Tough Terrain

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson first won election to the 5th District in northwest Connecticut in 1982, and the popular former teacher has kept her seat for nearly a quarter-century. By most accounts, however, this achievement has been more in spite of her GOP affiliation than because of it. Voters perceive her as a moderate Yankee Republican and not a true conservative.

But as the electorate becomes more polarized around party identification, Democrats hope to make the "R" after her name and those of other Northeastern Republicans stand for "radioactive." This has happened to Johnson before. In 1996, she won by one percentage point when Democrats capitalized on her ties to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. This year, she is running against Democratic state Sen. Chris Murphy.

Johnson's fate hinges on the same question facing about a dozen other Republicans across the area: Can the GOP hold on to swing districts in a hostile region? Or is 2006 the year Democrats solidify the Northeast as their geographic base, as Republicans locked down the South in 1994?

These questions haunt Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in his reelection bid in Pennsylvania. Behind in the polls against state Treasurer Bob Casey, Santorum has been emphasizing his constituent services rather than the ideological combat for which he is known on Capitol Hill.

Also in Pennsylvania, Rep. Jim Gerlach is hoping he can repeat past victories in the 6th District, which includes some upscale suburbs of Philadelphia. Lois Murphy, a lawyer who lost by about 6,000 votes in the last election, is focusing on Gerlach's close ties to President Bush and former majority leader Tom DeLay.

In Upstate New York, Oneida County District Attorney Michael Arcuri, a telegenic favorite of party leaders, is considered one of the Democrats' best chances of winning an open House seat. He faces state Sen. Ray Meier.

Sunbelt Republicans have often bridled at what they see as the ideological timidity of their Northeastern colleagues and have given them little influence in the House GOP caucus. But if the Northeast turns even more Democratic this fall, Republicans of all stripes could find themselves in the minority.

-- Jim VandeHei

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