Which Democratic pickups will shock us the most?

I wrote this piece primarily for readers outside Iowa, but since Bleeding Heartland has some of those too, I’m posting it here as well as at several national blogs.

Growing up liberal during the Reagan years taught me to go into elections expecting to be disappointed. Watching high-ranking Democrats in Congress fail to challenge the premise behind the dreadful and unnecessary proposed bailout of Wall Street, I share thereisnospoon’s concern that Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet again.

But looking at the polling trends in the presidential race and in key Senate races, even a pessimist like me has to admit that a big Democratic wave seems quite possible.

Currently Democrats seem poised to pick up 12 to 18 seats in the House and five to six Senate seats. If we are on the verge of a wave, Democrats could win more than that, including a few districts where the Republican incumbent never saw it coming.

Waves can drag down well-funded incumbents with tremendous clout. Democratic losers in 1994 included House Speaker Tom Foley and my own 18-term Congressman Neal Smith.

This is a thread for discussing House districts and Senate seats that may seem likely Republican holds today, but which could shock us on November 4.

I’ll get the ball rolling by telling you about Iowa’s two House districts currently held by Republicans.

In the fourth district (D+0), Becky Greenwald faces Tom Latham, who has remarkably little to show for his seven terms in Congress. I went over many reasons I think Greenwald can win this race here.

Latham understands that it will be a big Democratic year in Iowa, judging from his first television commercial (which glosses over his lockstep Republican voting record). David Kowalski noticed that Latham’s campaign website avoids mentioning that he is a Republican (see, for instance, this bio page). Aside from the odd newspaper clipping on his site that refers to him as R-Iowa, you would never be able to tell which party he belongs to.

IA-04 shows up as “likely Republican” on House rankings, in part because Latham sits on the House Appropriations Committee and in part because he has been re-elected by double-digit margins in the past. However, 2002 was the only time Latham faced a well-funded challenger, and that was a bad year to be a Democrat running for Congress. Greenwald had raised more by June 30 than our 2006 candidate against Latham raised during his whole campaign, and she’s fundraised aggressively since then. She is already up on television and recently got the endorsement of EMILY’s list.

Whatever pork Latham has brought back to his district is nothing compared to what Neal Smith brought to central Iowa during his 36 years in Congress, and that didn’t stop voters from giving Smith the boot in 1994.

Now let’s look at Iowa’s fifth district (R+8), where Rob Hubler is running against one of the most atrocious House Republicans, Steve King. I laid out my case for why Hubler can win this race at Bleeding Heartland, but here are the highlights.

Hubler is the first Democrat to run a real campaign against King, who does not have a big war chest and has not been campaigning actively. Although Republicans maintain a voter registration edge in IA-05, Democrats have made big gains since 2006, putting Hubler in position for an upset if he wins independents by a significant margin. King’s extreme views and tendency to make bigoted, embarrassing statements are a turn-off to moderates.

Also, an internal poll of the district for Hubler’s campaign showed the generic ballot for Congress virtually tied at 36 percent for the Democrat and 38 percent for the Republican.

Nearly three months ago, the editor of the Storm Lake Times newspaper wrote:

Republican despondence also may be a threat to incumbent Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron. Scoff if you will, but again recall that Harkin defeated incumbent Bill Scherle and Bedell knocked off incumbent Wiley Mayne in the post-Watergate landslide. The atmospherics may be similar this year.

Like I said at the top, upsets happen in wave elections. After winning in 1974, Tom Harkin represented most of the southwest Iowa counties now in IA-05 for five terms, until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1984. Berkley Bedell represented most of the northwest Iowa counties now in IA-05 for six terms, until he retired because of health problems caused by Lyme’s disease.

Despite Sarah Palin’s presence on the ballot, I do not believe Republicans in western Iowa are going to be fired up to turn out this November. During the past month five separate polls have shown Barack Obama above 50 percent in Iowa and leading John McCain by double digits. McCain has never campaigned much in Iowa, skipping the caucuses in 2000 as well as 2008. He’s against ethanol subsidies, which causes him to underperform in rural Iowa. Certainly McCain lacks the appeal George Bush had to conservatives here in the last two elections.

Harkin is cruising against a little-known Republican challenger for the U.S. Senate, and King is not giving his supporters any reason to believe he’s concerned about Hubler. Why should the western Iowa wingnuts put a lot of effort into getting their voters out?

Meanwhile, Obama’s campaign has at least half a dozen field offices in both IA-04 and IA-05 to drive up turnout among Democrats and other Democratic-leaning voters.

Clearly, Greenwald and Hubler go into the home stretch as underdogs. But who thought Dave Loebsack was going to beat Iowa Congressman Jim Leach two years ago? Democrats put tons of money and effort behind a strong challenger to Leach in 2002 and came up short. As a result, Loebsack got no help from the DCCC or outside interest groups in 2006, and just about everyone viewed IA-02 as “likely Republican.”

Carol Shea-Porter’s amazing victory in New Hampshire’s first district seemed just as improbable two years ago. She was massively outspent by the Republican incumbent and got no help from the DCCC. By the way, NH-01 is D+0 and mostly white, as is IA-04.

The partisan lean and demographic profile of IA-05 (mostly white and largely rural) is similar to KS-02 (R+7), where Nancy Boyda came from behind to beat a Republican incumbent in 2006. The DCCC did get involved in that race, but it didn’t appear to be a very likely pickup before the election.

Two weeks ago Stuart Rothenberg mocked the DCCC for putting “absurd races” (including the Hubler-King matchup) on its list of “Races to Watch” and putting long shots on the “Red to Blue” and “Emerging Races” list. James L. already took down Rothenberg in this great post for Swing State Project, so I won’t pile on.

I will say, however, that I have put my money where my mouth is by giving as much as I can afford to Hubler and Greenwald.

Somewhere, somehow, some unheralded challengers will give House or Senate Republicans the surprise of their lives on November 4. So, Bleeding Heartland readers, who’s it gonna be?

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