Democratic Rep. Jim Costa (middle) may have lost his seat on Tuesday after taking his re-election for granted
Democrats were expecting a rough election night last Tuesday, but four incumbents came remarkably close to losing—or may have even lost—seemingly safe contests that were on almost no one's radar. Did Reps. Jerry McNerney, Jim Costa, John Delaney, and Louise Slaughter fail to take their races seriously?
Maryland's Delaney appears to have recognized he had a real challenge. Republican Daniel Bongino was raising a credible amount of money, and at just 54-43 Obama, the 6th District was definitely vulnerable in a wave year. In the third quarter of 2014 (July 1 to Sept. 30) the congressman spent $371,000, followed by another $409,000 during the first two weeks of October. These aren't massive amounts, especially since Delaney was capable of self-funding far more. Still, it probably was just enough to save him: Delaney won 50-48.
The other three incumbents spent even less on their campaigns. In the Stockton-area CA-09, McNerney spent just $355,000 in the last three-and-a-half months. His GOP foe Tony Amador spent essentially nothing but only lost 52-48 when all was said and done. Obama won 58-40 here but poor Democratic turnout gave McNerney a scare.
Over in upstate New York's 25th District, Slaughter currently leads Republican Mark Assini by just 651 votes. It looks like she'll win in the end, but this is an incredibly tight finish for a 59-39 Obama seat. Slaughter is another incumbent who didn't seem to think she had a problem: In the last three-and-a-half months, she spent just $253,000, compared to Assini's $135,000.
The most feeble of the bunch, though, is California's Jim Costa, who represents the Central Valley's CA-16 and currently trails his Republican foe Johnny Tacherra by 741 votes. Costa's seat went for Obama 59-39 but he should have known better than anyone else how deceptive that number can be in a midterm year: In 2010, low turnout also nearly cost Costa his seat. Tacherra, a true Some Dude, barely raised any money and his only prior electoral foray a third-place finish in 2012's top-two primary, so Costa seemed to think he was safe.
Head below the fold to learn just how foolhardy Costa was, and what lessons we can learn from him and his peers.
The congressman spent only $116,000 in the third quarter, but perhaps he did get a touch nervous, because in early October, he shelled out another $324,000. However, Costa still left much of his war chest untouched, so he couldn't have been that troubled. And because so many votes are cast early in California, it's hard to argue that he was strategically saving his money for the final days of the election. The late ballots may very well send Costa back to Congress, but there's no doubt he's come perilously close to losing—and indeed, he may yet lose. He only has himself to blame.
A good counter-example to these four incumbents is Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz in Southern California's 36th District. Ruiz took an ancestrally Republican seat in 2012 that Obama won only 51-48, but he was lucky enough to draw a weak Republican challenge from Assemblyman Brian Nestande. Conservative outside groups had largely given up on Nestande long ago, and it may have been tempting for Ruiz to declare victory and stockpile his cash for 2016.
However, Ruiz recognized that poor Democratic turnout and a looming Republican wave could still pose a threat, and he worked hard to win. In the last three-and-a-half months, Ruiz spent $1,570,000, far more than any of his four sleepwalking colleagues spent. The congressman flooded the district with a series of positive ads which more than did the trick. Ruiz won 54-46, making him one of the few Democrats to outperform Obama.
Ruiz not only earned himself an easy victory, he'll probably ensure that credible Republicans think twice before running against him in the future. By contrast, it's a good bet that national Republicans won't make the same mistake in the future that led them to ignore McNerney, Costa, Delaney, and Slaughter this year. It's also possible that ambitious Democrats will smell weakness and try to push them out in the primary.
To be fair, no outside groups spent any real money in any of these four contests, and the DCCC and NRCC were probably just as surprised as everyone else on election night. Most prognosticators, including Daily Kos Elections, did not think this foursome was in much danger either (though we had an inkling about Delaney).
Still, those four incumbents should know their districts better than anyone else. They have the most to lose, and if they run again in 2016 they'll be the ones who need to work harder than before to win. They're all a good reminder for politicians everywhere that you can't take your re-election for granted. As Eric Cantor taught us earlier this year, unpredictable factors can always spring up. It's better to prepare for them early than to spend Wednesday morning wondering what on earth happened.