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Monday, November 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shift in the House would usher in Democrats of a different color

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — He is pro-business and anti-abortion. He is an evangelical Christian and an avid hunter. But, unexpectedly, Heath Shuler is a Democrat and he is running for Congress in North Carolina.

Shuler is part of a phalanx of unusually conservative Democratic candidates who may deliver crucial victories over Republican incumbents and help their party win control of the House.

Republicans warn about what the House would be like if the GOP lost control: a throwback to the unreconstructed liberalism of big-government activism, tax increases and weak-kneed defense policy. They point with Halloween-season horror to a likely lineup of Democratic committee chairmen, including Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and other liberal old-timers.

But, like Shuler, many of the Democratic candidates most likely to win Republican-held seats are cut from a different cloth. Sixteen have been endorsed by the "Blue Dogs," a coalition of conservative Democrats. Several used to be Republicans. Shuler was recruited to run as a Republican a few years ago but opted not to.

With so many conservative-leaning candidates at the forefront of the Democratic effort, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at least for now, has stuck to a minimalist agenda that steers clear of liberal ambitions.

Instead, Democratic leaders are focusing — and almost all serious Democratic candidates are campaigning on — a limited agenda that includes increasing the minimum wage, repealing tax breaks for oil companies, restoring college-tuition tax breaks, cutting Medicare drug costs and other plans they believe could draw bipartisan support.

The limited agenda has won endorsements from Democrats as conservative as candidate Ken Lucas of Kentucky — a former House member who, before he left Congress in 2004, voted against Pelosi in the traditional party-line vote for House speaker.

Republicans charge that the apparent moderation in Democratic candidates is a smokescreen meant to obscure their support for a party steered by liberals and for initiatives such as tax increases.

"They claim to be pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax, yet their first vote in Congress would be to elect the most liberal speaker in American history," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "In the first 100 hours they will roll back tax cuts and open investigations into the administration."

An influx of new blood from the Democrats' right wing could test party leaders' ability to maintain the remarkable unity they have forged during their years in the minority.

Among the party's House challengers, 33 are conservative enough to be endorsed by either the Blue Dogs or the political arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Nearly all are on the Cook Political Report's latest list of Democrats most likely to win GOP-held seats. The party needs to pick up 15 seats to win a majority.

With more conservative Democrats in the House, President Bush could have a new opening to reach across the aisle. If Democrats won a majority in the House, they would be severely limited in what they could accomplish legislatively without control of the Senate and with Bush still in office.

Still, even a slim majority would give committee chairmen power to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas — tools they want to use to scrutinize Bush's policy on Iraq and other issues they believe the GOP overlooked.

In line to assume those powers is a cadre of unapologetic liberals of an older generation. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., first elected to the House in 1955, is poised to return to the Energy and Commerce chairmanship he held before Republicans won the House in 1994. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., would return as Appropriations chairman. Waxman is in line to be chairman of the Government Reform Committee, an important venue for investigations.

In addition, minority-group members would gain power in a Democratic House. Black legislators are in line to become chairmen of the committees on taxation (Charles Rangel of New York), the judiciary (John Conyers of Michigan) and intelligence (Alcee Hastings of Florida).

Republicans are spotlighting that lineup and portraying it as extremist. They jumped on Conyers for calling for impeachment hearings against Bush, an idea Pelosi flatly dismisses. Republicans note that Hastings, before becoming a House member, was impeached as a federal judge.

Democrats say they believe such tactics are designed to mobilize conservative voters and will not eclipse their efforts to present a more moderate face.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year made a point of recruiting conservative candidates and even some former Republicans for this year's midterm elections, in some cases muscling out more-liberal contenders who seemed likely to lose in Republican-leaning territory.

"The Democrats are going to retake the House of Representatives by electing conservative and moderate Democrats," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a member of the Blue Dog Coalition. "We're going to move our party back to the middle."

Republicans, in ads and elsewhere, have tried to discredit Democrats' conservative credentials — mostly by linking them to Pelosi.

In Indiana, GOP Rep. John Hostettler is running behind Democrat Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But a new Hostettler radio ad says a vote for Ellsworth would be a vote for Pelosi.

"Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda," the ad says.

In Kentucky, ads by GOP Rep. Ron Lewis call attention to the fact that his Democratic opponent, Mike Weaver, has accepted donations from Pelosi.

"He is not a certified conservative," Lewis said.

But Weaver, a state representative, is against abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage. He also founded a conservative group in the state legislature to push his party to the right.

In North Carolina, Shuler, who is running against GOP Rep. Charles Taylor, is a former National Football League quarterback who turned down Republican encouragement to run for the House in 2002, despite his conservative views. He stuck with the Democratic Party, his spokesman said, because he wanted to "help those who cannot help themselves — and that's the Democratic Party."

But Shuler dodges the question of whether he would support Pelosi as speaker, saying he wants to interview all candidates for that post.

Los Angeles Times reporters James Gerstenzang and Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.

Most competitive House races
Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take control. A consensus of political analysts and Seattle Times research shows the GOP holds the 15 most likely to change hands.
Rank State-District Republican Democrat
1 Arizona-08 (OPEN/Jim Kolbe) Randy Graf Gabrielle Giffords
Republicans saw this coming, backing a foe of the very conservative Graf in this moderate district's primary. Questions about a Kolbe camping trip with pages didn't help, either.
2 Colorado-07 (OPEN/Bob Beauprez) Rick O'Donnell Ed Perlmutter
O'Donnell showed a strong closing kick before losing momentum in the past couple of weeks.

The demographics of this suburban Denver district make this one a tough place for the GOP.

3 Pennsylvania-07 Curt Weldon Joe Sestak
Philly's suburbs already were considered a challenge for three GOP incumbents. An FBI investigation of Weldon's daughter, with possible links to the congressman, was a blow.
4 Indiana-08 John Hostettler Brad Ellsworth
Hostettler runs unusual campaigns. He shuns PAC money, putting him at a disadvantage, and won't embrace Bush. He has a history of comebacks, but the hole may be too deep this time.
5 Ohio-18 (OPEN/Bob Ney) Joy Padgett Zack Space
Another train wreck for Republicans. Bob Ney admitted guilt to Abramoff-related felony charges, then waited seven weeks to resign. This is seen as the most likely Ohio seat to flip.
6 Pennsylvania-10 Don Sherwood Chris Carney
It's all about the other woman. Sherwood is endangered after an admitted affair with a young woman, allegations that he abused her, and a report last week of a $500,000 settlement.
7 Iowa-01 (OPEN/Jim Nussle) Mike Whalen Bruce Braley
This was one of the Democrats' earliest targets. Whalen's social views may be too conservative for a district that didn't give Bush more than 46 percent of the vote in 2000 or 2004.
8 New York-24 (OPEN/Sherwood Boehlert) Ray Meier Mike Arcuri
New York is believed to have more vulnerable Republicans — six — than any other state. And indications are that this open seat, in a middle-of-the-road district, is the shakiest of all.
9 Indiana-02 Chris Chocola Joe Donnelly
Some unusual issues have hurt Chocola, including the state's decision to lease a toll road and the introduction of daylight savings time to the area. Chocola has recovered nicely.
10 North Carolina-11 Charles Taylor Heath Shuler
Taylor's been unable to get to the former University of Tennessee and Washington Redskins quarterback. Shuler's conservative views on social issues make him difficult to attack.
11 *Texas-22 (OPEN/Tom DeLay) Shelley Sekula-Gibbs Nick Lampson
A late Bush visit and influx of cash give the GOP hope. Few believed it was possible due to DeLay's baggage and the hurdles of a write-in campaign necessary because of his resignation.
12 Ohio-15 Deborah Pryce Mary Jo Kilroy
Pryce, No. 4 in the House leadership, recently stood outside Kilroy's office and used a bullhorn to demand that her opponent agree to a debate. Not exactly a sign of a confident incumbent.
13 **Florida-16 (OPEN/Mark Foley) Joe Negron Tim Mahoney
The disgraced Foley is on the ballot; his votes count for Negron. Will voters vote red or see red in the booth? Once considered a sure bet for Democrats, this race has tightened considerably.
14 Florida-13 (Katherine Harris) Vern Buchanan Christine Jennings
This heavily Republican district has been trending Democrat in recent elections, making the socially moderate Jennings more in tune with voters than the very conservative Buchanan.
15 New Mexico-01 Heather Wilson Patricia Madrid
The momentum of the race in this classic bellwether district appeared to change direction after the Foley scandal broke. Wilson was on the House page board from 2001 to 2004.
* DeLay resigned after winning primary; Sekula-Gibbs has mounted a write-in campaign.

** Foley resigned Oct. 2; under state law, votes for Foley will count for replacement Negron.

Comments by David Birdwell, Seattle Times nation/world editor

Sources: Cook Political Report; National Journal; Real Clear Politics; Rothenberg Political Report; The Washington Post; University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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