Rare political sport: incumbent face-offs

Michigan picks Monday between incumbent Democrats Dingell, Rivers.

It's lunchtime at Elton, an assisted living facility for seniors, and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) is working the room. Walking from table to table, she shakes hands, smiles, and – over and over – recites her résumé.

"I've been in Congress for 20 years," she says, emphasizing that she chairs an influential Ways and Means subcommittee. "I'm a Republican – I run on a Republican ticket – but I work with the good people of both parties."

It's not that Ms. Johnson, a petite, grandmotherly type, is particularly prone to touting her own credentials. This year, the veteran congresswoman is in the unusual position of having to introduce herself to a whole new set of constituents – and persuade them she'd do a better job than their current representative.

Thanks to congressional redistricting, Johnson is one of a small group of members who have been handed the unwelcome task of having to run against a fellow incumbent – in her case, Rep. James Maloney (D), who has represented the blue-collar town of Waterbury since 1996. Because Connecticut is losing a House seat, Johnson's and Mr. Maloney's districts have essentially been combined, setting up one of the toughest electoral contests this fall.

With incumbents increasingly invulnerable, the number of competitive House races is shrinking. So, analysts say, member-versus-member matchups stand out as rare exceptions – and the hardest-fought. Both candidates come to the race with all the advantages of incumbency, and so they must work to distinguish themselves, both personally and politically. The stakes are enormous, with more incumbents automatically guaranteed to lose this year than in either of the past two elections. And given the Republicans' slim six-seat majority in the House, the outcome of these races could help determine control of Congress.

"You have two people going into a race who already have a certain amount of cachet – it doesn't start off with the lopsidedness that most races do," says Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "And most of them haven't had a close race in years."

The vast majority of incumbents never have to face off against another member. But every 10 years, the redrawing of congressional boundaries forces a small number into one of two types of matchups: inter-party, like the Johnson-Maloney race, or intraparty, where incumbents of the same party battle one another in a primary. Analysts say intraparty battles can be every bit as acrimonious as interparty ones, and they often expose deep philosophical rifts within a party.

One particularly fierce contest is taking place in Michigan, where primary voters todaywill choose between Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Lynn Rivers. The matchup has sharply split the party, because of generational and philosophical differences between the two candidates.

Mr. Dingell, the longest-serving House member, is emphasizing his seniority, while Rivers touts her stands on issues such as gun control and abortion as more aligned with the district. In a few weeks, Georgia voters will go to the polls to decide between GOP Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder, who are battling over who has the more conservative record. And intraparty matchups have already been decided in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania – a particularly bitter contest, where Rep. Frank Mascara accused fellow Democrat Rep. John Murtha of conspiring with state legislators to eliminate his seat.

That was one of those 'now it's personal' campaigns," says Ms. Walter.

Still, the inter-party feuds could be even more intense, particularly as the November elections draw near. Analysts say they often serve as kind of a referendum on the national parties, because incumbents are usually closely linked to their party organizations and leaders – and because they can draw direct comparisons of their voting records on specific bills.

A race closely watched by Washington pits Rep. Charles "Chip" Pickering Jr. (R) against Rep. Ronnie Shows (D). The battle in the Mississippi district where the beleaguered WorldCom is based could indicate whether the corporate reform issue will hurt Republicans this fall.

Incumbents from opposite parties are also squaring off in Illinois and Pennsylvania. But it's the Johnson-Maloney race that most intrigues many, because the two lawmakers present very different personalities and approaches, and neither has a clear advantage in the new district.

"For both of us, it's the same – in one half of the district, we're the incumbent, and in the other half, we're the challenger," says Maloney, a beefy man with a silver mustache. "In a sense, it's like running two different campaigns."

Many of the election's national themes are playing out in the race. The candidates are focusing intently on issues affecting seniors. Johnson touts her efforts on the health subcommittee to create a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. And at a recent town-hall meeting in Cheshire, Maloney spent an hour criticizing President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security, and the return to deficits under the Bush administration.

Johnson's seniority in the House may be a compelling factor for many voters. "I personally am not enthralled with long-term congresspeople, but the fact is, they need seniority to have clout," says Theodore Martland, a Johnson supporter in Waterbury.

One woman says she's worried about the future of Social Security. President Bush's tax cut "shows where his loyalties lie," she says. "I want to elect the party that's going to straighten out these difficulties, and keep our economy strong."

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