BURKE, VA.—Keith Fimian finds a lot more to smile about in his second run for Congress than he did in his first. Spotting a batch of eligible voters—adults in line to get into a high school football game one recent Friday night—Fimian lunges toward them, right hand outstretched, with a campaign flier ready in his left. "Hi, I'm Keith Fimian. I'm running for the U.S. Congress," he says. "I'd appreciate your vote on November 2nd." Returning the handshake, a voter smiles with recognition. "You've already got my vote," he says. "You better beat this guy. I don't like his mustache."
Fimian, the GOP House nominee in Virginia's 11th Congressional District, which stretches west from inside the Washington beltway, chuckles and moves to the next person in line. But he wasn't laughing two years ago when he lost to Democrat Gerry Connolly. George W. Bush's toxic poll numbers, a faltering economy, and an unpopular war were dragging down Republicans across the country. Now, Fimian says, "it's more fun. The feedback is better." Voters "want to hear what you have to say."
The Connolly-Fimian rematch is one of 10 such races for competitive House seats, all held by Democrats. Though the candidates are the same, the strategy in many races has flipped. Democrats nationalized the race last time, and the GOP is doing the same now, tying their opponents to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama. The outcome of these races could decide who controls the House next year.
Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping that some of the partisan arguments that won previously still have traction with voters. "Washington Republicans plan to take us back to the same failed Bush policies that drove our economy into a ditch, evidenced by the fact they are trying to run so many retreads and reruns," says Ryan Rudominer, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
With Obama having won in most of these districts, the extent to which the Democrats can prevail again will be a measure of just how much American politics has shifted in recent years.
Listed below are the House's 10 competitive grudge-match races, along with the results of the last time the candidates squared off.
Arizona Fifth District
Rep. Harry Mitchell (D) vs. David Schweikert (R)
Mitchell won in 2008, 53-44
The 2008 presidential vote went to Arizona favorite son and Republican nominee John McCain, 52 percent to 47 percent, in this district which sits just outside Phoenix and includes Scottsdale. Nevertheless, Democrat Mitchell outspent his opponent and took the House seat. This year, polls show the GOP nominee and former Maricopa County Treasurer Schweikert neck-and-neck with incumbent Mitchell.
A schoolteacher turned mayor and eventually state senator, Mitchell has run on his personal relationships with district voters and on his independence during his two terms on Capitol Hill. Schweikert, who has been endorsed by national conservative organizations like FreedomWorks and Arizona Tea Party groups, has attacked Mitchell for his votes in favor of controversial legislation such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP; the economic stimulus; and healthcare reform. Schweikert also has attacked Mitchell on the economy, a particularly pressing issue in a state where the jobless rate has reached 10 percent. A poll conducted in August by a Republican firm gave Schweikert a 6-point lead, while Democratic polls subsequently released have put Mitchell anywhere from 1 to 7 points ahead.
Florida 22nd District
Rep. Ron Klein (D) vs. Allen West (R)
Klein won in 2008, 55-45
In a district that has a large Jewish population and includes the city of Boca Raton, two-term Democratic incumbent Klein is yet again defending his seat against West, an African-American GOPer who is favored by the Tea Party. In 2008, Obama beat McCain by 4 points in the district, as Klein took an even larger margin over West.
Sarah Palin's endorsement has helped drive West's fundraising. West also has been outspoken on traditional social values while adopting the Tea Party's free-market economic stance. Klein's campaign has painted West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, as an out-of-touch extremist. Both campaigns have released polls showing that their candidate leads the race.
Maryland First District
Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) vs. Andy Harris (R)
Kratovil won in 2008, 49-48
McCain took 58 percent of the 2008 presidential vote in this enclave on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It had been represented by a Republican for 18 years before Democrat Kratovil beat Republican state Senator Harris by less than 1 percentage point. A poll released in early October by The Hill/ANGA has the race in a statistical dead heat, with 15 percent of voters undecided.
Campaigning recently in the small town of Hurlock, Harris echoed the Republicans' national campaign theme. He gave out "Fire Pelosi" buttons, and played up his patriotism, leading military trucks adorned with American flags down Main Street. He has criticized Kratovil's voting record, particularly the congressman's stance on cap-and-trade legislation, which Harris argues will seriously handicap the poultry business, an economic mainstay of the district. "The people I talk to are just more scared" than two years ago, Harris says. "They're worried about their jobs. And supporting cap-and-trade will kill the private sector jobs here."
Michigan Seventh District
Rep. Mark Schauer (D) vs. Tim Walberg (R)
Schauer won in 2008, 49-46
Democrat Schauer unseated Walberg, a one-term House member in this district on Michigan's southern border, where Obama beat McCain by 6 points. Seeing an opportunity to target a freshman, the National Republican Congressional Committee has devoted roughly $1 million in independent expenditures to the race. Outside groups, like the American Future Fund, have also made big, mostly negative, ad buys against Schauer. National Democratic groups have countered with their own attack ads. Though the race remains a tossup, Walberg held a small lead in recent polls.
New York 24th District
Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) vs. Richard Hanna (R)
Arcuri won in 2008, 52-48
Incumbent Democrat Arcuri beat out contractor Hanna in this upstate New York district, which includes Utica and a large swath of the state west of Albany, outperforming Obama's slim margin over McCain. While most experts say this year's rematch is close, a recent Hill/Penn Schoen & Berland Democratic poll put Arcuri ahead of Hanna by 10 points. Nevertheless, Hanna is counting on his status as an outsider and businessman to pull him through. Hanna is also criticizing Arcuri on his voting for TARP.
Ohio First District
Rep. Steve Driehaus (D) vs. Steve Chabot (R)
Driehaus won in 2008, 52-47
Chabot represented Ohio's southeastern district for 14 years before he lost in 2008 to Driehaus. Representing a heavily Catholic area that includes Cincinnati, Driehaus was one of a small group of antiabortion Democrats who demanded stricter provisions in the healthcare reform law. But because the bill didn't have the restrictive language on abortion that activist groups wanted, his vote is costing him significant support. Chabot has since led in the public polls, with the most recent SurveyUSA poll giving him a 12-point advantage. The House Democrats' campaign committee had committed funds to the race, but with Chabot polling ahead, the party group canceled planned campaign ads last week in order to put money into other, tighter, matches.
Ohio 15th District
Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D) vs. Steve Stivers (R)
Kilroy won in 2008, 46-45
Only three-quarters of a percentage point stood between Kilroy and her GOP opponent, former Ohio state Senator Stivers, when she won the district's open House race two years ago. Benefiting from Obama's 9-point margin over McCain in the district, Kilroy became the first Democrat to hold the seat since the 1960s. The historically red 15th District includes most of Columbus, its suburbs, and Ohio State University.
Kilroy has charged that Stivers is a flip-flopper on issues like cap-and-trade and has blasted him for his experience as a "bank lobbyist." Stivers's campaign is tapping voter anger toward the national Democratic establishment. In his advertising and debates, he has charged that Kilroy voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 98.4 percent of the time. The most recent Hill/ANGA poll from September put Stivers ahead by 9 points, and political analysts have the race leaning in his direction.
Pennsylvania 8th District
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) vs. Mike Fitzpatrick (R)
Murphy won in 2006, 50-50
Fitzpatrick appears poised to take back the seat he lost in 2006 to Murphy, representing Pennsylvania's most affluent congressional district, situated outside of Philadelphia. Fitzpatrick sat out the 2008 race because of colon cancer, leaving an easy win for Murphy. Now Fitzpatrick has made a full recovery, and his campaign says the political atmosphere has taken a 180-degree turn since he last ran.
In 2006, Murphy successfully tied Fitzpatrick to the Iraq war. This time, however, the Republican has the upper hand on economic issues, which according to a September Franklin & Marshall College poll are the top concern for district voters. Among likely voters in the same poll, Fitzpatrick had a large advantage over Murphy, 49 percent to 35 percent, and most political experts see the race going in Fitzpatrick's favor. However, a Hill poll from earlier this month has the candidates statistically even.
Pennsylvania 11th District.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) vs. Lou Barletta (R)
Kanjorski won in 2008, 52-48
This will be the third race between Kanjorski and Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton. Barletta lost to Kanjorski in 2002 and again in 2008, when Obama had a 15-point win over McCain in the district. Kanjorski, who since 1985 has represented the 11th District, which includes Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, is known as a moderate Democrat. He opposes gun control, for example, which has earned him the backing of the National Rifle Association. Since his bid in 2002, Barletta gained popularity for his hard stand against illegal immigration. This year, however, he has kept his campaign message focused on his economic achievements as mayor for the last 10 years. The race remains a tossup.
Virginia 11th District
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) vs. Keith Fimian (R)
Connolly won in 2008, 55-43
Incumbent Connolly beat Republican Fimian by a large margin in 2008, as Obama took the district with 57 percent of the vote. This time around, most experts favor the incumbent, but the race is still competitive.
In this suburb of the nation's capital, many voters work for or with the federal government, so the district is less economically distressed than in other parts of the nation. The unemployment rate, for example, hovers between 5 and 6 percent, much lower than the national average of 9.6 percent. But the district's proximity to Washington means that television advertising is expensive, so this rematch will be won or lost on the ground. "The energy is tremendous this year. We have five times the number of volunteers involved [as] we did two years ago," Fimian says. "People are concerned about the direction of the country, and they want to help change it."