WASHINGTON -- Less than two years ago, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., squeaked into office by 111 votes, having had to wait weeks to confirm his election. Despite his razor-thin victory, Rogers is a prohibitive favorite for re-election, with a local union's endorsement and a safer district because the state's redistricting process added thousands of Republican voters from a neighboring area.
Even Rogers said he is "a little bit surprised" that no prominent Democrat has come forward to challenge him in November.
Rogers is not alone. Nearly half-a-dozen freshman Republican lawmakers, who might have expected vigorous Democratic challengers, appear poised to cruise to re-election now that redistricting is nearly complete following the 2000 Census.
The lack of strong challengers in these races highlights one of the main obstacles for Democrats as they try to pick up the six seats they need to take control of the House this fall: Incumbents are stronger almost everywhere, and as a result, a surprisingly small number of the 435 House contests are truly competitive.
A decade ago, there were roughly 100 competitive races following redistricting; this year there will be 30 to 40, perhaps even fewer, which means Democrats would have to win a dauntingly high percentage to achieve their goal.
"It's like a Mount Everest for the Democrats," said Amy Walter, who monitors congressional races for the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "The arithmetic suggests there are just not enough seats out there" for Democrats.
At the moment House Republicans have the narrowest majority since 1953.
Mid-term elections traditionally benefit the party shut out of the White House, as voters tend to blame the president's party for the chief executive's mistakes. And a slew of GOP incumbents are facing their toughest race in years, including Henry Bonilla (Texas) and Connie Morella (Md.).
Yet while it is certainly possible that Democrats will regain control of the House in November, many close observers of congressional politics consider it a long shot.
A main reason is that redistricting did not significantly alter the political landscape to Democrats' benefit. It could have been much worse for the Democrats; court decisions in Texas and other states blocked Republican redistricting plans that would have injured Democrats.
But Democrats also passed up opportunities. In California, for instance, Democratic state legislators chose to protect all but one GOP incumbent and created just one new Democratic seat rather than push for bold gains and risk a legal fight. In West Virginia, the two Democratic House incumbents' unwillingness to shed loyal voters actually improved the re-election chances of freshman GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
Reapportionment has thrown a few pairs of incumbents -- one Republican and one Democrat -- into the same district in Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi and elsewhere. Neither party has a clear advantage in these races.
Another problem for the Democrats, analysts say, is the lack of a compelling national issue to galvanize voters. With high percentages of the public and the Congress supporting President Bush's anti-terrorism efforts, Democrats have struggled to find some issue that cuts their way.
They have attacked the GOP on aviation security, the Enron collapse and Bush's tax cut plan, among other things. But polls show Republicans running ahead or even with the Democrats on key issues including the economy, education and terrorism.
Recently, House Democrats have hammered at Republican plans to dip into Social Security reserves, an issue they say resonates strongly with voters. Republicans counter that the combination of a war and recession gives them little choice but to return to deficit spending temporarily.
The economic recession is proving to be shorter and shallower than many expected, giving Democrats little opportunity to exploit it politically against Republican.
"While there are good issues out there, there doesn't seem to be a central rallying cry for Democrats yet," said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest.
Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to the Republican National Committee, says Democrats will need such a cause if they are to reclaim the House majority. "Can they do it?" he said. "Of course they can do it. They would have to have a wave behind them, and right now there's no wave."
Without a galvanizing issue, Democratic activists say, it is all the more important that they field top-drawer candidates in competitive districts. They can point to several prize recruits, such as pediatrician Julie Thomas, who is challenging 26-year veteran Jim Leach, R-Iowa.
Still, several potentially vulnerable Republicans may escape without a fight. Democrats failed to entice two promising candidates to run against Indiana Republican John Hostettler, leaving one viable opponent, with less than $16,000 cash on hand at the end of last year.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.