Both parties like chances in House battle

Monday, April 5, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In the era before term limits, the departure of nearly three dozen incumbents from the House of Representatives in the same election year would have been seen as a mass exodus.

Considering that when term limits first had an impact in 2002 there were 84 open House seats heading into the August party primaries, the 32 vacancies this year is comparatively low.

However, the open seats on the 2004 ballot will still be a major factor in the fight for partisan control of the chamber.

Republicans currently hold a 90-73 advantage in the House. Democrats need a net gain of just nine seats to regain the majority they lost two years ago.

House Minority Floor Leader Rick Johnson, D-High Ridge, said his party actively recruited candidates whose views fit individual districts in hopes of engineering a turnaround.

"We're well positioned not just to pick up open seats or defend seats that we have but also to beat some Republican incumbents," Johnson said.

The GOP, meanwhile, is hoping to accomplish a feat it hasn't achieved in Missouri since the 1940s -- claim a House majority in two consecutive election cycles.

House Speaker Pro Tem Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the high number of vacancies last time out was the main factor in the GOP's legislative victory. Having a strong incumbent presence and a relatively low number of open seats works to the majority party's advantage this year even if Republicans fail to add to their ranks, said Jetton, who is positioned to become the next House speaker.

"If we lose a couple seats, we're still in the majority," Jetton said. "That is a cushion you don't have in the minority."

With the close of the candidate filing deadline for the Aug. 3 primaries last week, Democrats are virtually guaranteed of 39 House seats from districts where Republicans aren't fielding entries. The GOP is likewise assured of 31 seats.

Democrats are fielding incumbents in another 32 contested races with Republicans running veterans in 48 districts.

Although incumbency is no guarantee of victory, it is an advantage. If both parties somehow manage to protect all of their incumbents, combined with the uncontested races, that would put Republicans ahead 79-71 -- requiring them to pick up just three open seats to remain in control.

One of the disadvantages of being in the majority, however, is you have a record to defend. Johnson said Republican efforts to reduce spending on state services will come back to haunt them.

"You can't run for election and say that you're going to put education and health care first and then come up here and vote against them and not have to answer for that in your election," Johnson said.

Jetton said the GOP pledges of two years ago to rein in state spending and oppose tax increases will continue to resonate with voters.

"We've got a clear record that we're proud to run on of basically doing what we said we were going to do," Jetton said.

After taking the bulk of Southeast Missouri district by district in the last decade, Republicans have little opportunity for a pickup in the region this year, leaving them in the preferred position of defense in the area.

Democrats, on the other hand, see some chances to regain lost ground, including the seat currently held by state Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. Mayer is running for the Senate.

While that district was a traditional Democratic stronghold until Mayer won in 2000, Jetton noted that redistricting changed that by adding the southwest third of Republican-dominated Cape Girardeau County to its territory.

"It would be very difficult for a Democrat to win just from the numbers perspective," Jetton said.

Though he feels fairly safe, Jetton will have to contend with an opponent this time out, which will require him to spend more time campaigning in his home district rather than helping other Republican hopefuls. The Democratic entry, retired Fredericktown High School Band director John Howser, will get strong party support, Johnson said.

"He's got a great resume and a great education resume," Johnson said. "But anytime you go up against somebody like the speaker pro tem, that's a tough race."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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