GOP hopes of winning the House could soar, crash in coming weeks

Republicans insist they can win the House this fall even if they fall short in two major special elections next month.

But a Democratic sweep in the contested races for the seats of ex-Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) would be a painful blow to the GOP.

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Some Republicans are boldly claiming that they will be running the lower chamber next year. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) has predicted a 56-seat pickup, while National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) defined success in the midterm elections as taking the gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The Pennsylvania race is on May 18; the winner in the Hawaii contest will be announced four days later.

David Wasserman, of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that Republicans have a good chance to pull out a victory in the Keystone State.

“They have been fumbling special elections for a long time, but Pennsylvania ought to be different. This is a place where President Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is at 50 percent,” Wasserman said.

He added that Democratic triumphs would “cast doubt on Republicans’ chances to win the House in the fall.”

Key GOP lawmakers are downplaying the significance of the special elections.

And that may be a smart move. Republicans have lost nine special elections in a row, six of them since Obama was inaugurated. 

That Republican losing streak is expected to end on May 11 in the special election to replace former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.).

Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), former head of the NRCC, said winning special elections doesn’t forecast what will happen later in the cycle. For example, Republicans retained Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s (R-Calif.) seat in 2006 before losing the House months later.

“If we can win these seats, I think it does tell you that there is a developing wave. If we don’t win them, I don’t think you can draw the opposite conclusion, because these seats lean [Democratic],” Cole said.

“We’re still going to have a very good year, but this would really accelerate it.”

Polls show tight races in Pennsylvania and Hawaii, though Charles Djou, GOP candidate in the Aloha State, is helped by the fact that two leading Democrats (former Rep. Ed Case and Colleen Hanabusa) are on the ballot.

Obama remains popular in Hawaii, where he grew up. However, his approval rating in Murtha’s district is a dismal 33 percent, according to a recent poll.

The western Pennsylvania district is the only one in the nation that was carried by both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

Mark Critz, a former Murtha aide who is running for his late boss’s seat, touts his independence. Critz opposes abortion rights, supports gun rights and has claimed he would have voted no on healthcare reform.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders last week helped raise nearly $180,000 for their candidate, Tim Burns, according to Cole. On Monday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) endorsed Burns.

Since the special election in Pennsylvania is held on the same day as the statewide primary — where Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak are fighting to be the party’s Senate candidate in the general election — the conventional wisdom is that more Democrats will turn out to vote.

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bill Shuster, who shares four counties with Murtha’s district and has been campaigning for Burns, says people are “unhappy with what’s going on in Washington.”

“What I think is we have a very good chance in a very, very difficult district — it’s overwhelmingly Democrat. It has a lot of parallels to Massachusetts,” Shuster said, referring to Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) win in January,

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said that his party faces a challenge in that race.

“That is a tough and challenging district for Democrats. It has a slightly Republican tilt to it. It’s neck and neck right now. [Critz] is doing well in fundraising and has a very good field organization,” Van Hollen said.

But don’t expect to see Obama campaigning for Critz.

Wasserman pointed out the president’s unpopularity in the district, saying, “Vice President Biden is the emissary in chief to these types of districts.”
Biden campaigned for Critz last week in Pittsburgh.

Obama has not formally endorsed Critz or either Democratic candidate in Hawaii.

The president last year endorsed now-Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) a month before his special-election victory.

Obama later backed now-Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) in a special election two weeks before Owens won the swing district. Obama narrowly defeated McCain in the two New York districts.

Franklin and Marshall political science Professor Stephen Medvic pointed out the wind is at the GOP’s back: “All the excitement is on the Republicans. If the Republican wins, not that big of a shocker. If the Democrat wins it will be better news for the Democrats than the Republican winning would be for Republicans.”

The battle for Hawaii’s 1st district, which voted 70 percent for Obama, may prove more of a challenge than initially anticipated.

Van Hollen said the Hawaii race in May, which is winner-take-all, is different from the one in November: “In the general you will have one Democrat and one Republican, whereas now you have two Democrats and one Republican. That dynamic creates some uncertainties for us.”

According to a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll taken of 500 respondents April 11-14, Djou attracted 32 percent to Case’s 29 percent and Hanabusa’s 28.

The poll’s margin of error was 5 percent.

Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) support Hanabusa, but there has been rampant speculation that the DCCC favors Case.

Van Hollen said the DCCC and the White House have reached out to Case and Hanabusa to work out a deal so that only one of them would compete.

For that reason, Van Hollen says, it’s too early to tell how the races will develop or how to interpret the results.

“Special elections sometimes have a rhythm of their own; however, if we see the national debate playing out in these places, it has potential implications, but it’s too early to say,” Van Hollen said.

Sessions, Van Hollen’s counterpart, was equally hesitant to say whether the races will serve as a bellwether for the fall.

“Ask me that the day after,” a smiling Sessions said.