||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Spotlight races in New Jersey, South Carolina
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Each cycle I look for long-shot House races that might actually produce upsets on Election Day. But after reading my own lists, I'm struck more by the reasons that these races are mere long-shots than by their potential for an upset. So, depending how you look at them, the races that follow are either dark horses to watch, or over-hyped, long-shots that will never move up into the top tier.
Competitiveness, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Following are those races:
New Jersey 3: Republican Jim Saxton can't take his reelection for granted, but is he really likely to be one of only a handful of incumbents defeated in November?
The Democrats' case for defeating him is based on two major arguments. First, the district is trending Democratic. It voted heavily, 50 percent to 38 percent, for Democratic President Clinton in 1996, and Democrat Bob Torricelli carried it in the 1996 Senate race. Even Republican Gov. Christie Whitman had trouble carrying it in her 1997 reelection race. She won it with only 52 percent.
Second, the Democratic candidate in the district, Susan Bass Levin, is a strong challenger. She is the mayor of Cherry Hill, the largest city in the district, and has already raised more than $1 million. Saxton hasn't had a strong challenger in years, and his 1998 opponent spent a mere $2,700 but won 35 percent of the vote.
The challenger portrays Saxton as "right-wing," and insists that most voters don't know how he has voted on most issues.
But with Levin's money, the alleged competitiveness of the district and Saxton's record, why isn't this a top tier race? Well, the district isn't quite as competitive as the Democrats suggest. It has a 46.6 percent Democratic performance, making it hardly the best of Democratic districts. Yes, Democrats have won or competed well in districts with a Democratic performance of around 46 percent, but that doesn't make 46 percent a good Democratic number. The 3rd District has actually performed less Democratic than the state as a whole, and George Bush lost the district by just 920 votes in 1992.
Maybe more importantly, Saxton will be hard to portray as a "right-wing" Republican. An unapologetic environmentalist, he has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. He voted against repealing the assault weapons ban, defended funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has other votes that place him at odds with his party.
Saxton hasn't had a tough race in years and the district does have a solid Democratic base vote of at least 35 percent. But Levin still finds herself running in an upscale, reliably Republican district against an entrenched moderate Republican. While she certainly should be able to match the district's "Democratic performance," it's the final few percentage points that will be the toughest. And that's why she's still quite a ways from being a strong takeover opportunity.
South Carolina 5: Every year, like clockwork, the Republicans make the same arguments about Democratic Rep. John Spratt. They'll beat him, they say, because they finally have found a challenger. And every election, Spratt wins rather handily.
There isn't any arguing with the Republicans' premise that the district should be theirs. Bill Clinton lost the district narrowly in both 1992 and 1996. The 5th District is rural agricultural, and basically conservative, and any Republican candidate is likely to be competitive in the district.
But Spratt has proven that he can win in good and bad Democratic years. In 1994, one of the worst Democratic years in recent memory, Spratt squeezed out a 52 percent reelection victory while other Democrats in the South saw their seats go Republican.
This year, the Republicans have pinned their hopes on York County Council Chairman Carl Gullick. Widely described as "popular" and "articulate," Gullick comes from Rock Hill, the largest population center in the district. He worked for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, in Washington after holding jobs with the North Carolina General Assembly and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. He has also worked for Celanese Corp. and American Thread.
But money remains an issue for the challenger. In January, he said that he would need $750,000 to $1 million to mount a realistic challenge to Spratt, and it isn't clear whether he'll raise that kind of money.
The National Republican Congressional Committee continues to hype the race and promise money for Gullick. But Spratt has been a GOP target so many times that it is hard to take the committee's promises too seriously, and this year, the NRCC doesn't have the financial resources to throw at longshot races, especially those involving an entrenched incumbent Democrat. That's why this race isn't up with the Republicans' better takeover opportunities, and it remains only a long, long shot.