly’s House race.

Jim Matheson (D-Utah)

Matheson represents the most Republican district of any Democrat in the House, but he has been able to survive over the years. The Democratic lawmaker’s Utah district voted for President George W. Bush in 2004 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

Wasserman points to Matheson’s family history as a reason for the conservative Democrat’s longevity. His father served as Utah’s governor from 1977-1985, his brother was the 2004 Democratic nominee for governor and appointed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by Obama. Matheson voted against Obama’s signature law, the Affordable Care Act. Republicans say they will finally take out Matheson, who faces Mia Love. Should Love win, she would the first GOP African-American to serve in the House. This race is a Toss-Up.

Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.)

McNerney was the only lawmaker to switch party control of a seat in California when he defeated then Natural Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo in 2006. Since that time, the Democrat has benefited from a more Democratic leaning seat in the Golden State that included portions of the liberal East Bay Area.

In 2010, McNerney eked out a win largely due to a “weak opponent” in David Harmer, Wasserman said, noting Harmer’s controversial position on abolishing public schools. McNerney, who voted for Obama’s healthcare law, is favored to win again next month. The Hill rates his race Lean Democratic.

Larry Kissell (D-N.C.)

Kissell is facing a likely defeat this year. He was elected in large part because of the popularity of Obama in 2008. Wasserman said Kissell’s “district was drawn to elect a Democrat by the North Carolina legislature in 2002, and when he beat [Rep.] Robin Hayes in 2008, it was more a function of the rise in black turnout that accompanied Barack Obama’s win.”

Kissell showed deft campaign skills in 2010, surviving the red wave of 2010. He now has a new district that favors Republicans, and the writing seems to be on the wall. The DCCC has canceled ads for Kissell this fall. The Hill rates this contest Likely Republican.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.)

The congressman survived a challenging 2004 race and won his 2010 race against Randy Altschuler by 593 votes. Altschuler is back for a rematch, though Bishop is the favorite. The Hill rates this race Lean Democratic.

Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.)

Barrow has previously fended off challenges from the right and the left, but his run of successes may be coming to an end on Election Day — thanks to the redistricting process. The Hill rates Barrow’s race Lean Republican.

Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.)

The independent-leaning Pennsylvania Republican survived the 2006 Democratic wave in large part due to his willingness to run against his party. At a time when five of his GOP colleagues in the state fell to the Democratic onslaught, Gerlach managed to scrape out a victory in a district that leans Democratic and voted for Obama and Kerry.

Unlike others in his party, Gerlach ran forceful ads shooting down claims that he was a shill for the GOP. Gerlach, who has had his eyes on becoming governor, is in a competitive race, but is expected to win. The Hill rates this contest Likely Republican.

--Bob Cusack contributed to this article.

More in Energy & Environment

EPA regulations face new test at high court

Read more »