Cover Story

House hunting

Democrats want to bag just six seats this November, giving them control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994. In a year with few truly competitive races, both parties are targeting just a handful of districts. Here's what they have in their sights

Issue: "House hunting," May 11, 2002

At first glance, the numbers don't look good. First-term presidents almost always lose allies in Congress during mid-term elections-and President Bush has no margin for error. If Democrats pick up six seats on Election Day-just 1.5 percent of the 435 races-they'll take over the legislative machinery of the House and deal a serious blow to the president's agenda.

But as is so often the case with statistics, those numbers can be deceiving. Strategists in both parties concede that only two dozen or so races are truly competitive, and those are more or less evenly divided between the parties. Thus, if Republicans have 12 risky seats, Democrats have to win fully 50 percent of them while holding onto every one of their own marginal districts.

Given such a small playing field, the parties won't have to spread their resources-or their attacks-to thin. Look for record spending in many of the contested districts and negative ads that start earlier than ever. Nobody ever said democracy was cheap.

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While many pundits are prognosticating from inside the Beltway, WORLD has spent much of the spring out in the field, talking to candidates, campaign managers, and local experts. Here's our early overview of the closest races. In coming months we'll update these contests, telling you who's up, who's down, and who's mounting an unexpected challenge.

Southeast

Georgia 3rd district

Democrats in Atlanta have always regarded Saxby Chambliss as something of a fluke. After all, he was a GOP congressman from central Georgia, where Democratic loyalties go back generations. Following the 2000 census, those state lawmakers chopped up and reassembled his district into an unrecognizable hodgepodge of 31 counties, and Mr. Chambliss announced he would leave the House to run for the Senate.

Three Democrats jumped into the race, certain that the newly drawn 3rd District would revert to its pre-Chambliss voting patterns and send a Democrat to Congress. But Calder Clay, a commissioner in the district's most populous county, disagrees. The lone Republican in the race has already raised more money than any of the Democrats, and a recent poll shows him in a dead heat with his main rivals.

"While people around here might associate with the Democratic Party at local levels, they will split their ticket and vote for a good conservative Republican at the national level," Mr. Clay insists, and the numbers seem to back him up. President Bush won here with 52 percent of the vote in 2000, and GOP congressional candidates fared even better that year, at 58 percent.

With no primary opposition, Mr. Clay can keep putting money in the bank while the three Democrats spend theirs on a race that could turn nasty-and will certainly tilt far to the left. After the Aug. 20 primary, the winner will have only a few weeks to unify his party, raise new cash, and run back toward the center. Still, Democrats drew the lines here to give themselves what they consider a safe district, so Mr. Clay faces an uphill fight. (Leans Democrat)

Maryland 8th district

If the House of Representatives were ever evenly split, Connie Morella is the Republican mostly likely to pull a Jeffords and switch parties. The liberal Republican has represented the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C., for 16 years, voting with the Democrats as often as not.

Still, national Republicans will spend millions to reelect her this year, if only to keep the Speaker's gavel away from Dick Gephardt. Although Democrats face a four-way primary, the likely nominee is state Del. Mark Shriver, a member of the extended Kennedy clan. He's already banked $1.3 million, far outdistancing Ms. Morella.

Besides money, demographics are a concern here. By extending the district into majority-black Prince George's County, state lawmakers boosted the combined minority vote from 35 to 44 percent. That's sure to spell trouble for Ms. Morella, who depends on affluent white voters to keep her in office. (Leans Democrat)

Alabama 3rd district

Thanks to redistricting, this eastern Alabama district that used to lean Republican is now considered a tossup. In so-called generic ballot polls, 39 percent of voters call themselves Republicans; 38 percent identify as Democrats.

GOP incumbent Bob Riley is bowing out to run for governor, and he has endorsed state Rep. Mike Rogers to replace him. Mr. Rogers faces only token opposition in his primary, but Democrats are braced for a tough race between a well-known state representative and the former chairman of the state party.

With an easy primary and an attractive, conservative candidate, Republicans are well-positioned to hold this seat. Plus, Bob Riley's name at the top of the ticket will help turn out conservative voters from his old congressional district, adding another point or two to Mr. Rogers's total. (Leans GOP)

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