Why is GOP targeting Ike Skelton's once-safe Missouri seat?

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Ike Skelton once won re-election to his rural Missouri congressional seat by 55 percent.

Not exactly a nail biter, but his closest call in four decades on Capitol Hill.

The victory margin for the popular Lexington Democrat since his first race for Congress in 1976 has always approached 60 percent or higher. As far as Republicans were concerned, Missouri's 4th Congressional District has always been flyover country.

Not this year.

With anger in the wind over health reform and the economy, they're hoping for a backlash.

"There is an aura of invincibility that surrounds Skelton," said Dave Wasserman, a congressional analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "However, if health care and spending and the deficit are on voters' minds in 2010, the election becomes a one-day clearance sale that has nothing to do with Skelton's record."

It's happened before.

In 1994 and 2006, veteran lawmakers and powerful committee chairmen - even a Democratic speaker of the House - lost their seats when they got caught in the undertow of midterm election waves that lifted the minority party into power.

The possibility fuels Republicans hopes for 2010.

Skelton was first elected in 1976. He's ranked 16th in seniority out of 435 House members. Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he's a soft-spoken, but fierce defender of the military, one of the "old bulls" of Capitol Hill. His political lineage goes back to no less a Missouri icon than former President Harry Truman, who first urged him to run.

Yet he is on the Republicans' radar. They're attacking his votes on the stimulus package and climate change. With a 97 percent party loyalty score, they're linking him to House Speaker and Democratic lightning rod Nancy Pelosi.

"Will Ike Skelton take the Pelosi Pledge" headlined a GOP email, urging him to declare his opposition to the liberal leader of the House.

Two Missouri Republicans, former state Rep. Vicky Hartzler and state Sen. State Sen. Bill Stouffer, are already in the hunt over the right to face him, with the primary still nearly a year off. There could be more.

"I think the Democratic leadership and the Obama administration have put a lot of members in a huge quandary," said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "They're fast doing that now on national health care."

Smith, a veteran political strategist who has worked on Capitol Hill and managed several Missouri campaigns, said, "There's a real opportunity in 2010 to draw distinctions."

Democrats said they know the stakes next year and aren't taking any race – even one as typically in the bag as Skelton's – for granted. Unlike in 1994, the year of the Republican's successful "Contract for America" campaign, they insisted that they won't be caught off guard.

"No one is complacent," said Gabby Adler, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We see the historical precedents."

Those point with some certainty to Democratic losses next year. The party controlling the White House and Congress typically loses seats in midterm elections.

One exception occurred in 2002 during the first term of former President George W. Bush. But the 9-11 terrorist attacks the year before still colored the national mood.

Skelton could not be reached to talk about his re-election. But several Democrats said that the 77-year-old lawmaker knows that it might not be his usual walk in the park. He has already hired Democratic strategist Ken Morley, who ran Gov. Jay Nixon's campaign last year, as a political advisor.

Skelton is a moderate Democrat, a strong advocate for the military from a district with two important bases, Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman Air Force Base. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, won Skelton's district by 60 percent. Most of the state House and Senate seats in the region are held by Republicans.

"It make sense for Republican strategists to look at that and say, 'If we're getting Republicans elected to the Missouri House and we're getting Republicans elected to the Missouri Senate, why are we not getting Republicans elected to Congress?' " said Shari Bax, who teaches political science at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

But Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said the voter breakdown "doesn't apply" to Skelton.

"He's seen as an icon in his congressional district," she said. "I don't think he's seen as a partisan guy. If they go after him the way professional campaigns typically go after another candidate, it could backfire on them."

Finding the right tactic could be tough. Republicans typically attack opponents as too liberal and out of the mainstream. They question their values. Skelton is a household name in his district and respected on both sides of the aisle.

It won't be hard for Democrats to find a lot of Republican bouquets. Stouffer, a potential opponent, sponsored a bill in the Missouri Senate in 2005 that named a bridge after him. Missouri's senior Republican senator, Kit Bond, recently said that it was "very, very important for us to have man like Ike Skelton."

But with public approval of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress falling, Skelton's party has to be anxious. It owes a lot of its success in 2006 and 2008 to moderate Republicans and independents who had soured on the GOP. But their allegiance in 2010 could be just as quicksilver.

"No question we're seeing an increase in Republican enthusiasm and energy and it is all across the country," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "The question is, is it going to last? But going into '09 must be what Democrats felt like going into '08 and '06."