With Democrats looking unlikely to pick up the 25 seats necessary to regain control of the House, there hasn’t been all that much news coverage of the individual races. But as someone who views the battle for the House as an early-warning system of the national political environment, this year’s contests will be providing lots of clues to the mood of the electorate, particularly in the critical swing states.
Indeed, simply by looking at five battleground-state House races, voters will get more of a sense of how the presidential race is shaping up than by looking at in-state polls or focus groups. Call them the S&P 500 of the political world—they won’t precisely track the election results, but should come pretty close. And with voting patterns in congressional campaigns increasingly aligning with voters’ opinions of the president, it’s a safe bet that the outcomes of these bellwethers will foreshadow the presidential election.
Here are the five blue-chip House races worth paying close attention to until Election Day:
1. Colorado 06 – Rep. Mike Coffman (R) versus Joe Miklosi (D)
A former secretary of state with a military background, Rep. Mike Coffman looked like a rising Republican star when he came to Washington, not to mention a likely future candidate for the Senate or governor. But in the redistricting process, Coffman found his solidly Republican district redrawn into a suburban Denver battleground—and then proceeded to act as if his political fortunes hadn’t changed one bit.
One of the first bills he introduced in Congress ended requirements for ballots to be printed in languages other than English, a reasonable proposal for a conservative legislator, but one out of sync with a district that’s 16 percent Hispanic—more than double the percentage of his old district. Adding insult to injury, he drew national scrutiny when he told a town-hall meeting in May that he believes “in his heart” that President Obama is not an American.
Those political gaffes created an opening for Democratic state Rep. Joe Miklosi, who wasn’t the party’s top choice for the seat but who has put together a credible campaign. He has touted his working-class background and a populist-sounding campaign theme that closely echoes Obama’s message. The district is one of the wealthiest in the country, and it will provide a critical test of whether the Democratic messaging can resonate where many voters are part of the top “1 percent.”
2. Florida 18 – Rep. Allen West (R) versus Patrick Murphy (D)
More than any other race in the country, Republican Rep. Allen West’s reelection bid tests whether the freshman’s unyielding conservative principles can thrive in a battleground district. Thanks to redistricting, West moved to a new district that’s slightly more Republican but filled with the type of environmentally-minded moderates that bristle at his confrontational approach. Nonetheless, West has proven to be a national tea party star, and he raised $2.2 million in the last fundraising quarter.
He’s facing a well-funded Democratic challenger, businessman Patrick Murphy, who has sought to portray West as out of touch with the district. In a sign of how contentious the race will be, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz called West “unhinged” and compared him to Joseph McCarthy after he claimed that there were communists in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. In a sign of how early the race engaged, West launched his first ad in June; Murphy is launching his ad blitz later this month.
If one of the ultimate tea party candidates can win a district that Obama carried, it’s a surefire sign Republican challenger Mitt Romney is in strong shape in Florida.
3. Iowa 03 – Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) versus Rep. Tom Latham (R)
Iowa has become surprisingly tough turf for Democrats, despite its low unemployment rate and solid support for Obama in 2008. Republicans overtook Democrats in party registration this year for the first time in six years, a sign of GOP momentum statewide. That’s discouraging news for Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell, who faces the fight of his political career despite running in a merged district that Obama carried with 52 percent of the vote.
Boswell is facing Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican whose close ties to House Speaker John Boehner have made this race a top priority for the GOP leadership. Latham has outraised Boswell in every quarter, and had banked $2.1 million to the Democrat’s $472,000 at the end of June.
In a sign of how the political winds have shifted, Boswell has distanced himself from the president, most recently siding with Republicans (and 17 Democrats) to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. If that’s a sign of his constituents’ sentiment in an Iowa swing district, Obama will have a tough time carrying the state again.
4. Nevada 03 – Rep. Joe Heck (R) versus John Oceguera (D)
This could qualify as the biggest battleground seat in the country: The suburban Las Vegas district backed both Obama and George W. Bush, and elected three different members of Congress in the last three election cycles. The redrawn district is now slightly more Republican, but the race is still one of the most hotly contested in the country. In addition, this is one of the relative handful of battleground seats with a significant Hispanic population—13 percent of voting-age adults—and will serve as a major test for the president’s get-out-the-vote operation in the state.
The race pits GOP Rep. Joe Heck, a freshman who narrowly won in the 2010 wave, against state Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, one of the Democrats’ highly-touted recruits. Oceguera has a sterling political biography as an assistant fire chief who worked his way up to the state Legislature. But he’s proven to be a less-than-impressive candidate, enmeshed in controversy over taking a salary and pension for two separate public-sector jobs, and offering only vague positions on hot-button national issues.
Both campaigns are highly dependent on the tops of their tickets. If Team Obama can turn out enough of the base, it could doom Heck, even if he runs the stronger campaign. But if the district’s struggling economy leads to a Republican surge, Heck will be in good shape.
5. Ohio 16 – Rep. Jim Renacci (R) versus Rep. Betty Sutton (D)
For a sense of whether the president’s populist attacks on Romney are resonating, look no further than this district pitting two members of Congress against each other. Republican Rep. Jim Renacci is a wealthy businessman who won in 2010 by portraying the Democratic incumbent as too close to Obama. His opponent, Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton, began her professional career as a labor lawyer and relied on union support to kick-start her political career. The redrawn district, centered in northeast Ohio, is filled with the type of working-class voters that both presidential candidates have struggled to win over.
Sutton faces the steeper challenge in a district that 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain carried with 52 percent of the vote. The district is filled with working-class whites, who have been drifting away from the Democratic Party in recent years.
Sutton’s playbook is similar to the Obama campaign’s against Romney—portray the Republican as a corporate type out-of-touch with the middle class, while using his support of the Ryan budget as a cudgel. But Renacci is betting that Sutton’s support for the administration’s policies on energy and health care are bigger vulnerabilities. Those messages will be echoed in the presidential campaign, loud and clear, as well.