Saturday, February 23, 2008

February ratings: As many more races get competitive, Democrats keep a clear edge in the House

Now that the primaries are slowly quieting down and that delegate calculation are no longer a full time job, we can get back to the joy of ranking congressional races. My last House rankings came in mid-November, and the 4 months that have passed since then have been a political eternity. There have been a number of high-profile retirements, including the first Democrat to retire from a competitive seat in OR-05; but open seats are clearly a Republican headache in this cycle, with many GOP congressmen calling it quits since November, some of them in districts that Democrats are already salivating over (such as NY-25 and VA-11). And while many retirements are in districts that look safe for the GOP (LA-06 and KY-02, for example), their cumulated impact forces the NRCC to play defense and stretches Republican resources even further.

Both parties have scored recruitment coups in the past few months, and both have received some disappointing news. Here again, the GOP has much more to worry about; it even finds itself without a candidate in IL-11, an open seat that has sky-rocketed at the top of the Democratic priority list. But Republicans also have some bright spots: They for instance convinced former Rep. Anne Northup to run for her old seat in KY-03 and are keeping NM-01 much more competitive than many observers expected. And Republicans got encouraging news in December when they successfully defended two districts in special elections, particularly in OH-05 where the DCCC believed it could snatch a seat away.

Overall, all this movement is pushing many more races towards the top of these ratings and we should expect a few more surprises before the retirement and recruitment season comes to a close. We should already get a better sense of the mood of the country and what to expect in November with two special elections in the coming weeks in IN-07 and IL-14.

I have only written full descriptions of seats that have made news over the past month. For detailed descriptions of the other races, check last month's rankings. Only a few seats saw their rating change in the past month. I indicated upgraded or downgraded next to them to indicate whether they became more vulnerable or less vulnerable for the incumbent party. Here is the quick run-down:

  • Less vulnerable: CA-04, NY-19, PA-06, OH-18
  • More vulnerable: FL-21, IL-11, IL-14, KY-02, KY-03, LA-06, MD-01, MO-09, NJ-03, NY-25, OR-05, PA-11, VA-11
  • Off the list: OH-05
Outlook: Democrats pick-up 9-14 seats.

Republican seats, Likely take-over (1)

  • IL-11 (Open, Upgraded): GOP recruitment woes had already pushed this seat to "Lean Takeover" in the fall. Democrats got a top-tier candidate -- state Senate President Debbie Halvorson -- while Republicans failed to do the same. Things have gotten even worse since then for the GOP, as their nominee -- New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann -- dropped out two weeks after the primary. This actually could prove a blessing to Republicans if they manage to get a stronger candidate (who would not have to face a primary), but it has been months they have failed to do just that and right now Halvorson is running unopposed -- and raising a lot of money. Until the GOP replaces Baldermann, this race has to be considered the top pick-up opportunity for Dems.
Republican seats, Lean take-over (5)

  • AZ-1 (Open): Rep. Renzi had already announced his retirement in this swing district, and Democrats have a strong field of candidates. But Renzi has now been indicted on 36 charges of corruption, and some in the House leadership are pushing him to resign. That would create a competitive open seat in which Democrats would have an even better chance of winning given the turnout differential in this year's races.
  • NJ-03 (Open, Upgraded): The less dramatic version of IL-11, NJ-03 could fall in the Democratic column easily because of a recruitment differential. After Rep. Saxton retired in this competitive district, Democrats coalesced around state Senator John Adler (who was already running) while the top potential GOP contender declined to run. Bush very narrowly carried the district in 2004, but Adler is favored to pick up the seat this year.
  • NY-25 (Open, Upgraded): This seat has emerged as one of the RNCC's biggest headaches. One of the 8 remaining Republican-held districts that Kerry carried in 2004, NY-25 was barely kept in the GOP column by Rep. Walsh in 2006 -- by 2,005 votes. Now, Walsh has retired and the Democrats appear to be coalescing around their nominee from last cycle, Dan Maffei. This will be a tough seat for the GOP to hold, particularly in a presidential year.
  • OH-15 (Open)
  • VA-11 (Open, Upgraded): Rep. Tom Davis finally announced his plans to leave his Northern Virginia seat next year, opening up a seat in a rapidly Democratic-trending region. Dems are running two strong candidates, state Sen. (and former Rep.) Leslie Bryne and Gerry Connolly, the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. The Republican candidate will likely be Keith Fimian, a businessman with self-funding abilities. An idea of how uphill a climb this race could be for the GOP is provided by the 2005 statewide election results: Leslie Byrne narrowly lost the Lieutenant Governor race that year, but she trounced her Republican opponent within VA-11.
Democratic seats, Lean take-over (1)

  • FL-16 (Rep. Mahoney)
Republican seats, Toss-up (12)

  • AK-AL (Rep. Young): The day of reckoning might be getting near for Alaska Republicans, embroiled in a giant corruption investigation that is also threatening Senator Stevens. Rep. Young is facing a very strong challenger, Ethan Berkowitz, but even believers in the Democrat's chances here were surprised when an independent poll showed Young trailing by 7%. And that was barely better than the 15% deficit Young was facing in a late November internal Democratic poll.
  • CO-4 (Rep. Musgrave)
  • CT-4 (Rep. Shays)
  • IL-10 (Rep. Kirk): Most of the attention in this race was devoted to the Democratic primary, which was held on February 5th, but it ended in a blow-out. Dan Seals won with 81%, setting up a rematch of the 2006 race against Rep. Kirk. Seals can expect to receive more attention from the DCCC this time around.
  • KY-02 (Open, upgraded): Complete chaos erupted in this race on January 30th, when Rep. Lewis retired quite literally at the last minute, in a ploy to allow his chief of staff to get the GOP nomination. But state Senator Guthrie heard of this time to jump in the race, setting up a wholly unexpected Republican primary. The winner will face state Senator David Boswell, whom Democrats have long been touting. This seat is very Republican (Bush won with 65%) but depending on the outcome of the GOP primary things could shape up to the Democrats' advantage.
  • MN-03 (Open): There were rumors back in the fall that Rep. Ramstad might un-retire, which would be a huge boost for Republicans in a swing district. But most indications since then have been that the retirement is definite. Will Rep. Shadegg's recent un-retirement cause Ramstad to reconsider? In any cae, Republicans have a candidate they believe will be strong in November, state Sen. Erik Paulsen.
  • NC-8 (Rep. Hayes)
  • NJ-07 (Open): Democrats had their candidate as soon as Rep. Ferguson announced his retirement a few months ago, as Linda Stender (who lost narrowly in 06) was back for a rematch. Republican recruitment here is not as worrisome as in other open seats, with Kate Whitman, the daughter of former Governor Christie Whitman, headlining the competitive primary.
  • NM-1 (Open, Downgraded): NM-01, a blue-leaning district that Kerry carried in 04, is an unlikely place to one of the rare open seat bright spots for the GOP. But Republicans believe in the candidacy of Sheriff Darren White (an internal poll showed him leading in the general) while Democrats have to deal with a major primary between high-profile figures. The dynamics here could change after the primary but the early script is what the GOP was hoping for.
  • OH-1 (Rep. Chabot)
  • OH-16 (Open)
  • WA-8 (Rep. Reichert)
Democratic seats, Toss-up (11)

  • CA-11 (Rep. McNerney)
  • GA-8 (Rep. Marshall)
  • IL-8 (Rep. Bean): The Feb. 5th primaries delivered Bean's Republican challenger, businessman Steve Greenberg. Bean will probably have very few calm cycles in her House careers, as she sits on Republican territory. But Barack Obama's probable heading of the Democratic ticket coupled with the fact that she is very aware of the danger and prepares herself accordingly will make her a tough target.
  • IN-7 (Open): Rep. Carson's death earlier this year created a special election in this Democratic leaning district. Democrats selected Andre Carson, the former Rep.'s grandson, while the GOP fielded a much touted candidate, state Rep. Jon Elrod. The most recent public poll was taken a few weeks ago and shows a toss-up, though the consensus seems to be that the district is too unfavorable to Republicans for Elrod to have a chance. Ultimately, what is really hurting Elrod is the NRCC's lack of funds, as they are not able to truly test the relatively weak Carson.
  • IN-09 (Rep. Hill): The filing deadline passed in Indiana, confirming that the 2008 race will be the fourth straight confrontation between Democrat Baron Hill and Republican Sodrel. The former won in 2002 and 2006, and the latter in 2004.
  • KS-2 (Rep. Boyda)
  • NH-1 (Rep. Shea-Porter)
  • OR-05 (Open, Upgraded): Rep. Hooley's surprise retirement is the first open seat headache Democrats are facing this year, and it could be a very difficult one for the DCCC to hold. Bush won this district by 1% in 2004, testifying to its being one of the tightest in the country. Republicans are already excited about their candidate, Mike Erickson, who is a wealthy self-funder who already ran in 2006 and got a very respectable 43%.
  • PA-4 (Rep. Altmire)
  • PA-10 (Rep. Carney)
  • TX-22 (Rep. Lampson)
Republican seats, Lean retention (17)

  • CA-04 (Open, Downgraded): In the last rankings, this seat was rated "Lean Takeover." Then, Rep. Doolittle retired and the seat was downgraded by two full degrees. CA-04 is a very Republican district, and the only reason it was so high on the list was because of Doolittle's ethical and legal problems. Once he is gone, the GOP recovers its natural advantage in this district, though a victory by Democrat Charlie Brown (who also ran in 2006) should not be ruled out. Dems picked up a few seats in 2006 for ethical reasons even after the incumbent had quit -- for example in OH-18.
  • FL-13 (Rep. Buchanan)
  • FL-21 (Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Upgraded): Democrat Raul Martinez, former Mayor of Hialeah, jumped in the race earlier this year, creating a major battle in Southern Florida. The Cuban vote will be particularly sought after, and also expect Martinez's 1990 indictment for extortion and racketeering to be brought up.
  • FL-24 (Rep. Feeney)
  • IL-06 (Rep. Roskam): The DCCC recruited another veteran to run against Roskam, despite Duckworth's failure in 2006 in one of the races the DCCC dumped the most money on. Now, it is Jill Morgenthaler's turn to challenge Roskam. She was the Army's press contact during the Abu Graib scandal and she is now the Democratic nominee for IL-06.
  • IL-14 (Open, Special election, Upgraded): The special election in IL-14 to fill Dennis Hastert's House seat is scheduled for March 8th. Both parties selected their nominees for the special election on February 5th, with Jim Oberweis representing the GOP and Bill Foster the Democrats. Oberweis had lost a few GOP primaries before, so this is already an improvement for him. A recent internal poll for the Foster campaign shows a toss-up, and we will soon know how much of a chance the Democrats has by looking at whether the DCCC jumps in and uses its financial muscle to truly test Oberweis.
  • IL-18 (Open)
  • MI-07 (Rep. Walberg)
  • MI-09 (Rep. Knollenberg)
  • MO-06 (Rep. Graves)
  • MN-06 (Rep. Bachmann)
  • NV-03 (Rep. Porter)
  • NY-29 (Rep. Kuhl): Retirement rumors are circulating about Rep. Kuhl, in what would create yet another huge headache for the NRCC.
  • OH-2 (Rep. Schmidt): Before thinking of the general election in this very red district that she keeps massively underperforming in, Schmidt will have to survive the March 4th primary. She caught a break when one of her major opponents left the race but she will have to dismiss another challenge. Democrats have more of a chance to pick-up the seat if the controversial Schmidt remains the GOP candidate.
  • PA-6 (Rep. Gerlach, downgraded): Gerlach survived very narrowly this blue leaning in both 04 and 06, and Dems were expected to go after him with everything they have this time around. But the clock is ticking and no one has stepped forward, giving Gerlach a stunning pass as of now.
  • VA-2 (Rep. Drake)
  • WY-AL (Open, Upgraded): The retirement of unpopular Rep. Cubin seemed to guarantee an easy hold for the GOP in this very red state, but a Mason-Dixon poll out since then gave us some pause. It shows Democrat Gary Trauer edging out Republican Cynthia Lummis 41% to 40%. Odds are that Republicans get their act together here, particularly in a presidential year, but that is also what we said in 2006 and Cubin ended up barely winning, already against Trauer.
Democratic seats, Lean retention (10)

  • AZ-5 (Rep. Mitchell)
  • AZ-8 (Rep. Giffords)
  • CT-5 (Rep. Murphy)
  • GA-12 (Rep. Barrow)
  • KS-3 (Rep. Moore)
  • KY-03 (Rep. Yarmuth, upgraded): Former Rep. Anne Northup announced in January that she was jumping in the race, seeking the job she was ousted form in 2006. The district leans slightly Democratic, so the early edge goes to Yarmuth but there is no question that this is probably one of the most difficult re-election races he will have to face.
  • NY-20 (Rep. Gillbrand)
  • IN-8 (Rep. Ellsworth)
  • MN-1 (Rep. Walz)
  • OH-18 (Rep. Space): One of the most Republican districts picked-up by a Democrat in 2006, OH-18 was at the top of the GOP's priority list for 2008. But the NRCC has not been able to recruit a top-tier challenger here, and while the main Republican in the primary would be a viable opponent (especially in such a red district in a presidential year), the early edge goes to Space.
  • WI-8 (Rep. Kagen)
Republican seats, potentially competitive (16)

  • CA-52 (open)
  • DE-AL (Rep. Castle): Only if Castle retires.
  • FL-8 (Rep. Keller)
  • FL-10 (Rep. Young): Some expect a retirement, but no such announcement yet.
  • FL-25 (Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart)
  • LA-06 (Open, Special election, Upgraded): Rep. Richard Baker resigned last month to join the private sector, forcing a special election. The district is reliably Republican but Democrats believe that they have the right candidate -- State Rep. Don Cazayoux -- to get a win here, especially in the more unpredictable conditions of a special election.
  • MD-01 (Open, Upgraded): State Senator Andy Harris defeated Rep. Gilchrest in a primary on February 12th, making the seat nominally open. MD-01 has a clear Republican lean, so Harris starts out as the heavy favorite; but an open seat with a defeated incumbent can bring surprises, especially if Gilchrest supporters remain bitter.
  • MO-09 (Open, Upgraded): Rep. Kenny Hulshof announced that she was running for Governor a month ago, opening up this Republican-leaning seat. The GOP starts off with an edge,
  • NM-02 (Open)
  • NY-03 (Rep. King)
  • OH-07 (Open)
  • OH-14 (Rep. LaTourette)
  • PA-03 (Rep. English)
  • PA-15 (Rep. Dent)
  • PA-18 (Rep. Murphy)
  • WV-02 (Rep. Capito)
Democratic seats, potentially competitive (7)

  • CT-2 (Rep. Courtney)
  • IN-2 (Rep. Donnelly): The filing deadline passed in Indiana and Donnelly attracted minor opposition in a district the GOP had vowed to take back this year.
  • NH-02 (Rep. Hodes)
  • NY-19 (Rep. Hall, Downgraded): Republicans had made freshman Rep. John Hall one of their top targets and considered candidate Andrew Saul one of its top recruitment coups next year. But Saul withdrew from the race at the end of January, and the GOP has not been able to field a convincing replacement for now.
  • PA-07 (Rep. Sestak)
  • PA-08 (Rep. Murphy)
  • PA-11 (Rep. Paul Kanjorski): In a rematch of their 2002 contest, controversial Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta (known for his hard-line and obsessive focus on immigration) jumped in this House race. Given that Kanjorski dismissed Barletta in 2002, a Republican year, he starts this race clearly favored. But this could get more competitive, depending on how much voters focus on immigration.
  • TX-23 (Rep. Rodriguez)


  • You are being too pessimistic about OH-16. It's leaning Democratic at this point. But I agree with the rest, great work!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 24, 2008 at 12:40 AM  

  • I think that the IN-7 race should be Lean Democratic rather than toss-up. Andre Carson is proably a week candiate but the DCCC knows this and they are giving him a lot of money. Jon Elrond on the other hand is getting little money from the NRCC and with IN-7 slight dem I find it hard to see this as true toss-up.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 24, 2008 at 6:24 AM  

  • It's great to see this type of analysis across all the House races given the number that are out there. There definitely seems to be many more races that are or could be competitive in the past.

    Given that there is a prediction of DEM +9-14 pick-up, some of the toss-ups must be considered more plausible to switch to the DEM side as there is roughly an equal number of toss-ups on the GOP (12) and DEM (11) side, with a net of DEM+5 on the likely/lean take-overs. It all comes out to how the toss-ups fall, and given the prediction, more will fall to the DEM side netting out. Given the number of toss-ups, there is a very wide range of what party gets a net gain (as much as I'd like the DEMs to get to 250, that's a tough reach).

    By Blogger KELL, At February 24, 2008 at 8:15 AM  

  • PA-06: Actually, there has been quite a bit of movement here. Three challengers filed petitions and as of today's withdrawal deadline, it seems that two of them have stepped aside to leave the ballot open for Bob Roggio.

    Roggio is a retired businessman who most recently worked for Sen. Bob Casey's campaign and as his field rep in southeast Pennsylvania. He has the endorsements of the Democratic committees of Chester and Montgomery Counties.

    His organization is surprisingly well-established and he certainly has the contacts at the state and national levels to make it a race.

    By Blogger Suzankle, At February 27, 2008 at 10:23 AM  

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