For voters in Southern Indiana’s 9th Congressional District, Election Day might feel a bit like Groundhog Day. For the fourth straight election cycle Democratic Rep. Baron Hill will face off against Republican Mike Sodrel in this rural, culturally conservative Ohio River-region district.
Hill has won two out of the three matches so far. First elected in 1998 to replace Hoosier State Democratic icon Lee Hamilton, the former high school basketball star narrowly beat back a spirited 2002 challenge from Sodrel, a millionaire trucking company owner. Helped by President George W. Bush’s 60 percent winning percentage in Indiana, Sodrel in 2004 knocked out incumbent Hill in their hard-fought rematch by 1,425 votes.
But Hill wasn’t through running for the seat. After briefly working for a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, he ran against freshman lawmaker Sodrel in 2006 — and won in the best Democratic year in a generation.
Now it’s Sodrel in the role of former lawmaker trying to come in from the political cold, and the 2008 re-re-rematch promises to be as bruising and closely contested as the previous three slugfests.
The Hill-Sodrel grudge match is only the most extreme versions of a common thread in the 2008 election cycle: former House members seeking to extract political revenge from the lawmakers to whom they lost two year ago.
SOME HAVE LONGER ODDS than others. Consider former Rep. Melissa A. Hart (R-Pa.). During her three terms in the House representing the Keystone State’s 4th District, stretching from the Pittsburgh suburbs to the Ohio border, Hart was an outspoken social conservative, closely tied to Sen. Rick Santorum. In 2006 Democratic Jason Altmire, a former congressional aide and health care executive, beat her in one of the biggest upsets of the year, 52 to 48 percent.
Now seeking a comeback, former Rep. Hart is an underdog. Altmire has amassed one of the fattest campaign accounts among House freshman, and the pro-life, anti-gun control Democrat seems like a good fit for the economically populist district.
Another surprise from the 2006 election cycle was New Hampshire’s Carol Shea-Porter, a strident Iraq war critic and local political gadfly who seemingly came out of nowhere to defeat two-term Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley, 51 to 49 percent.
Bradley admits he ran a poor campaign and argues her election is a fluke, and is seeking to regain the Manchester-based district this fall, though he must first dispatch a GOP primary challenge from former state Health Commissioner John Stephen. Despite Republican confidence in taking back the district, Democrats have made major strides in the Granite State recently and Rep. Shea-Porter would seem to have an advantage.
The same goes for Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). His defeat of GOP Rep. Anne M. Northup was among the first announced on Election Night 2006, and presaged Democrats’ capture of the House for the first time in a dozen years. The Louisville-based 3rd District has lots of urban Democrats, who may not look on Northup’s conservative voting with nostalgia.
The best hope for a vanquished Republican to defeat a freshman Democratic lawmaker comes in the form of former Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas. The former Olympic a records during his ten years there, and lost in 2006 as much for his seeming lack of interest in district affairs as the ideology of his opponent, Democrat Nancy Boyda. She’s had an uneven start in Washington, including storming out of a committee meeting where military leaders told of progress in Iraq.
The Topeka-based 2nd District is a Republican stronghold, and Boyda is a top GOP target. Ryun doesn’t have a free ride to the nomination, though, as state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins argues her more moderate brand of Republicanism is a better fit for a district that is slowly but surely becoming more ethnically and politically diverse.
PREVIOUS ELECTION CYCLES have seen dozens of attempted comeback bids by former members but only a handful has been successful. Once voters decide they’ve had enough of a politician, they don’t usual change their minds.
But comeback hopefuls do have reasons for hope. Take Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. The Democrat won a House seat in 1992, only to lose narrowly in the 1994 Republican landslide to GOP challenger Frank Cremeans. Strickland was back two years later and won the rematch, serving for ten years before claiming the top state job in 2006.
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) pulled off a similar feat in those same election cycles in the mid-1990s. After winning a Durham-based House seat in 1986, the former Duke University political science professor was narrowly swept out of office in 1994 at the hands of Republican Fred Heineman. But in the more Democratic-friendly 1996 election cycle, Price easily reclaimed the seat and he’s held it ever said.
Then, of course, there’s Hill, who successfully beat his old foe in 2006. Given the district’s recent history, it’s quite possible that come this time in the 2010 election cycle, Mike Sodrel will be awaiting a challenge from former Rep. Hill.