||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Best chance of unseating Democratic House incumbent may be in Connecticut
Montana's at-large House seat already heating up
By Stuart Rothenberg
July 8, 1999
Web posted at: 11:29 a.m. EDT (1529 GMT)
WASHINGTON (July 8) -- Last year, Republican congressional challenger Mark Nielsen had an uphill climb against Democratic incumbent Jim Maloney in Connecticut's 5th congressional district. But after coming within 2,500 votes of knocking off Maloney, Nielsen has decided to try again, and he gives the GOP one of its best chances of defeating an incumbent Democratic House member next year.
The congressional district is extremely competitive and includes three cities: Danbury, Waterbury and Meriden. Republican candidates usually pile up votes in the district's smaller towns, particularly in upscale Fairfield County. Democrats do especially well in Meriden.
First elected to Congress in 1996 (after a failed bid two years earlier), Maloney served in the Connecticut state Senate before coming to Washington. He won his congressional seat by defeating incumbent Republican Gary Franks.
Unlike Franks, who hailed from the Waterbury part of the district, Maloney came from Danbury. Franks never solidified his seat and was widely regarded as a weak incumbent.
In 1998, Maloney faced Nielsen, a GOP state senator who took over Maloney's Danbury state Senate district when the Democrat moved up to Congress.
A pro-choice Republican who voted in the Legislature for gun control, Nielsen started far back in the general election. With Maloney cultivating an image as an independent Democrat -- he was one of a handful of Democrats who voted for a full-blown inquiry of President Clinton's behavior (with Monica Lewinsky), and he voted to ban partial birth abortions and for a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote in Congress to raise taxes -- Nielsen was on the defensive because of the perceived "extremism" of the GOP House majority. But Nielsen raised over $900,000 and closed with a rush, and he gave Maloney a scare.
Nielsen was dogged by a potential primary in 1998, but he appears to have a clean shot at Maloney this time. The Republican also hopes that next year's presidential election will bring out more voters, particularly in Fairfield County, where turnout was down disproportionately last time.
But Nielsen's greatest asset in a second race may well be his ability to get his name known district-wide. Maloney argued two years ago that he lost his own first bid for Congress because district voters are hard to reach, and he dismissed Nielsen's chances in 1998 by telling people that you needed to run at least twice in the 5th C.D. in order to win. Maloney probably won't use that argument again.
Maloney's greatest assets in the campaign may well be the GOP's poor image nationally, and his apparent vulnerability should make it easy for him to raise a huge campaign war chest that he can use to ward off Nielsen.
But no matter who ultimately wins this contest, it's clear that in an election cycle when there are relatively few top tier challenges to incumbent congressman, there will be a real battle in Connecticut 5.
Montana's at-large seat already hot
Montana is a huge state with only one congressional district, but there has already been enough excitement in next year's House race for at least a half dozen contests.
While candidates in most House races are busy raising money, touching bases with local insiders and mapping out their campaigns, Republican incumbent Rick Hill and Democratic challenger Nancy Keenan have already exchanged shots. And many in Washington and in Montana believe that Keenan won the first skirmish.
Keenan, 47, is the state superintendent of schools. She was elected twice to that post, and term limits prevent her from making a third race.
A former state legislator, Keenan has been mentioned for years in connection with other races, but she brushed aside requests to run for Congress. Now that she has entered the race against Hill, other potential Democratic candidates have melted away, giving her a clear shot at the two-term Republican incumbent.
Hill, a businessman who served as chairman of the Montana GOP, narrowly won a Democratic open seat in 1996 against an opponent with a checkered background. Two years later, he was reelected with 52 percent of the vote after being an early target of AFL-CIO TV attacks.
Although the congressman was rumored to be interested in next year's race for governor, he has announced that he won't seek that office. Insiders assume he is running for re-election, but the congressman insists that he has not made a final decision, and there is some speculation that he might simply step down.
Hill has already made an issue of the fact that Keenan isn't married and doesn't have children when he suggested that that makes it difficult for her to know "what it's like to raise kids." Keenan answered Hill's comments by pointing to her overall background, and a number of state newspapers strongly criticized the congressman for the nature of his comments.
Montana Republicans clearly intend to paint Keenan as a liberal who is out of step with the state, and that could indeed be a problem for the challenger. Moreover, Democrats need to do something different than they did in 1998, when they unsuccessfully used their traditional issues to try to defeat Hill.
This is almost certainly going to be one of the nastiest House races in the country. The candidates don't appear to like each other, and each has plenty of ammo to use against the other. However, both candidates need to avoid creating a backlash that benefits his or her opponent.