Rare Political Sport: Incumbent Face-Offs ; Michigan Picks Monday between Incumbent Democrats Dingell, Rivers

Article excerpt

It's lunchtime at Elton, an assisted living facility for seniors, and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) is working the room. Walking from table to table, she shakes hands, smiles, and - over and over - recites her resume.

"I've been in Congress for 20 years," she says, emphasizing that she chairs an influential Ways and Means subcommittee. "I'm a Republican - I run on a Republican ticket - but I work with the good people of both parties."

It's not that Ms. Johnson, a petite, grandmotherly type, is particularly prone to touting her own credentials. This year, the veteran congresswoman is in the unusual position of having to introduce herself to a whole new set of constituents - and persuade them she'd do a better job than their current representative.

Thanks to congressional redistricting, Johnson is one of a small group of members who have been handed the unwelcome task of having to run against a fellow incumbent - in her case, Rep. James Maloney (D), who has represented the blue-collar town of Waterbury since 1996. Because Connecticut is losing a House seat, Johnson's and Mr. Maloney's districts have essentially been combined, setting up one of the toughest electoral contests this fall.

With incumbents increasingly invulnerable, the number of competitive House races is shrinking. So, analysts say, member- versus-member matchups stand out as rare exceptions - and the hardest-fought. Both candidates come to the race with all the advantages of incumbency, and so they must work to distinguish themselves, both personally and politically. The stakes are enormous, with more incumbents automatically guaranteed to lose this year than in either of the past two elections. And given the Republicans' slim six-seat majority in the House, the outcome of these races could help determine control of Congress.

"You have two people going into a race who already have a certain amount of cachet - it doesn't start off with the lopsidedness that most races do," says Amy Walter, an analyst for the Cook Political Report in Washington. "And most of them haven't had a close race in years."

The vast majority of incumbents never have to face off against another member. But every 10 years, the redrawing of congressional boundaries forces a small number into one of two types of matchups: inter-party, like the Johnson-Maloney race, or intraparty, where incumbents of the same party battle one another in a primary. Analysts say intraparty battles can be every bit as acrimonious as interparty ones, and they often expose deep philosophical rifts within a party.

One particularly fierce contest is taking place in Michigan, where primary voters todaywill choose between Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Lynn Rivers. The matchup has sharply split the party, because of generational and philosophical differences between the two candidates. …