Even in unfavorable election climates or off years, I always seem to get election fever at some point in September. As disgusted as I’ve been in recent months watching the political climate get increasingly toxic, I still can’t help but feel the special energy in the air that seems to emerge in the weeks leading up to an election. Last fall, I directed this energy towards a list of the 20 most exciting Senate races of my lifetime. This fall, rather than dwell on deteriorating Congressional elections, I thought I’d compile a list of exciting House races. Originally, I was gonna do another top-20 or top-25 list, but found that to be hard to compile. Instead, I’ll do a list state by state of exciting House elections, unless it’s a rare state that hasn’t really had a good battleground House race in my lifetime (I’ve been paying attention for about 20 years now). Anyway, here goes….
Alabama–2008 AL-02 (Bobby Bright vs. Jay Love) I think it was clear to most of us two years ago that Democrat Bobby Bright would make Dan Boren look like Dennis Kucinich in the off chance he was elected in the open seat of a very conservative district in southeastern Alabama. Still, it was exciting to contemplate the plausible yet unlikely scenario of a Democratic Congressional victory in this seat. A Bright victory was gonna require a compilation of elements working together, including Bright’s personal popularity as the Mayor of Montgomery, the overall disfavor with which the Republican was in even in the Deep South at that point in time, and maxed-out African-American turnout with Obama at the top of the ballot. Amazingly, these moving parts all came together and Bright prevailed by a less than one percent margin. Even more surprisingly, Bright seems to be the frontrunner for re-election in a much less hospitable climate this year. If nothing else, his case study represents a far better political strategy than his Alabama colleague, opportunist, and one-time Democrat Parker Griffith.
Alaska–2008 AK-AL (Don Young vs. Ethan Berkowitz) This is as close as it gets to an exciting House race in Alaska, and like most would-be competitive elections in Alaska, the polls dramatically overstated the strength of the Democrat on the ballot. Berkowitz was comfortably ahead in the polls and Young looked like a dead man walking until the surprising election night tally gave Young a decisive victory. Moral of the story: if a Democrat isn’t ahead by 20 points or more in a pre-election poll in Alaska, expect the Republican to win.
Arizona–2006 AZ-05 (Harry Mitchell vs. J.D. Hayworth) There were a slough of races across the country in 2006 where Democrats were insurgent and one on the periphery of the competitive list was this Republican-leaning district in the eastern Phoenix metro area, pitting the Democratic Mayor of Tempe against right-wing blowhard Hayworth, who had seemingly positioned himself to the right of his district. At best, this struck me as a second-tier target at the time. Turnout was low, which seemed to help the challenger, and Mitchell’s decisive four-point victory proved to be one of most pleasant surprises of the night.
Arkansas–2000 AR-04 (Mike Ross vs. Jay Dickey) Despite an overwhelming Democratic registration advantage in his rural southern Arkansas district, Jay Dickey survived eight years as a conservative firebrand until the turn of the millennium. Strangely, just as Arkansas began a transition away from the Democratic Party in the 2000 election, Dickey’s hourglass ran out of sand. Al Gore was narrowly winning the district at the top of the ticket, but wasn’t offering any real coattails for Democratic challenger Mike Ross, who had to win the seat all by himself by running as a slightly less conservative alternative. Although Democrats were beating a flurry of Republican incumbents in the Senate in 2000, there were very few incumbent Republicans getting toppled in the House that year. Dickey was one of them, however, losing by two points. Ross, meanwhile, is likely to be the last standing Democrat in the Arkansas House delegation in another five weeks.
California–1996 CA-46 (Loretta Sanchez vs. Bob Dornan) California House races have rarely been competitive given the heavily gerrymandered seats, but the state’s rapidly changing demographics over the last couple of decades have made a number of previous districts that were Republican strongholds suddenly unfriendly, and the best example of an incumbent being completely stunned by was right-wing firebrand Bob Dornan. Dornan had just run a quixotic bid for the Presidency in 1996, a ego-driven run that apparently distracted him so much that he didn’t notice that the Latino population in his Orange County district had grown to the point that his politics were too far to the right of his own constituents let alone America at large. It was one of the more stunning outcomes of a House race in my lifetime as political newcomer Loretta Sanchez took Dornan down. Dornan was a sore loser, alleging voter fraud for years afterward and claiming his seat was stolen from him. He ran again two years later to prove that in a “fair” election where the ballot boxes weren’t stacked up with illegal votes, he would win. The outcome: Sanchez was re-elected by an 18-point margin. Better luck next time, B-1 Bob.
Colorado–2002 CO-07 (Bob Beauprez vs. Mike Feeley) When Colorado gained a Congressional seat after the 2000 Census, the district was drawn to include a swath of suburban Denver and to be as competitive as possible. The district immediately lived up to expectations featuring one of the closest races in the country in 2002. It was a Republican year in Colorado, as with much of the nation, and Republican Beauprez was able to take advantage of that by scoring a 121-vote victory. He held onto the seat for two terms before his kamikaze run for Governor which may have saved him from being voted out of his Congressional seat as the district drawn to be competitive just a few years earlier was fast becoming heavily Democratic, and in fact would swing to the Democrats in 2006.
Connecticut–2006 CT-02 (Joe Courtney vs. Rob Simmons) On the basis of his moderate politics and appealing biography, Rob Simmons held the most Democratic House seat occupied by a Republican heading into the 2006 midterm wave. Despite the wave, Simmons came within a hair’s breadth of hanging onto his seat. The CT-02 race was the closest in the country in 2006 and Democrat Courtney upset the incumbent by a mere 83 votes. Had Simmons challenged Courtney again in the more favorable Republican climate of rather than ran for the Senate, my money would be on him taking his seat back. Interestingly, this seat has been a hot potato for both parties. Just ask former Democratic Congressman Sam Gejdenson who hung on by an ever more ridiculously small 21-vote margin in the 1994 bloodbath before narrowly losing to Simmons in 2000.
Delaware–no competitive House races in my lifetime
Florida–2000 FL-22 (Clay Shaw vs. Elaine Bloom) At first, I had no clue what Joe Lieberman brought to the table to be Al Gore’s Vice-Presidential nominee, but the soaring Democratic margins in Jewish-heavy South Florida on election day convinced me of Lieberman’s “useful idiot” utility. A region that had leaned Republican during the 80s and into the 90s was suddenly firmly in the Democratic camp, and almost swept away in the 2000 Florida tide was long-time Republican incumbent Clay Shaw in his coastal Palm Beach and Broward County district. Even though it was still only marginally Democratic compared to the more heavily Jewish districts flanking it to the west and south, Gore-Lieberman was nonetheless winning and providing some coattails to Democratic challenger Bloom, but she came up just short by a margin of 599 votes. Coming up just short in Florida seemed to be a bit of a recurring theme in 2000, but thankfully Shaw was still living on borrowed time and would be defeated six years later.
Georgia–2006 GA-12 (John Barrow vs. Max Burns) The Democratic landslide in the 2006 midterms was so impressive that leading up to election day there were really only two Democratic incumbents who were in battleground races, and both of them were in Georgia. A court-ordered redrawing of Congressional lines put two Democratic incumbents in less Democratic districts, at the same time as both were being challenged by former Republican Congressmen. Couple all of this with low voter turnout due to no competitive or high-profile races in Georgia that fall and one-term incumbent John Barrow looked to be in real trouble. Even his new district leaned Democratic and was 42% African American, but would enough of them turn out to save him from Burns? Turns out the answer was yes, but barely. Barrow prevailed by less than a thousand votes and prevented the Democrats from losing a single incumbent in 2006.
Hawaii–1996 HI-01 (Neil Abercrombie vs. Orson Swindle) I hadn’t paid any attention to this race until I saw the returns and was shocked by the tightness of Abercrombie’s margin. Furthermore, I was familiar with the challenger, who had appeared on Nightline a few years earlier and positioned himself to the right of Pat Buchanan on just about every issue. I couldn’t believe this guy almost won in Hawaii. I still don’t understand what made the race so close. Perhaps it was affection for Swindle’s war hero biography. Either way, it was one more example for Democrats that they should never take victory in Hawaii for granted.
Idaho–2008 ID-01 (Walt Minnick vs. Bill Sali) As if there any other choice here! Here’s another race that struck me as just out of reach no matter how huge the Democratic tidal wave would be. A Democrat winning in modern-day Idaho? C’mon! I knew Republican incumbent Bill Sali was considered a dunderhead but that (R) next to his name had to be worth 20 points by itself, right? Barack Obama didn’t seem to inspire the usual level of terror in the minds of Rocky Mountain voters as past Democratic Presidential nominees, and overperformed in the polls, providing–strangely enough–coattails for Minnick…or at least diminished coattails for Sali. The result was an impressive 4,000-vote victory for Minnick. Despite being the Tea Party’s Democrat, I still find it kind of impressive that most forecasters expect Minnick to hang onto his seat this year even in such a toxic climate for Democrats.
Illinois–2004 IL-08 (Melissa Bean vs. Philip Crane) There haven’t been many true barnburner House races in Illinois. The 2000 open seat House race was close, but Republican Mark Kirk, who continues to haunt us today, prevailed so I decided not to pick that one. Edging it out was this upset of a long-time GOP incumbent four years later. Phil Crane’s profile was diminishing in this affluent suburban Chicago district, but it still seemed like a stretch that an upstart Democrat could prevail here. But with the coattails of John Kerry and especially landslide Senate race winner Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, Democrat Melissa Bean was able to upset Crane and be one of the few Democrats to topple a GOP incumbent in 2004.
Indiana–2004 IN-09 (Mike Sodrel vs. Baron Hill) Here’s a race that didn’t go the way any of us wanted it to go but nonetheless has to be considered impressive given the unexpected upset of an incumbent few thought was vulnerable. Democrat Baron Hill had been winning in his Republican-leaning district in southeastern Indiana for six years, but with Bush’s landslide shellacking of John Kerry at the top of the ticket in 2004, the headwind proved too strong and Hill was taken out by Republican challenger Mike Sodrel by a little over 1,000 votes. Thankfully, there’s a happy ending to this story as Hill reclaimed his seat two years later.
Iowa–2006 IA-02 (Dave Loebsack vs. Jim Leach) This was somewhat of a tough call. There were a couple great House races in Iowa, including the pitting of two incumbents in 1992, Dave Nagel and Jim Nussle. Unfortunately, the arrogant Nussle narrowly prevailed. In 1996, Democrat Leonard Boswell prevailed by a one-point margin in an open seat in a very swing district over Republican Mike Mahaffey. Ultimately, however, I have to go with the huge upset that was little-known Democrat Dave Loebsack taking on decadeslong moderate GOP incumbent Jim Leach. Despite the Democratic wave of 2006 and the considerable Democratic lean of the southeastern Iowa district, virtually nobody had Leach on their radar screen as likely to be felled. But the wave proved too strong and Loebsack prevailed by a comfortable margin of nearly 6,000 votes. When given a choice between a really close race or a surprising upset, I will usually choose in favor of the upset.
Kansas–2006 KS-02 (Nancy Boyda vs. Jim Ryun) I was torn on this state as well. Dennis Moore’s 1998 unseating of right-wing GOP incumbent Vince Snowbarger was a welcome moment where the GOP monopoly of Kansas’ Congressional delegation was broken. But exceeding it was one of the biggest upsets of the 2006 Democratic wave. I had seen a poll in the weeks leading up to the election showing Boyda narrowly leading Ryun in the solidly Republican eastern Kansas district, but I dismissed it as an outlier and very few seemed to believe this was a viable Democratic pickup opportunity until election night when Boyda prevailed. The jubilation was short-lived, however, as Boyda was defeated two years later.
Kentucky–2006 KY-03 (John Yarmuth vs. Anne Northup) Kentucky hasn’t had too many genuinely close House races in recent years, and the ones that were close always seemed to include Anne Northup and Ken Lucas, incumbents whose districts were generally unfriendly to their parties. The Democrats had been trying for years to take out Northup, representing the Democratic-leaning Louisville metro area but always fell short. One reason why I remember this specific race fondly is that it was something of a bellwether of how the night was gonna go, as Kentucky often is with its first-in-the-nation poll closings. If Yarmuth beat Northup, it would be a good sign that the Democrats would have a good night. Yarmuth did end up beating Northup…and the Dems did have a good night.
Louisiana–2004 LA-03 (Charlie Melancon vs. Billy Tauzin III) After the third consecutive election night beatdown on November 2, 2004, Democrats were starving for any kind of win, and they would get one with the Louisiana runoff in House district 3. The Republican-leaning seat was being vacated by Republican Billy Tauzin so he could get a lobbyist job with the pharmaceutical industry, a premise that didn’t help his son who was vying to fill dad’s seat. Tauzin III was originally expected to walk off with the seat, but Melancon came from behind and prevailed by a narrow 569 votes. If only Melancon could mount that kind of a surprise comeback in this year’s Senate race.
Maine–1996 ME-01 (Tom Allen vs. James Longley) Technically there were one or two closer House races in Maine in the last 20 years (Michaud vs. Raye in 2002 for example) but the best symbolic win was the victory of center-left New England represented by Allen against one of the 1994 GOP freshman class’s biggest crazies, James Longley, who carried around a giant sign with the national debt numbers around Capitol Hill with him. This is Maine’s more Democratic seat and its trendline was already moving leftward, meaning the biggest surprise was that Longley ever won this seat in the first place.
Maryland–2008 MD-01 (Frank Kratovil vs. Andy Harris) Maryland’s district map is not particularly conducive to close races. The closest they came before this race was 2002 when moderate Republican Connie Morella was taken out by Chris Van Hollen after she had finally been gerrymandered into a district that was unwinnable for any Republican. But it was this epic 2008 contest that was hands-down Maryland’s best. Moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrest was beaten in the primary by real article conservative Andy Harris. Gilchrest went onto endorse the Democrat Kratovil and carried over enough of his supporters to Kratovil’s side to make this a contest. Democratic of a state as Maryland is, McCain was still winning this Eastern Shore district by double digits, giving Kratovil a fierce headwind even in the most ideal of conditions. The district’s polarization was clear as the extremely narrow vote count came in, with the rural Eastern Shore counties voting for the Democrat and the upscale exurbs of Baltimore and Annapolis voting for the Republican. Kratovil won just enough to win the race, and held an unlikely seat for the Democrats for two years, although it’s gonna be an extraordinarily tough hold this fall.
Massachusetts–1996 MA-06 (John Tierney vs. Peter Torkildsen) Two Republican incumbents in Massachusetts were taken out with some coattail assistance from the 1996 Clinton landslide, but the best race was a rematch from 1994 in which the Democrat Tierney prevailed in the northeastern Massachusetts district by a margin of fewer than 400 votes. Massachusetts maintained an all-Democratic Congressional delegation for the next 13 years until the election of Scott Brown earlier this year, and impressive streak given the size of that delegation.
Michigan–2000 MI-08 (Mike Rogers vs. Dianne Byrum) It’s a good thing Debbie Stabenow eked out a Senate victory against Spencer Abraham in 2000 because the competitive Lansing area House district she vacated narrowly went Republican in her absence. It was yet another razor-thin margin race in the millennial year with Rogers prevailing by a mere 111 votes. Unfortunately, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in Michigan and they made Rogers’ district much more Republican-friendly and he would be comfortably victorious in his subsequent races.
Minnesota–2000 MN-02 (Mark Kennedy vs. David Minge) I grew up in Minnesota and this one was a tough call. From a personal standpoint, the insurgent candidacy of Tim Walz taking down incumbent Gil Gutknecht in my home district was the most exciting. The 1992 David Minge vs. Cal Ludeman faceoff was also incredible, with the Democrat Minge prevailing by a few hundred votes when the final precincts were counted in the middle of the night. But the political scientist in me has to regrettably defer to the surprise victory of Mark Kennedy over Minge eight years after Minge’s original election as Minnesota’s marquee House race of the last generation. Nobody expected this race would be competitive and Kennedy has to be credited for running a brilliant campaign, allocating his limited resources to a saturation of radio ads in some of the district’s Republican strongholds. Working against Minge was Congress staying in session right up until the election and keeping him from doing his usual bike tour of the vast rural farm district. Also working against him was that vast rural farm district being infiltrated by the fast-growing and incredibly Republican western exurbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Minge could be considered a Blue Dog in name only, voting with the Democrats the vast majority of the time and generally staying on the good side of the district’s populist farmers in the center-right district, but these yuppies in the exurbs expanding their ranks in the district had little use for a farm populist and saw Kennedy as one of their own. I stayed awake into the wee hours of the night, stunned by how razor-thin the margin was with each new set of returns. In the end, Minge came up 155 votes short. The county map from the district showed clearly the battle lines with the farm counties holding strong for Minge and the exurbs going strongly for Kennedy. That dynamic meant Minge’s days were numbered in the district no matter. Despite the depressing outcome, one good thing came out of Kennedy’s victory. State Republicans looked at him as such a wunderkind for having taken that seat that they cleared the field for him in the 2006 Senate race, only to discover he really wasn’t a very good politician at all and ended up getting destroyed by Amy Klobuchar by a 20-point margin.
Mississippi–2008 MS-01 (Travis Childers vs. Greg Davis) It seems like a lifetime ago, but just a little over two years ago the political climate was hospitable enough that Democrats were even electable in northern Mississippi. Helpfully the open seat pitted a Democrat from the rural part of the district against a yuppie Republican from the southern suburbs of Memphis, which has a bit of a cultural disconnect from the rest of northern Mississippi. As a result, Childers the Democrat vastly overperformed traditional Democratic numbers in the rural counties and prevailed by a comfortable margin, and then went onto win a full term in the 2008 general election. I’d be surprised if Childers prevailed again this year in the current climate, but he’s defied the odds before.
Missouri–2000 MO-06 (Sam Graves vs. Steve Danner) Democrat Pat Danner had a bout with breast cancer and had to retire from her battleground House seat in 2000, creating an open seat where her son faced a young Republican challenger. Every part of Missouri outside of Kansas City and St. Louis has been trending Republican in the last 15 years or so, and this district is split about evenly between suburban Kansas City and rural northwestern Missouri. In another case study of an urban vs. rural divide, although this time with the rural vote favoring the Republican unlike with Minge in MN and Childers in MS, Graves narrowly prevailed at the same time that George Bush was beating Al Gore in the district, running up the score in the rural counties and offsetting Danner’s advantage in the Kansas City area. The district has gotten far redder in the years since and Graves hasn’t faced a serious challenge since that first one.
Montana–1992 MT-AL (Pat Williams vs. Ron Marlenee) After the 1990 Census, Montana lost its second Congressional district, merging the state into one giant district and forcing two incumbents into a tough faceoff. Long-time liberal Democrat Pat Williams represented mountainous western Montana and conservative Ron Marlenee represented ranch-heavy eastern Montana. It was one of the toughest grudge matches of the year, and Williams prevailed by about three percentage points. He held on for one additional term, surviving the 1994 Democratic massacre and then retiring. The seat has not been back in Democratic hands since.
Nebraska–1994 NE-02 (Peter Hoagland vs. Jon Christensen) It always struck me as strange as a boy that uber-Republican Nebraska was fairly competitive in Congressional elections, at various points in the 1980s and 1990s holding both Senate seats and at least one of the three House districts. The Democrat Hoagland in this Omaha-area district would unfortunately be taken out in the 1994 Republican wave in a narrow race where he was upset by Republican newcomer Jon Christensen who would hold the seat for a few terms before the baton was passed by current GOP representative Lee Terry. While demographic changes suggest this seat could become competitive again, the 1994 election seemed to represent a time when previously localized Nebraska elections tended to be nationalized, to the detriment of Democrats.
Nevada–2006 NV-03 (Jon Porter vs. Tessa Hafen) Here was another race that always seemed second-tier in the 2006 battleground. The young Hafen didn’t seem quite ready for primetime and the suburban Las Vegas district didn’t seem likely to has swung Democratic enough to dump Porter. And they didn’t….but barely. Porter hung on by one percentage point and it was clear that something serious was going on in suburban Las Vegas that didn’t bode well for either Porter or the 2008 GOP Presidential nominee. By 2008, when Porter had an even stiffer challenge from top-tier Democratic challenger Dina Titus, it lacked drama because Porter’s defeat at this point seemed inevitable. Much like CO-07, a former Republican-leaning district designed to be as much of a swing district as possible had transformed into a near Democratic stronghold. Whether it holds in 2010 and beyond is another story, but the 2006 Porter-Hafen race was definitely the first sign of the district’s transformation.
New Hampshire–2006 NH-01 (Carol Shea-Porter vs. Jeb Bradley) The biggest Cinderella story of the 2006 Democratic sweep began in the primaries where longshot Carol Shea-Porter upset the establishment choice. The seat seemed like quite a reach to turn over at the time but was all but written off by the party after the victory by Shea-Porter who seemed to liberal and too unpolished to take on incumbent Jeb Bradley. On election night, there was bigger surprise than seeing the Democratic tidal wave, which hit New Hampshire especially hard, had dragged Shea-Porter across the finish line. She was victorious again for the rematch with Bradley in 2008.
New Jersey–2000 NJ-12 (Rush Holt vs. Dick Zimmer) Democrat Rush Holt upset a Republican incumbent in 1998 who sang a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Starr” in reference to special prosecutor Ken Starr on the House floor. Holt’s victory was thought to be a fluke in the Republican-leaning central New Jersey district, and was widely expected to be felled in 2000 against perennial Senate candidate Dick Zimmer vying for his old House seat back. The hero of this story was probably Al Gore, who ran up the score big-time in New Jersey and likely provided Holt just enough coattails to prevail in his bid for a second term, winning by 481 votes. Holt’s district became more Democratic after the 2001 reconfiguration and he hasn’t faced a strong challenge since.
New Mexico–2006 NM-01 (Heather Wilson vs. Patricia Madrid) Heather Wilson built a reputation as a political survivor, always managing to win as a Republican in her blue Albuquerque-based district. But it was widely expected by everybody that she met her match in the toxic Republican climate of 2006 facing what appeared to be her most formidable foe thus far in Attorney General Patricia Madrid. Most polls suggested Madrid held the lead in the months leading up to the election, but some ninth-inning gaffes and an apparent continued affinity for whatever x-factor Wilson had in her district allowed her to prevail by 875 votes and became one of the GOP’s least expected survivors of the 2006 Democratic wave. It’s hard to imagine she could have survived the even more substantial Democratic wave that hit New Mexico in 2008, and sensing this, Wilson retired.
New York–2002 NY-01 (Tim Bishop vs. Felix Grucci) In a very ugly year for Democrats, one of the few bright spots was picking up this seat in the Hamptons on Long Island, formerly a Republican stronghold that moved towards the Democrats during the Clinton era. Republican incumbent Grucci accused Bishop of falsifying rape statistics on the college campus where Bishop was the admissions counselor, but the accusation proved to be baseless and Grucci refused to back away from it. This helped Bishop secure a 3,000 vote winning margin and made Grucci one of only two incumbent Republicans to lose in 2002.
North Carolina–2006 NC-08 (Robin Hayes vs. Larry Kissell) The race I was constantly pointing out as the most likely dark horse of the 2006 cycle featured the scrappy schoolteacher running a great campaign against a GOP incumbent who made himself vulnerable by flip-flopping on the 2005 CAFTA trade agreement in a blue-collar district devastated by job loss. I found it frustrating that few seemed to be paying attention or taking Kissell’s challenge seriously, and proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, my theory was confirmed on election night as Kissell came within 329 votes of victory in a very low turnout contest where there were no major races at the top of the ballot in North Carolina. Kissell seemed like such a better fit for the district than Hayes, and voters realized that two years later when Kissell prevailed by an impressive 10 points over Hayes in the rematch.
North Dakota–2002 ND-AL (Earl Pomeroy vs. Rick Clayburgh) It’s pretty amazing how three Democrats managed to seize control of North Dakota’s Congressional delegation in the 1990s, and Pomeroy overcame a number of decent challenges in his first several terms, with none bigger than Rick Clayburgh, the state’s Tax Commisioner who was aggressively hyped by Republicans, including then popular Dick Cheney, who viewed Pomeroy as vulnerable. Pomeroy prevailed, and by a better than expected five-point margin, and hasn’t had a tough race since but looks to have one this year. Given how few close elections there have been in North Dakota in my lifetime, this contest provides a helpful geographic baseline for a competitive Democratic contest in the state. A winning Democratic campaign can expect to have a county map that looks like an upside-down L, with the northern two tiers of counties and the eastern counties in the Red River Valley as most likely to go Democratic…and the southwestern and south-central regions of the state (Bismarck, Dickinson) being the most Republican.
Ohio–2005 OH-02 (Jean Schmidt vs. Paul Hackett) If there was a single defining moment that restored Democrats’ faith in the sanity of the American people after the Bush re-election and leading up to the 2006 midterms, it was this special election in a very Republican district in suburban Cincinnati filling the seat of Rob Portman, who continues to haunt us five years later. The Democrats had an ideal candidate in Iraq War veteran Hackett making waves with provocative comments about President Bush, while the Republicans were running the very weak Jean Schmidt. Still, virtually nobody expected a contest in this Republican stronghold until the returns started rolling in and showed Hackett came within four points of shocking the world. Hackett performed especially strong in the rural Appalachian counties on the district’s east side, suggesting these voters were still within grasp for certain kinds of Democrats. While outright victory would have been sweeter, this race provided a huge boost in Democratic morale and raised the possibility of a Democratic Congressional takeover the following year.
Oklahoma–1994 OK-02 (Tom Coburn vs. Virgil Cooper) It says a lot about the uncompetitiveness of most Oklahoma House elections in the last 20 years if this stinker of a race rates as my most exciting. In Oklahoma’s most Democratic district, long-time incumbent Democrat Mike Synar was defeated in the primary, signaling early voter restlessness and leaving an open seat that was hypothetically vulnerable but still seemed a reasonably good bet for Democrats to hold even in a hostile political environment given the tremendous Democratic tilt to the eastern Oklahoma district. Unfortunately, primary winner Virgil Cooper came up short against one of the 1994 freshman class’s most conservative new members and the continued bane of progressive existence 16 years later, Tom Coburn. To make matters worse, Coburn held the seat for three terms despite his radicalism and embarrassing comments. The seat has since reverted back to the Democrats (sort of) but the fact that they elected Coburn three times suggests it probably won’t stay there as soon as there’s not a Democrat running with the last name Boren.
Oregon–1994 OR-01 (Elizabeth Furse vs. Bill Witt) The 1994 Republican sweep was particularly merciless to Democrats in the Pacific Northwest, but there was one survivor. One-term incumbent Elizabeth Furse prevailed by 301 votes over Republican challenger Bill Witt in the suburban Portland district. The district has become much more comfortably Democratic in the years since. Witt challenged Furse again in 1996 but Furse prevailed by a more significant margin before throwing in the towel and ceding the seat to current representative David Wu.
Pennsylvania–2002 PA-17 (Tim Holden vs. George Gekas) Pennsylvania has been the state with the most hotly contested House races in the last couple of decades. There were races where newcomers came out of the blue to upset incumbents not thought to be endangered (Jason Altmire 2006), races with challengers who were thought to be toast that managed to survive (Jim Gerlach 2006, Paul Kanjorski 2008), and several races hyped as too-close-to-call that lived up to expectations (Patrick Murphy vs. Mike Fitzpatrick 2008, Joe Hoeffel vs. Jon Fox twice in 1996 and 1998). But the race that upstaged them all was the battle of two incumbents who districts were combined after the 2000 census. Republicans controlled the redistricting process in 2001 and designed one of the most inhospitable district maps in the country for Democrats. The new PA-17 was designed specifically to end Tim Holden’s career, with the Harrisburg area district consisting of more than 60% of Gekas’ old turf and shedding much of Holden’s stronger territory to a neighboring district. Holden aggressively pursued re-election while Gekas generally took for granted that he would prevail. Just about everybody was surprised when Holden prevailed 51-49 on election night in a generally Republican year. Since then, the district has become more Democratic and Holden has coasted to victory easily since then.
Rhode Island–never in my lifetime has there been a competitive House election in Rhode Island
South Carolina–1992 SC-04 (Bob Inglis vs. Liz Patterson) It’s hard to conceive that as recently as the early 1990s Democrats were still winning Congressional races in the land of Bob Jones University. The district had been trending dramatically Republican but Democrat Patterson had strong familial ties that helped insulate her, and had survived her first three elections with comfortable winning margins. She finally met her match in 1992 against recent Tea Party casualty Bob Inglis who upset her rather unexpectedly with a 5,000-vote win in what was the last genuinely competitive House race in South Carolina in recent history. The district has since become South Carolina’s most reflexively Republican.
South Dakota–2004 SD-AL (Stephanie Herseth vs. Larry Diedrich) Growing up right next door to South Dakota, I’ve long been fascinated by it’s close political contests, of which there have been several in my lifetime. One such close contest that wasn’t supposed to be was the June 2004 special election filling the seat left open by the convicted murderer Bill Janklow. The Democrat Herseth had familiarized herself to voters in the 2002 House race and had an 11-point lead headed into election day….but that lead sounded too good to be true for an open seat in Republican-leaning South Dakota. And so it was with early returns rolling in and indicating Herseth not only wasn’t running away with the race, but was not even reaching the baseline of support in the East River counties that Tim Johnson had in the epic 2002 Senate race. Thankfully, Sioux Falls delivered a good margin for Herseth and she did better in Republican West River than Johnson had done as those numbers rolled in later in the evening, securing Herseth a one-point margin of victory and delivering yet another exciting election night in South Dakota.
Tennessee–2002 TN-04 (Lincoln Davis vs. Janice Bowling) This wasn’t necessarily the closest race in recent Tennessee House elections, as that honor goes to Bart Gordon who slipped through the 1994 Republican wave with a one-point victory. But this was by far the most wide open race with a newly configured rural swing district in Middle Tennessee without any towns larger than 10,000 people. Thinking of how miserably Republican Tennessee has gotten in recent years, it’s hard to believe that the Yellow Dog Democrats still made much of the state competitive as recently as 2002. In this case, they helped the moderate Lincoln Davis take back a Republican-held seat by a comfortable five-point margin. It was one of the few bright spots of the 2002 midterms and Davis has held onto the district impressively since, although it seems likely that a Republican gerrymander will render his seat all but winnable by 2012.
Texas–2006 TX-23 (Ciro Rodriguez vs. Henry Bonilla) There have been a number of very good House races in Texas over the last 20 years, albeit few with happy endings for Democrats. And the close races where Democrats did prevail tended to be races where they were playing defense. Charlie Stenholm always seemed to eke out wins in the 1990s and early 2000s despite the growing Republican headwind in his district. Chet Edwards survived the Tom DeLay gerrymander in 2004. But the 2006 elections finally produced a couple of bright spots for Texas. The first was short-lived where Democrat Nick Lampson won by default in Tom DeLay’s old district where his challenger was a write-in candidate. But the second close contest proved to be a more significant victory. One of the 2004 Delaymanders was ruled unconstitutional on the grounds of Voting Rights Act, forcing the Republican-leaning 23rd district to be reconfigured and take in more Hispanic voters. However, even after the new district lines were drawn, the district still had a Republican lean and conventional wisdom suggested the Republican Bonilla still had an edge over former Congressman Rodriguez who was running in a district with very little of his old territory. But it turned out Bonilla’s would-be advantage was built on artificially strong Bush-era numbers that were no longer relevant as Rodriguez surged to a convincing victory. The contest was fairly prophetic as the Hispanic vote’s shift to Democrats became much more pronounced moving towards the 2008 election.
Utah–2002 UT-02 (Jim Matheson vs. John Swallow) This was a tough call as the original 1990 election and subsequent three-term survival of Democrat Bill Orton in one of the most Republican districts in the country was nothing short of astounding, but I still have to give the edge to this 2002 race. If any incumbent Democrat in the country looked DOA after the 2001 redistricting, it was Jim Matheson who prevailed in a moderate (for Utah) district in 2000 for his first term. Heading into his second term, however, Matheson’s district was split up and forfeited much of Democratic territory in Salt Lake City. It was the least Republican district in Utah, but still considerably more Republican than the district he had won in 2000. Shocking the world much like Tim Holden did in Pennsylvania that same year, Matheson prevailed by a half-percentage point, 1,600-vote margin and has been able to hold the seat in the three election cycles since.
Vermont–1990 VT-AL (Bernie Sanders vs. Peter Smith) Bernie Sanders ran as an independent in 1988 for the open seat to Vermont’s House delegation. That was about the tail end of Vermont’s centuries-long allegiance to the Republican Party, and Smith won the contest. Two years later though, Sanders came from out of nowhere and upset Smith in a double-digit landslide, becoming the only independent in the House in decades. I’m not sure if there was a pressing issue that drove Sanders’ surge in 1990 or a gaffe by Smith, but Sanders held onto the seat until he ran for the Senate 16 years later, facing only one serious challenge in the 1994 Republican wave, where his winning margin was only three points.
Virginia–2008 VA-05 (Tom Perriello vs. Virgil Goode) Everybody knew going into the election night of 2008 that it was gonna be a very year for Democrats in Virginia. Strong Democratic victories in the Presidential and Senate race went according to plan and provided coattails for Democrats to pick up two seats that were expected to be prime targets, but they ended up snaring a bonus House seat that virtually nobody saw coming. Republican Virgil Goode, representing a mostly rural district in central and south-central Virginia had accumulated a little political baggage during his long political career, but easily survived the 2006 wave and wasn’t looked at as at all likely to fall at the hands of political newcomer Tom Perriello. The results told a different story on election night as Democrats outperformed traditional margins throughout the district, and although McCain held on to narrowly win the district at the top of the ticket, Perriello shocked the world and prevailed by a margin of about 700 votes. He’s considered by many to be 2010’s most endangered 2008 incumbent, but he still has to like his position today better than his position at the end of September two years ago!
Washington–1994 WA-05 (George Nethercutt vs. Tom Foley) Count this as another race “exciting” in the wrong way with the first sitting Speaker of the House voted out of office in about a century and a half. 1994 was a bloodbath for Democrats in the state of Washington with SIX of the state’s nine House seats turning over to the GOP. The majority of these seats would swing back in the next three election cycles that featured some great contests, particularly the razor-thin 1996 Linda Smith vs. Brian Baird contest in WA-03. But Tom Foley’s seat in Republican-trending eastern Washington would never return to the Democratic fold. I still remember hearing the litany of Democratic heroes who bit the dust as a 17-year-old watching the bloody 1994 returns. But names like Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards still struck me as comparatively small potatoes in comparison to the sitting Speaker of the House, but as the hours pressed on, Dan Rather kept telling me that is was within the realm of possibilities that Foley could lose…and sure enough, but the next morning Foley’s less-than-two-point defeat was official. Just proves that a House race can be epic and exciting but still a disaster. After a tumultuous 1990s in Washington House races, the only seat that’s been competitive this past decade has been the WA-08 district occupied by Dave Reichert.
West Virginia–2000 WV-02 (Shelley Moore Capito vs. Jim Humphreys) Up until 2000, a competitive House election in Democrat-dominated West Virginia was only theoretical, but the state was at the beginning stages of its long-term realignment to Republicans that year and the impossible became reality. The losing effort by Al Gore at the top of the ticket undoubtedly provided some countercoattails for the Democratic candidate, and a third-party candidate took more than 5% of the vote that may or may not have come from Humphrey’s expense, but whatever the case, the open seat went to Republican Capito by a two-point margin. She’s kept her grip on the seat with limited challenge ever since and my suspicion is her story will be the standard for the other two West Virginia seats as soon as Republicans pull off their initial victories in them.
Wisconsin–2000 WI-02 (Tammy Baldwin vs. John Sharpless) Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” adage seems a little dated this decade where just about every election cycle is nationalized in one way or another, but it still held true in many cases in the 1990s, a time when Provo, Utah, was represented by a Democrat in Congress while Madison, WI, was represented by a Republican. One-time Republican Congressman Scott Klug retired from his Madison-based district in 1998, however, and the seat went to Tammy Baldwin, who was not only a Democrat but the first openly gay non-incumbent to ever win a House race. Baldwin won comfortably in the 1998 open seat but for whatever reason had a stiffer challenge the second time against Republican Sharpless. I honestly have no recollection of the particulars that drove this contest–whether Sharpless was a top-tier candidate or whether there was some backlash against Baldwin’s sexual preference–but she prevailed by a scant two percentage points even as Al Gore was comfortably winning the district at the top of the ballot. Baldwin has won the district with ease in the four elections since and there have been relatively few close House races in the state this decade.
Wyoming–2006 WY-AL (Barbara Cubin vs. Gary Trauner) 2006 was such a good year for Democrats that even Wyoming was a battleground state! The conditions were ripe for a pick-up as the incumbent Barbara Cubin was crass and unlikeable, a third-party libertarian candidate was taking conservative votes away from Cubin (who made physical threats against the guy), and the Democrat successfully walked the tightrope and made himself politically acceptable to a large number of conservative Wyoming voters. Unfortunately, even this perfect storm fell just short of taking down Cubin who won a bleak 48% plurality with a margin of just over 1,000 votes over Trauner. The margin was close enough, however, to convince Cubin to retire before 2008. Trauner gave it another whirl in the open seat and looked good for picking it up, but fell short by a surprisingly strong 10-point margin the second time around. I expect it’ll be a very long time until there’s another close Congressional race in Wyoming.
This was a fun but consuming little exercise…much more involved than my top-20 Senate race list. My old World Almanacs from the 1990s came in very handy in providing some forgotten names and the margins of victory in the close races. I used to study those almanacs after every election in the pre-Internet era, but find House race tracking much easier since purchasing a home computer in 2000.
It’s likely that the 2010 midterms will displace some of the current entries on this list. The election nut inside me is hoping for a few down-to-the-wire cliffhanger contests for which I’m up into the wee hours of the night tracking the final sets of returns. Odds are there will be quite a few such races as there almost always are.
Have I missed any classics here? Or do you disagree with my choice for a given state? Feedback is always welcome.