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.