Ten months from Election Day, uncertainty is the watchword in the House of Representatives. Democrats look very unlikely to pick up the 17 seats they would need to retake the House majority, and they could lose seats, with the generic-ballot average settling into a slim Republican advantage after a tumultuous fall. But the speed of earlier movement against both parties shows why it would be foolish to assume what's true today will be true in 10 months.
A race-by-race look at the House landscape also helps explain why things are unsettled. As far as we see it, there is only one slam-dunk pickup that either side can more or less count on right now. The GOP's generic-ballot advantage and a large class of Democratic freshmen in battleground districts (the party picked up eight seats in 2012) has given Republicans a greater number of targets in top races. But recent GOP retirements in some blue-tinged districts have them especially worried—and Democrats licking their chops—about control in certain regions (though one retirement, by controversial Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, actually took her seat out of the battleground column and back to safe GOP territory). Strategists in both parties, meanwhile, worry that they don't have candidates capable of grabbing some of the tougher districts on the table.
Most interesting of all, Democrats have few pickup opportunities in the Northeast, their strongest area, while Republicans will target few districts in the South. That's because they've already won most of them, a long-term trend reinforced by "dual waves" in different parts of the country in 2012. Democrats hold every seat in New England right now, and the GOP Conference is more Southern—and the South more Republican—than ever in the history of the Republican Party.
These rankings place districts in order starting with the most likely to switch partisan control. Thus, some hotly contested races—like Rep. Mike Honda's challenge from a fellow California Democrat and Rep. Mike Simpson's challenge from a fellow Idaho Republican—are not on this list. This being an early look, we are only going 30 races deep, but there are one or two dozen more that could definitely be competitive in November. We examined a multitude of factors to choose and place battleground districts on this list: public and private polling, candidates' fundraising ability, advertising patterns and outside group involvement, local media coverage, and months of cumulative reporting and analysis.
Without further ado, let's begin with the congressional district most likely to flip from one party to the other this November:
1. Utah-04—Rep. Jim Matheson (D) is retiring
Nothing is certain in politics, but Matheson's retirement basically cedes the seat to Republicans. Without his brand name, it's very difficult to imagine a Democrat overcoming the party's poor performance levels in this state and district. (President Obama just cleared 30 percent here in 2012, making it his 25th-worst district in the country.) Repeat GOP candidate Mia Love, who would be the first African-American Republican woman in Congress if she won, is now the biggest early favorite to become a House freshman in 2015, though Matheson's decision could spur some more GOP interest in the seat.
2. California-31—Rep. Gary Miller (R) is running for reelection
Miller is only in Congress right now thanks to a series of post-redistricting flukes, the biggest of which was a split Democratic vote allowing another Republican to sneak through California's top-two primary alongside Miller last cycle. The party isn't unified—the DCCC is backing Pete Aguilar, EMILY's List is behind Eloise Gomez Reyes, and former Rep. Joe Baca still has some support—but it's very hard to envision another repeat failure here, given the San Bernardino district's liberal lean (57 percent support for Obama in 2012).
3. Florida-13—Vacant: Rep. Bill Young (R) died in October
Young kept this district safely Republican even as the political terrain shifted underneath him over 40-plus years, to the point where President Obama carried it twice. Without Young to defend the seat, it is a prime Democratic pickup opportunity in a March special election and in November thereafter. Democrats' last gubernatorial nominee, Alex Sink, moved into the district she carried in 2010, cleared the field, and just reported raising over $1 million in two months. Meanwhile, Republicans David Jolly and Kathleen Peters are fighting an increasingly nasty primary, and party members worry about the district, despite the opportunity to test-drive new Obamacare attacks in the special election.
4. Iowa-03—Rep. Tom Latham (R) is retiring
Stop us if you've heard this song before, but without Latham—a strong campaigner, from his local reputation to his fundraising ability—it will be much, much harder for Republicans to hold this Des Moines-based seat in 2014. Obama carried it in 2012, and Democratic state Sen. Staci Appel is going to have a big head start on whoever jumps in. But on the flip side, there may be additional Democratic interest here now that Latham is out of the way. Republican Senate candidate David Young, who has a preexisting federal campaign already going, just jumped at the chance to run here instead, and about a dozen Republicans in all have expressed interest in the seat.
5. New Jersey-03—Rep. Jon Runyan (R) is retiring
Republicans have held this seat for most of the past few decades despite a Democratic lean in presidential politics, and Runyan won reelection easily in 2012 even as President Obama carried the South Jersey district. But the GOP doesn't have an incumbent on the ballot to protect the seat this year, giving Democrats a golden opportunity to try and realign the district. The DCCC is already lined up behind local officeholder Aimee Belgard, while a number of Republicans are talking to the district's powerful county party chairs about making their own bids. The GOP's controversial nominee in last year's Senate special election against Cory Booker, Steve Lonegan, has said he'll run in the district, though he is not from there. That Republican primary will be one of several that electability-minded party members worry about this year.
6. Virginia-10—Rep. Frank Wolf (R) is retiring
Like his longtime colleague Bill Young, Wolf kept his seat perfectly safe despite big changes in local political leanings during his career. Now that Wolf is retiring, Democrats have a real opportunity to take advantage of those changes, which made the 10th District one of the closest in the 2012 presidential race. The GOP has a deep bench of potential candidates in the suburbs outside D.C., but some strategists are concerned the party will choose to nominate its standard bearer via a convention instead of a primary, heightening the chances of getting an unelectable nominee. We're defying other prognosticators here a bit, and this open seat is more Republican-leaning than the others. But open seats are by their nature more volatile than races with incumbents, and this district is too closely divided to bump down the list. The other open seats (like Montana's at-large district) lean much further toward one party or the other, meaning we will need more time to assess their competitiveness.
7. Arizona-02—Rep. Ron Barber (D) is running for reelection
Barber almost lost in 2012 under unusual circumstances. Special-election victors rarely lose a regular election just months later, but Barber trailed Republican Martha McSally on November's election night before eking out a slim victory thanks to a big edge in provisional ballots and early votes. Now McSally—who has a great story to tell as the nation's first female combat pilot—is off and running again, and though she has to clear a primary, Barber has his work cut out protecting a seat Republicans have carried in three straight presidential contests.
8. North Carolina-07—Rep. Mike McIntyre (D) is running for reelection
Just 654 votes separated McIntyre and state Sen. David Rouzer in 2012, the closest margin of any House race in the nation. Rouzer is back for another bid in this very conservative district, and it's a bit early to tell what kind of comeback he's putting together. Neither candidate's fundraising has blown anyone away, though Rouzer has put together a more well-organized campaign more quickly this time around.
9. West Virginia-03—Rep. Nick Rahall (D) is running for reelection
Rahall has outrun the political change in West Virginia so far, but Obama's dire approval ratings here are dangerous for the veteran incumbent. Republican groups are already pouring money into the seat: This district saw the most TV spending of any 2014 House race in the off-year, including an ad from Democrats' House Majority PAC seeking to offset the tide of conservative outside money. Meanwhile, Republicans have a candidate who personifies what's been going on in West Virginia: State Sen. Evan Jenkins was a Democrat until July, when he switched parties and announced his candidacy.
10. Arizona-01—Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) is running for reelection
This massive Eastern Arizona district skews conservative, but Kirkpatrick proved a good fit for it last cycle, even though her staunch support for Obamacare puts her at odds with many residents. Now, three Republicans, including state House Speaker Andy Tobin, are vying to win it back. They are already trading accusations about insufficient conservatism, which will bear watching up to Arizona's late primary. One more thing to keep an eye out for throughout Arizona and here especially: Kirkpatrick won her second non-consecutive term with less than 50 percent of the vote as a libertarian candidate carried thousands of third-party votes. The GOP-controlled state legislature passed a law this year making ballot access for third-party candidates more difficult to prevent such scenarios, but it isn't in effect yet pending a popular referendum. Third-party candidates could again play a role in the outcome here.
11. California-52—Rep. Scott Peters (D) is running for reelection
No serious Republican congressional candidate has drawn more attention for breaking the mold: Former San Diego City Councilor Carl DeMaio, who is openly gay, has also openly called for his party to deemphasize social issues and focus on pocketbook matters. Democrats successfully tagged DeMaio as over-conservative in his losing 2012 mayoral race, but both he and Peters have crossover appeal. A neat map from KPBS shows about two-thirds of Peters precincts also going for DeMaio where their races overlapped in 2012.
12. New Hampshire-01—Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) is running for reelection
This seat has switched parties three times in four elections, moving with the volatile national mood over that time. That's what gives Republicans their best chance to retake a seat in New England, where Shea-Porter and Democrats shut them out in 2012. Former Rep. Frank Guinta is running again and starts with a big name-ID edge for the Republican nomination, but recent polling suggests he's still bruised from the last election, which could be a liability. District voters gave Shea-Porter much stronger marks in the same survey.
13. Colorado-06—Rep. Mike Coffman (R) is running for reelection
Coffman took over from ex-Rep. Tom Tancredo when he joined Congress, but Coffman has had to execute something of a political reinvention on issues like immigration since his district was redrawn into a swing seat last cycle, when he barely won reelection. Democrat Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker, has been running against Coffman for nearly 12 months already, though he may regret not chasing the seat in a presidential year. (Obama carried this district in 2012.) Given the district dynamics, Coffman and Romanoff's gangbusters fundraising pace (over $1.5 million each after the first three quarters of last year), the size of the Denver media market, and the high-profile statewide races also on tap for the fall of 2014, this is a solid early bet to be the nation's most expensive House race this year.
14. California-07—Rep. Ami Bera (D) is running for reelection
Redistricting and the march of demographic change outside Sacramento helped Bera capture the seat in 2012, but three Republicans are linking him to the president's health care law and arguing he's part of D.C.'s problems in trying to replace him. The GOP battle for the second general-election spot could get nasty, if history is any guide: Former Rep. Doug Ose's last race was a Republican primary brawl against fellow candidate Igor Birman's old boss, Rep. Tom McClintock.
15. Florida-26—Rep. Joe Garcia (D) is running for reelection
Garcia is raising money hand-over-foot, but he's been dogged by a weird scandal (staffers of his plotted to fraudulently cast absentee ballots, apparently without the candidate's knowledge). Republican Carlos Curbelo could be a strong challenger. One underreported fact about this district: Garcia's 2012 victory is attributed to then-Rep. David Rivera's complete campaign meltdown amidst scandal but Obama's margin over Mitt Romney in the district was almost exactly the same as Garcia's over Rivera. Cuban-heavy Miami is experiencing something of a Democratic shift in national politics. GOP Gov. Rick Scott's approval could also be a problem for Republicans in the Sunshine State in November.
16. Illinois-13—Rep. Rodney Davis (R) is running for reelection
Davis has a March primary challenge, but that's not the obstacle here: He won one of the nation's tightest races—the closest one Democrats lost in 2012—against a perennial candidate, and Democrats have gotten behind former judge Ann Callis for a potentially stronger bid this time. Callis's long judicial tenure has left behind a record that the GOP is already picking away at, though.
17. Florida-02—Rep. Steve Southerland (R) is running for reelection
Democrats had another near-miss in the Florida Panhandle in 2012, though the path to victory here slopes steeply upward toward the end, Heartbreak Hill-style. As Stu Rothenberg has pointed out, the last couple of percentage points are a very difficult climb for Democrats in the 2nd District, though Gwen Graham's family name, connections, and lack of a political record make her a legit threat to Southerland, who hasn't always fundraised well.
18. Michigan-01—Rep. Dan Benishek (R) is running for reelection
Benishek also struggled struggled with his campaign at times in the last few years, and polls consistently showed him mired in the low-40s in 2012 before he pulled out a narrow victory over repeat candidate Gary McDowell. Now, Democrats have a fresh face in local sheriff Jerry Cannon, who would have to overcome the Upper Peninsula's generically conservative tilt to win.
19. Florida-18—Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) is running for reelection
By the numbers, this race ought to go higher, with Romney having carried the district as Murphy just squeaked by controversial Rep. Allen West in 2012. But the GOP isn't so sure it has a marquee challenger here, and there's a reason why some Florida Republicans pined for former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a prodigious fundraiser, last year. Then again, plenty of folks scoffed at Murphy's viability as he set out last cycle, too. No one will ever run away with this district, but Murphy's high fundraising and luck of the draw so far move him a bit further down the list.
20. California-36—Rep. Raul Ruiz (D) is running for reelection
Republicans identified a candidate here early: Assemblyman Brian Nestande is a veteran of the Bono political machine. But he's started slowly, especially on the fundraising front. The Palm Springs-based district is changing rapidly, which helped fuel Ruiz's unexpected victory last term and helped Obama actually perform slightly better here in 2012 than 2008 despite losing ground nationally. If Ruiz can hold his seat and give that change another couple of years, congressional Republicans may never get another chance to retake the 36th.
21. Illinois-12—Rep. Bill Enyart (D) is running for reelection
Culturally, this downstate seat—bordered by Kentucky to the south and Missouri to the west—looks a lot like the type of Democratic district Republicans have flat-out assimilated, Borg-like, over the past few years, though Democrats still maintain a slight generic edge here. Enyart won his freshman term more easily than Republicans were expecting, though they think state Rep. Mike Bost could give him a run for his money.
22. Georgia-12—Rep. John Barrow (D) is running for reelection
Barrow ran a flawless 2012 campaign against a flawed opponent—and he still won with just under 54 percent. Such is life for the last remaining House Democrat in the Deep South. Romney won the seat by 12 percentage points, and Barrow's ceiling is too low for comfort no matter how much even House GOP strategists grudgingly praise his political survival instincts. Republican Rick Allen's deep pockets could play a role here.
23. California-21—Rep. David Valadao (R) is running for reelection
By presidential performance, this is the second-bluest seat held by a House Republican, so the relatively untested Valadao has to look over his shoulder a bit. But those numbers also obscure some major issues for Democrats in the Central Valley. Former Senate staffer Amanda Renteria has Democrats excited and may prove to be a strong campaigner, but her party just lost a 2013 state Senate special election in a district that largely overlapped with the 21st.
24. New York-19—Rep. Chris Gibson (R) is running for reelection
Gibson has proven a great electoral fit for the district, even as Obama carried the Hudson Valley seat in 2012, but investor Sean Eldridge (who is married to Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes) brings connections and cash to bear on the race, which has Republicans nervous. They've already begun savaging Eldridge as a carpetbagger out of touch with the median voter, while preemptively wincing at what might happen in an expensive race. Democrats tried and failed in 2012 to convince area voters that they should support a Democrat for Congress if they were going to support Obama; that will an important page in the playbook again in 2014.
25. Nevada-03—Rep. Joe Heck (R) is running for reelection
Heck beat back a Democratic challenge in 2012 rather easily considering the seat's narrow lean for Obama, and Democrat Erin Bilbray might be a tougher matchup when all is said and done. The big issue in this race so far has been immigration. Heck has endorsed a pathway to citizenship, but he has opposed the bipartisan Senate bill for comprehensive reform, and the biggest immigration vote he took in 2013 was one to defund Obama's executive Dream Act-style program. Bilbray has had trouble landing punches on the issue, but Heck could be a gauge of how immigration reform affects Republican prospects in diverse districts.
26. Illinois-10—Rep. Brad Schneider (D) is running for reelection
Democrats finally captured this district in 2012, when it was the bluest GOP-held seat in the country, after years of failed efforts. That type of seat often stays put once it finally flips, but former Rep. Bob Dold proved himself to be a reasonable Republican fit there last term and can run against Congress now, instead of as part of it. Illinois Democrats and Florida Republicans may have a similar worry this cycle: Keep an eye out for whether unpopular Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn suppresses enthusiasm for Schneider north of Chicago.
27. Pennsylvania-08—Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) is running for reelection
Fitzpatrick's easy victory last cycle means that Democrats' first-time candidates have to prove they can make the seat competitive, though it's another district that split between Obama and a GOP congressman. This is another state where Democrats hope an unpopular governor (Tom Corbett) drags down Republican performance down-ticket.
28. New Hampshire-02—Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D) is running for reelection
Kuster has only been in politics for a few years, but she has already accumulated a startling record of public gaffes, including grabbing a camera from a tracker, trying to grab the microphone from then-Rep. Charles Bass during a debate in 2012, and, most recently, dismissing a series of aggressive questions at a town-hall meeting. The district is Democratic-leaning—Kuster barely lost in 2010 despite that year's Republican wave—but it is not immune to the nation's political swings, and Kuster may prove to be a liability to herself. A small-sample poll from WMUR last October showed her unfavorability higher than her favorability rating, in contrast to her in-state Democratic colleague Shea-Porter, who represents a less friendly district.
29. New York-11—Rep. Michael Grimm (R) is running for reelection
Democrats' latest challenge to Grimm will be better-funded than their last, thanks to former New York City Councilor Domenic Recchia's connections, and the race looks set to be nastier, too, with Recchia and Grimm already going back and forth raising ethical issues about each other. Recchia is from Brooklyn, not Staten Island, but Democrats are betting he can still make a stronger push there even as Grimm argues he's more in tune with the district. This is one of just a handful of districts where Obama improved on his 2008 showing last election, though it's hard to say how much of that might have been a temporary effect of Hurricane Sandy.
30. Texas-23—Rep. Pete Gallego (D) is running for reelection
As with some previous districts, the numbers—including a Romney win here in 2012—dictate that Gallego stay on the watch list. But the NRCC quietly kept recruiting in this vast West Texas district after all three Republican candidates were already running, which sends a frank message about how the GOP views their prospects. Part of the problem: Former Rep. Quico Canseco, the best-known of the three Republican contenders, was savaged by Democratic ads last cycle, with lingering results on public opinion.
Honorable mentions: New Jersey-02—Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R) and Minnesota-07—Rep. Collin Peterson (D) are both running for reelection
There are numerous other districts we could mention. Michigan's 11th District, where reindeer-raising, Santa costume-wearing, tea-party Rep. Kerry Bentovolio faces both a primary and a general-election challenge, is particularly intriguing, as is the collective plight of the few remaining Blue Dog Democrats in the House. But these two make an interesting pair, and we're going to exercise some self-control and just talk about them for a moment. Here's why.
Peterson hasn't been seriously challenged since 1994, and Democrats and Republicans approach that fact from different angles. Perhaps Peterson is untouchable, despite his district's proclivity for Republicans at other levels of government. Or perhaps the GOP had never gotten a good enough candidate into the race, at least until blind state Sen. Torrey Westrom declared a bid earlier this year. It will take a few months to sort out right from wrong here. Pretty much the same goes for LoBiondo in New Jersey, where the DCCC has gotten behind former prosecutor Bill Hughes, son of LoBiondo's predecessor. The Republican incumbent has never gotten fewer than 59 percent of the votes in 10 elections. Peterson and LoBiondo have easily resisted the trend against ticket-splitting in the increasingly parliamentary House of Representatives. 2014 could provide the biggest test yet of that resistance.