Partisan back-and-forth in the House picks up where it left off

House Republicans wasted no time yesterday in trumpeting their slight election gains from Tuesday night, while Democratic House leaders were unbowed in defeat, signaling a possible continuation of the partisan rancor that defined much of the 108th Congress.

On Tuesday, the Republicans knocked off five Democratic incumbents and took two other seats previously held by Democrats.
patrick g. ryan
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

The Democrats knocked off two GOP incumbents and picked up two other seats previously held by Republicans, but did not come close to their stated goal of taking back the House. With two races in Louisiana headed for runoffs, the Republicans had a net gain of three seats.

“This morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] woke up with a black eye,” National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said yesterday at a press conference. “This is a devastating loss for House Democrats, and it is personally damaging to Minority Leader Pelosi.”

Pelosi dismissed the criticism, saying, “I don’t consider it a black eye on what was a tough day for Democrats,” and pointed the finger right back at the Republicans.

“The spotlight is on them, and, quite frankly, I think the table is set for the next election,” Pelosi said.

At a press conference yesterday, both Pelosi and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) acknowledged that the election results were not what they had hoped for. But they said their goal had not been unrealistic.

“We were on a tough playing field,” Pelosi said. “There is no question that we did not get the wind, the uplift that we expected.”

For most of this election cycle, Pelosi said that a “national breeze” of discontentment with Republican leadership would sweep her party to victory. That “breeze” failed to materialize, and Democratic candidates were forced to battle a countervailing trend of Republican dominance, especially in states that the president won.

“Had the breeze occurred, we would have been in a position to do that,” Matsui said of taking back the House.

Texas was the key to the Republicans’ election-night success; GOP candidates in that state defeated Democratic incumbents in four of the “Big Five” House districts that had been redrawn in 2003. Democratic Reps. Max Sandlin, Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm and Martin Frost all lost, while Rep. Chet Edwards held on.

“There is no question that Texas was our Achilles’ heel,” Matsui said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who orchestrated the controversial reapportionment, was quick to applaud the Republicans’ success.

“Texas voters were finally given a level playing field, so that in 2004, for the first time in decades, their voters will truly be reflected in their congressional delegation,” DeLay said in a press release issued at 2:34 a.m. yesterday. “The American people have spoken tonight, and all indications are that they have hired a Republican House of Representatives for the sixth straight election.”

The NRCC spent $8 million on the Texas House races, Reynolds said.

Meanwhile, one surprise for many observers on election night was voters’ emphasis on “moral values.” According to exit polling, more than 20 percent of voters listed “moral values” as the most important issue of this election. Almost four out five of those voters backed the president.

One candidate who benefited from the “moral values” card was Mike Sodrel, a trucking magnate who knocked off Democratic Rep. Baron Hill in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, a predominantly conservative enclave in the southeastern
corner of the state.

Kevin Boehnlein, Sodrel’s campaign manager, said increased fundraising, especially on the part of the NRCC, and an emphasis on Hill’s voting record, which he argued was out of step with the district, made the difference after Sodrel’s failed challenge in 2002.

Overall, the NRCC spent $40 million on independent expenditures in races across the country, Reynolds said.

The Democrats knocked off Republican incumbents Phil Crane in Illinois and Max Burns in Georgia and picked up the seats held by retiring Reps. Jack Quinn in New York and Scott McInnis in Colorado.

But they failed to pick up a number of other targeted seats in blue states that went to Kerry, such as Pa.-6, Wash.-8 and Conn.-4.

Matsui thanked Democratic House members, who raised $23 million of the $80 million the DCCC raised this cycle.

Reynolds, for his part, thanked the president and vice president for their help this cycle but dismissed — as he has this entire cycle — the notion of presidential coattails. “We built these races from the ground up,” Reynolds said, echoing a familiar refrain.

Reynolds acknowledged that Republicans did not achieve all their goals, saying that they “fell short” in Calif.-20 and Utah-2, but he said putting money into those races forced the Democrats to spend money where they otherwise might not have.

In the end, most House races had predictable finishes; the tossups were tight, while the leaners leaned and the expected winners strolled to easy victories.

For now, both parties are looking forward to the Louisiana runoff on Dec. 3, when Democrat Charlie Melancon will square off against Republican Billy Tauzin III, the son of retiring Rep. Billy Tauzin Jr., whose 3rd District seat they are vying to fill, and Democrat Willie Mount will take on Republican Charles Boustany in the 7th District.