House Republicans Face Challenge of Defending Open Seats

Republican strategists in the U.S. House of Representatives are now in the process of coming face to face with the dreaded “o” word. Actually, it two words-- open seats.

Nothing is tougher on the minority party trying to climb back in the majority than having a number of its own members retire, thus creating open seats that it must defend. When you start 15 seats down, you must either defeat 15 members of the other party or capture the opposition’s open seats or a combination of the two to get back in the majority.

When you have your own members retire from swing districts, the hill you must climb to get back in the majority gets even steeper.

I should know. I was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 1996 and 1998 when Democrats were in the minority. We picked up seats in both elections by defeating incumbent Republicans but we had a difficult time holding our own open seats. In fact, had Democrats held all our open seats in 1996 and 1998, we would have recaptured a majority in 1998. The DCCC continued to have a tough time holding open seats in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

Now the Republicans are facing a number of open seats going into the 2008 elections. High profile moderate Republicans like Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Jim Ramstad of Minnesota have already said they will not run again. It’s certainly possible that another moderate Republican Tom Davis of Virginia will leave the House to run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Virginia. And there will be more.

Why are open seats so hard to hold?

In some cases, a long-time incumbent has been able to win re-election in a tough district by virtue of name identification and good casework (a reputation for helping senior citizens work their way through the Social Security, Medicare and VA bureaucracies). Also, long-time incumbents often enjoy a substantial fundraising advantage over challengers, particularly if the incumbent is on a key committee.

Additionally, open seats often attract quality challengers from the opposite party -- people who were reluctant to run against a popular incumbent.

Open seats can occur for a variety of reasons. In some instances, incumbents suddenly thrust into the minority because of a watershed election (like 1994 or 2006), hate minority status after having served in the majority for a number of years and decide this is a good time to quit. In other cases, incumbents have won a series of close races and decide they would like to leave office on their own terms, rather than as an election loser.

In some cases, incumbents quit Congress because of a combination of age and a desire to go out into the private market and earn some real money before they retire for good.

And then there are some incumbents who leave the House in order to seek other office, usually a U.S. Senate seat or the job of governor back in their home state.

Sometimes retirements have a snowball effect. If a number of Republicans continue to announce they are quitting (even ones in relatively safe Republican districts), retirement can become contagious and a number of other members who were on the fence about whether or not to run again, may decide this is the year to leave. To date, eight Republicans (including former Speaker Dennis Hastert and the widely respected Ray LaHood of Illinois) have announced they will not run again.

When the national mood is running against one party (as it appears to be doing against the Republicans for 2008), open seats are nothing but trouble.

Respond to the Writer

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.