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 TIME on politics TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics - Analysis - Stuart Rothenberg

Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Spotlight on key races in 2000

By Stuart Rothenberg

October 14, 1999
Web posted at: 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT)

Following is a look at a pair of key races in 2000, as well as a "Top 10" of vulnerable House incumbents:

Kentucky 6: Scotty Baesler versus Ernie Fletcher. Sound familiar? It should. Democrat Baesler defeated Republican challenger Fletcher in the 1996 House race in Kentucky's 6th District.

But this time the tables are turned, with Fletcher the incumbent congressman and Baesler trying to take away the seat.

Make no mistake about it, Baesler has a chance to win back his old seat. Democratic political insiders have been citing Baesler for months as one of their top recruits for 2000, and they note that his popularity in the district makes this a top takeover target.

But Fletcher is a proven vote-getter, and he has used his advantages of incumbency to build a defensive wall that Baesler will have a hard time climbing.

Baesler, a tobacco farmer and a former mayor of Lexington, held this seat for three terms before giving it up to run for the Senate in 1998. His winning margin dropped in each of his two reelection races, but there is little doubt that he was well-liked in this swing district.

Baesler, one of the leaders of the moderate Blue Dog faction of the House of Representatives, narrowly lost to Republican Jim Bunning in the 1998 Senate race, but rather than fade into the woodwork, he has decided to try to regain his old House seat.

Fletcher, a physician who served one term in the Kentucky House, drew 45% against Baesler in 1996, not the best of years for a Republican candidate. He won a tough open seat contest for Congress in 1998, winning 17 of the district's 19 counties to defeat state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone (D).

Fletcher, who serves on the Agriculture, Budget, and Education and Workforce committees, has had a bit of a testy relationship with the American Medical Association because, unlike a number of other doctors, he didn't rally behind the Norwood-Dingall HMO reform bill. In the final vote, Fletcher opposed the bill.

While Democrats like to focus on Baesler's past successes in the 6th Congressional District, Fletcher has already taken a big step to guaranteeing that he'll be in a strong position to defend the seat. As of June 30th, the doctor had raised about $550,000 for his reelection, and he had over $533,000 in the bank. His cash-on-hand now exceeds $ 600,000.

Democrats hope to use national issues like health care, education, Social Security and the GOP tax cut against Fletcher, but the Republican has a huge advantage this time that he didn't in his last race against Baesler: incumbency. So unlike 1996, it will be up to the Democrats to tell voters why they need to fire the incumbent and replace him with a Democrat.

Nevada Senate: Last year, Democrat Harry Reid (D) squeezed by challenger John Ensign (D) by just 428 votes. But the retirement of Sen. Dick Bryan (D) is giving Ensign a second chance -- and the Republicans an excellent opportunity to pick up a much-needed Senate seat.

With twice as many GOP Senate seats and Democratic seats at risk in 2000, the Republicans must have a win in Nevada to cushion their margin and solidify their control of the Senate in next year's elections.

Ensign, a veterinarian, served two terms in the House of Representatives before taking on Reid. An unapologetic conservative, he has close ties to the Las Vegas gambling community, which is a key reason why he won the House seat in 1994 and 1996. His district, the state's 1st C.D. , includes Democratic Las Vegas and is generally regarded as the much more Democratic and liberal of the state's two congressional districts.

Reid spent just under $5 million on his reelection, while Ensign spent just under $3.5 million on his challenge. But the Republican blames his lack of a strong grass roots organization on his 1998 defeat, not a lack of funds.

Bryan was expected to cruise to his reelection, but the open seat immediately looked like a problem for the Democrats. When former governor Bob Miller decided against the race, Democrats turned to Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, a proven vote-getter. But her poor relations with organized labor and doubts about her fund raising ability caused Reid to continue his search for a strong candidate against Ensign.

Del Papa ultimately withdrew from the Senate contest, leaving the Democrats with few choices other than attorney Ed Bernstein. A personal injury lawyer who advertises on television, Bernstein has a terrible public image according to state polling. He still hasn't announced a final decision about the Senate race, but the Democrats appear to have few choices.

Ensign, meanwhile, looks stronger and stronger. Always charismatic, he sounds more mature and thoughtful than in the past, and that should make him even more formidable a contender. Democrats are sure to attack the Republican's conservative record - his pro-life views weren't an issue in the 1998 Senate contest because Reid was also pro-life - but it's hard to see Bernstein or any other likely Democratic candidate getting much traction against the former congressman.

This race is Ensign's to lose, and it is hard to imagine him doing so.

10 Most Vulnerable House incumbents seeking reelection in 2000 (listed alphabetically):


Cook, Utah 2
Dickey, Arkansas 4
Fletcher, Kentucky 6
Hostettler, Indiana 8
Rogan, California 27
Sherwood, Pennsylvania 10


Forbes, New York 1
Hoeffel, Pennsylvania 13
Holt, New Jersey 12
Maloney, Connecticut 5


Analysis: Lessons from Election 1999 (11-8-99)

The CNN/WMUR Town Hall Meetings at Dartmouth (10-29-99)

Spotlight on key races in 2000 (10-14-99)

The races for governor in 1999 (10-6-99)

The GOP presidential race after Ames (8-17-99)

Death of a congressman gives GOP chance to pick up House seat in California (8-6-99)

Democrats eye GOP House seats in North Carolina, Washington (7-21-99)

Best chance of unseating Democratic House incumbent may be in Connecticut (7-8-99)

Fierce Democratic Senate primaries expected in New Jersey and Rhode Island (6-22-99)

GOP has a chance to pick up Democratic Pennsylvania House seat (6-9-99)

Rep. Capps will have to fight for evenly split district (5-24-99)

Rep. Rogan undecided on re-electon bid, but GOP seat at risk either way (5-12-99)

Democrats look for candidate to beat Sen. Grams (4-29-99)

Hot race for Livingston's Louisiana House seat (4-13-99)

DeWine's re-election chances stronger with no declared Democratic challenger (3-29-99)

Mack's retirement means competitive race for Senate in Florida (3-16-99)

Mississippi's gov. race may determine bragging rights for Election '99 (2-25-99)

Impeachment votes could be a factor in some Senate races next year (2-12-99)

Open or closed? The politics of the final debate (2-8-99)

Challengers look to Chenoweth to honor term-limit pledge (1-26-99)

The state of Bill Clinton's State of the Union (1-20-99)

N.Y. Senate race could be a wild one (1-13-99)

More Rothenberg reports


Congressional races


Thursday, October 14, 1999

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