Stuart Rothenberg

Analysis of the fifth district House race from Stuart Rothenberg:

This year, with a Democratic wave brewing, the handicapping problem is particularly acute. Given that waves are inherently unpredictable and likely to sweep in at least one or two candidates who should have no chance of winning — look no further than Republican Steve Stockman, who toppled House Judiciary Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) in 1994 — I’m tempted to add anyone who could possibly ride a wave to victory. It’s the easy way out, and I’ve always taken that route in the past. But I’ve decided that I won’t do it this year — at least not yet. I won’t add Reps. Scott Garrett (R) in New Jersey’s 5th district, Mark Souder (R) in Indiana’s 3rd, Jim Ryun (R) in Kansas’ 2nd, Cathy McMorris (R) in Washington’s 5th or other potentially threatened Republicans just because their Democratic opponents have an allegedly encouraging poll or are up with TV ads. While I can’t completely rule out the possibility that some or all of them could drown in a Democratic tsunami, I believe the chances are so small that I can’t bring myself to put them on a list of endangered incumbents. As I said, at least not yet. Take Garrett. His opponent, Paul Aronsohn, distributed a polling memo, based on an initial March survey and a late-September poll, that alleged his race against Garrett was “tightening up” and that a Democratic victory was “very possible.” But New Jersey’s 5th district, represented by Garrett, is a Republican-leaning district that gave President Bush 57 percent of the vote in 2004. In 2002, Garrett drew almost 60 percent in an open-seat victory against a credible Democrat who outspent him, and two years later he won re-election with almost 59 percent. Aronsohn’s own polling shows the Republican generic vote advantage has been cut in half, but it still stands at 7 points — a significant edge. Then there is the trial heat, which shows Garrett’s 25-point advantage in March having closed to 16 points in late September. But those surveys also show that Garrett’s share of the ballot test has remained unchanged at 49 percent of the vote. Even though the Republican “generic” number has slipped, and even though the “wrong track” number and President Bush’s job approval rating have eroded, Garrett’s trial heat number has remained the same, just a whisker under the 50 percent mark. Sure, the ballot test in the poll has tightened, but only because some of the undecided voters went over to Aronsohn, whose share of the vote went from an anemic 24 percent in March to an only somewhat less anemic 33 percent at the end of September. I can’t say with absolute certainty that Aronsohn can’t, or won’t, beat Garrett next month, only that the chances seem so small that rating the race as competitive seems misleading. If, barring other evidence of an Aronsohn surge before Election Day, the Democrat does win, it will be a jaw-dropping upset, and I won’t mind missing it.

Stuart Rothenberg