In every wave year, the winning party ends up grabbing seats that just a short time before the election were on no one's radar screen. The most recent example is from 2006, when moderate long-term Republican Jim Leach lost to his Democratic challenger. Since everyone knows this will be a wave year for the GOP, such a situation is likely to happen again.
By definition, sleeper races are unpredictable, but incumbents who lose in these circumstances tend to have similar characteristics. First, they tend to have served a long time and not have had competitive races for years. Incumbents who are used to the perks of D.C. and unused to campaigning have a hard time adjusting to the rigorous pace of a real race. They are also often out of touch with the latest campaign techniques, stuck in their old ways, and resistant to suggestions that they are in trouble or might need to change their approach. This leaves them vulnerable to aggressive, savvy challengers.
Second, they represent districts that are filled with the sort of person who is angriest and likeliest to vote for a challenger from the wave party without knowing anything about that person. In 2006 and 2008, these tended to be suburban voters who had voted for both Kerry and the local GOP rep in 2004; this year, these voters will be Republicans and white-working-class voters who are furious (for somewhat different reasons) at the direction in which the Democrats have taken the country.
This year, there are already so many Democratic incumbents on target lists that it seems futile to search for the sleepers. Nevertheless, here are five incumbents to look out for on Election Night.
Gene Taylor (Mississippi's 4th). Taylor is a conservative Democrat who represents the Mississippi Gulf Coast; Trent Lott held the seat before running successfully for the Senate. Taylor has been in Congress since a 1989 special election and has rarely been challenged despite the fact that this is one of the most Republican districts in the nation (Bush and McCain received above 65 percent in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 races). Nevertheless, Taylor might be in danger, because this district is dominated by both Republican and white-working-class voters (it's roughly three-quarters white, with only 18 percent of residents having a four-year college degree). A recent poll showed Taylor up by only four points over his little-known challenger, Steven Pallazzo. The district is in a cheap media market--according to a prominent GOP consultant I queried, the seat is in the Biloxi and Hattiesburg media markets, where a candidate could buy 1,000 gross ratings points (GRPs) for only about $100,000. With no statewide races clogging the airwaves, Pallazzo could quickly get known and take advantage of the national wave.
Peter DeFazio (Oregon's 4th). DeFazio is another long-time incumbent; he first won his seat in 1986. He since has settled in and hasn't had a real race in over a decade. He's under assault now, though, from a moderately well-funded challenger, Art Robinson. Through June 30, Mr. Robinson had raised over $400,000, and he keeps plugging away. A recent poll shows Robinson only seven points behind.
DeFazio's district is not terribly Republican--Bush got only 49 percent in 2000 and 2004, and McCain lost the district with 43 percent in 2008. But it is very similar in that respect to some other white-working-class districts on this year's GOP radar screen, such as Wisconsin's 7th and Illinois's 17th. That's because even though this district contains the University of Oregon, it's otherwise a white-working-class district populated by loggers and other manual laborers. This district is also cheap to run in; most of it falls within the Eugene media market, where $50,000 can buy a candidate 1,000 GRPs. So, historical voting patterns make this seat a reach, but in this election, any Democratic-held seat that is politically marginal and populated by the white working class is potential fodder for a challenge.
Tim Matheson (Utah's 2nd). Matheson is another conservative Democrat, one who is so conservative that he was challenged from his left in the primary because of his vote against health-care reform. But this district is so Republican (Bush and McCain always received 58-65 percent of the vote here) that anything could happen.
There are some caveats. Matheson is the son of a popular former Democratic governor; he is well-known and historically has been popular. He beat back a challenge in 2002 and has not been seriously attacked since. His challenger, former state representative Morgan Philpot, had not raised much money as of June 30 (although he has an Internet money bomb going on right now). The media market covering this district is Salt Lake City, which is considerably more expensive than those of Eugene and Biloxi.
But a recent poll on UtahPolicy.com put Matheson's approval below 50 percent. In a wave year, and in a district where nearly two-thirds of the voters go Republican in national elections, one cannot discount the possibility of an upset.
Colin Peterson (Minnesota's 7th). Peterson looks to be cruising to victory. His challenger, Lee Byberg, had raised less than $200,000 as of June 30. No one has this race on his radar screen, and no poll has surfaced to suggest Peterson is under 50 percent.
But beneath the surface, there are some similarities with past last-minute upsets. Peterson is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Past upsets in GOP-wave years have often involved Democratic chairmen: House Ways and Means Committee chair Al Ullman and House Rules Committee chair John Brademas in 1980; and Speaker Tom Foley, House Intelligence Committee chair Dan Glickman, and House Judiciary Committee chair Jack Brooks in 1994. Peterson has held office since 1990 and has not had a competitive race in years. This is also politically marginal country; Bush won this district twice with 54 and 55 percent, and McCain carried it with 50 percent.
While the district is rural, most of it is in the expensive Minneapolis-St. Paul media market, so there might not be enough money for an upset to occur. But if fellow long-time Minnesota congressman Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is really below 50 percent (as a recent poll suggests) in a district that is much more Democratic than this one, one should not discount the possibility of an upset here.
Tim Holden (Pennsylvania's 17th). Holden has represented this district, which votes Republican in national races, since winning in 1992. He does so on the basis of his strength in coal-mining Schuylkill County. In his last competitive race, GOP redistricters threw him in with long-time GOP representative George Gekas. Holden narrowly won that 2002 match by garnering nearly three-quarters of the vote in Schuylkill County, offsetting losses in the other, more GOP parts of the district.
Holden's challenger this time is from Schuylkill County, state senator Dave Argyll. The national GOP recruited Argyll into the race with the clear expectation that he could hold down Holden's margins in that part of the district, and win the seat in the more GOP parts.
So far, though, Argyll has proven to be a weak candidate. He barely won the nomination in the face of underfunded tea-party challengers, and as of June 30, he had raised less than $200,000. But this seat is populated by white-working-class voters--it's 87 percent white, and 79 percent of residents don't have a four-year degree. It's also generally Republican--Bush carried the seat with 56 and 58 percent, and McCain won it with 51 percent. The seat is covered mainly by the Harrisburg-Lancaster and Reading media markets, which are more expensive to advertise in than those in Eugene and Biloxi. While Argyll will probably lose, the seat is just winnable enough in a year like this one to bear watching on Election Night.
Henry Olsen is a vice president and the director of the National Research Initiative at AEI.