Since our last House race rankings, outside spending has started in dozens of congressional districts -- and even finished in a few. Candidates have been introducing themselves to voters and attempting to define their opponents for weeks now, and those efforts have already moved the polls decisively in a handful of seats. Democrats still look unlikely to win back the House, but the most striking aspect about the House landscape right now is how differently Democrats and Republicans are viewing the battleground.
Operatives on both sides are firmly convinced of diametrically opposed scenarios in a number of key races. Republicans scoff at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's investment in California's 36th District, where they consider Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) as safe as could be. Democrats can't believe that the National Republican Congressional Committee is willing to spend money against Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) further north in the 9th District. These examples from the Golden State are just two of well over a dozen that Hotline has noticed in recent conversations with strategists observing and working in these races. For the first time in four cycles, no wave is emerging for either side, and that's making the landscape a little trickier to judge than in recent times. That won't stop us from trying, though, and without further introduction, we can proceed to our newest edition of Hotline's House Race Rankings.
In our rankings, we consider the candidates' fundraising ability; public and private polling; months of our cumulative reporting and analysis; and, of course, our own gut feelings. An important note: Reapportionment added a handful of brand-new districts to the mix. For simplicity's sake, we classify the new seats' "incumbent party" as Democratic or Republican based on The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index. Happily, that adds up to the same number of Democratic and Republican seats each party holds in the current Congress.
Without further ado, the districts we expect to be competitive this cycle, ranked in order of most likely to change partisan control today (and with last month's rankings noted):
1. (1) NC-13 (Open D, Rep. Brad Miller retiring): Former U.S. Attorney George Holding easily holds on to our top slot. He's a shoo-in.
2. (2) AR-04 (Open D, Rep. Mike Ross retiring): Republicans are already touting Army veteran Tom Cotton as a star in Washington, thanks in part to the massive war chest he is accumulating.
3. (4) MD-06 (R, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett): If you know any Republicans not employed by Bartlett who think he's going to win, we'd love to hear from them.
4. (5) NC-11 (Open D, Rep. Heath Shuler retiring): As we've noted before, Democrat Hayden Rogers is a strong nominee. But Democrats probably needed Shuler plus some providential help to keep this seat after the GOP's devastating gerrymander, and Republican Mark Meadows has a clear path to Congress.
5. (3) IL-08 (R, Rep. Joe Walsh): Republicans claim the race has tightened, and outside groups have poured in more than $1 million on Walsh's behalf. Still, even the newly conciliatory Walsh who appeared before the Daily Herald editorial board recently isn't the type of candidate who can attract the raft of swing voters needed to seriously challenge Democrat Tammy Duckworth outside Chicago.
6. (7) OK-02 (Open D, Rep. Dan Boren retiring): It's getting harder than ever for candidates to separate themselves from their national parties, and that's why Democrats don't have much hope of holding onto Boren's seat.
7. (8) NC-08 (D, Rep. Larry Kissell): The DCCC reserved more than $1 million of TV time here over the summer in case they needed it. But now, their weekly cancellations of that time demonstrate that redistricting has boosted Republican congressional staffer Richard Hudson to front-runner status.
8. (10) IN-02 (Open D, Rep. Joe Donnelly running for Senate): Democrats hoped Donnelly could drive friendly turnout in the district, but outside groups on both sides have cancelled TV reservations as repeat Republican candidate Jackie Walorski has taken control of the race.
9. (44) FL-26 (R, Rep. David Rivera): Rivera's campaign has completely imploded over the last few weeks, and the allegations that he secretly financed a Democratic primary campaign this year might be the last straw for the scandal-plagued freshman. Anything can happen in Miami, so we'll keep an eye on the race, but Republicans are barely acknowledging Rivera's existence, much less arguing that he could win reelection.
10. (6) NY-24 (R, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle): Buerkle has put together a strong campaign against former Rep. Dan Maffei, but the Democrat is a closer ideological fit with the district's undecided voters. They are leaning toward President Obama almost as strongly as they did in 2008, according to an independent poll in September.
11. (18) MA-06 (D, Rep. John Tierney): Independent polling from The Boston Globe confirmed what Republican surveys suggested: The bottom has dropped out of Tierney's campaign after the YG Action Fund and the NRCC spent big bucks assailing his family's legal problems. House Majority PAC has since decided its money could be better spent outside the pricey Boston media market. Richard Tisei could well become the first Republican to win a House seat as an openly gay candidate.
12. (14) GA-12 (D, Rep. John Barrow): Barrow is doing everything he can to separate himself from the national party with his sharp ad campaign, but Republicans still have plenty of string to tie him to Obama. GOP nominee Lee Anderson just has a shorter path to victory in reliable Republican country.
13. (11) NH-02 (R, Rep. Charlie Bass): Ann McLane Kuster wrested a camera from an overzealous GOP tracker the other day, and the NRCC cut an ad using the footage in the hope that it will provide part of the game-changing boost Bass needs to hold on. The candidates are making this race about two budgets: the Ryan plan and the Simpson-Bowles plan. If Kuster can make the election about Paul Ryan, she wins; if Bass can make it about Simpson-Bowles, he could come back.
14. (9) IL-10 (R, Rep. Robert Dold): The air war between Dold and Democrat Brad Schneider has been all positive so far. The real test is whether Dold can withstand the links with the national party that are surely coming when Democratic outside groups hit the airwaves in Chicago this month.
15. (17) IL-11 (R, Rep. Judy Biggert): "Dogfight," "coin flip," and "50-50" are among the terms operatives on both sides use to describe this race. Both candidates have a lot of money, but Bill Foster's personal wealth could play an important role in an expensive TV market.
16. (16) NY-27 (D, Rep. Kathy Hochul): Hochul is already running behind Chris Collins in independent polling, which placed her at 45 percent in August. One of the most touted Democratic campaigners in the House will need to put together a great October to recover.
17. (12) AZ-01 (Open R, Rep. Paul Gosar running in different district): Republican Jonathan Paton doesn't have the money to keep up with former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, but the NRCC is helping fill in the gap.
18. (13) IL-17 (R, Rep. Bobby Schilling): Democratic nominee Cheri Bustos has made up a name-recognition gap and pulled into contention with Schilling. The next step would be for Democrats' outsourcing attacks on Schilling to land harder than Republicans' graft charges against Bustos. Democrats argue that their line taps into voters' concerns more, though the GOP could take advantage of pervasive anti-politician attitudes.
19. (21) IA-03 (Merged D, Reps. Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)): Boswell is as reliant on Obama as any House Democrat in the country. He needs the presidential campaign's turnout operation to unearth as many Democratic voters as it can to combat Latham's advantage on the airwaves, which is taking its toll.
20. (19) CA-07 (R, Rep. Dan Lungren): Neither candidate excelled at their end-of-September debate, so it's down to which man's allies can disqualify the other nominee over the airwaves. As in many districts across the country, the Democratic TV effort appears better coordinated across different outside groups than the GOP effort. Ami Bera was featured in This American Life for a story about how outside money torpedoed his 2010 run, but his side has the edge this year. The DCCC recently increased its TV buy for this district.
21. (31) UT-04 (D, Rep. Jim Matheson): Someone is getting this race wrong. One GOP operative offered to bet his own arm that Mia Love would win, saying she'd locked up the race since the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Democrats insist she's getting no traction and Matheson is poised to win a close race. A newspaper poll at the end of September found Matheson slipping and Love ahead, 49 percent to 43 percent.
22. (27) MI-01 (R, Rep. Dan Benishek): Democrats have really gone after Benishek, who has scary-looking numbers in the available polling despite representing GOP-friendly territory. Republicans will have to disqualify Democrat Gary McDowell, using his comments about the cost of end-of-life care, to keep the seat, and it looks like it would have to be a razor-close victory.
23. (20) CA-52 (R, Rep. Brian Bilbray): Bilbray is the most vulnerable incumbent in a vulnerable state for Republicans. Democrats beat him 12 years ago by casting him as too conservative for a changing district, and they're trying again by connecting him to the Ryan plan. The NRCC has solid hits on Democrat Scott Peters and his tenure on San Diego's City Council in a slugfest of a race.
24. (25) OH-16 (Merged R, Reps. Jim Renacci (R) and Betty Sutton (D)): Sutton has hung on tough here despite unfavorable fundamentals and no TV ads before October. Every indication is that the race is tied, and Ohio is proving unexpectedly favorable for Democrats. There's still a long way to go to 50 percent for Sutton, though, especially without the Libertarian candidate on the ballot and with so many attack ads flying around.
25. (22) IL-12 (Open D, Rep. Jerry Costello retiring): Democrats are confident that nominee Bill Enyart has made up for lost time after joining the race late, though Republican Jason Plummer and the GOP have more to spend down the home stretch.
26. (28) CA-26 (Open R, Rep. Elton Gallegly retiring): Not much news escapes from this district, and we haven't seen a poll in a while. But Obama's improving fortunes could be particularly important in California, where the Republican Party is in shambles.
27. (15) RI-01 (D, Rep. David Cicilline): Cicilline's numbers have recovered somewhat since the beginning of the year, and the remaining voters he has to pick up to get to 50 percent will be voting for Obama and Sheldon Whitehouse. Republican Brendan Doherty has a steeper hill to climb.
28. (26) NH-01 (R, Rep. Frank Guinta): Public surveys haven't been friendly to Guinta -- Wednesday's WMUR-TV poll showing him down nine points and mired in the 30s was particularly brutal -- and Democratic polls show him in a tight race, but Republicans insist he's running ahead in internal numbers, and they released one such survey this week. Like many other rematches this year, the campaign took on a particularly nasty tone toward the end of September. But Carol Shea-Porter is viewed net positively and Guinta is viewed net negatively in the latest public data.
29. (32) NY-18 (R, Rep. Nan Hayworth): Both sides are having trouble landing their messages in a diffuse, cable-dominated district. Democrats have settled on women's issues as their point of attack against Hayworth, while Sean Patrick Maloney's political connections could cost him. It's interesting, though, that Hayworth hits him for working in Washington without mentioning his former employer, Bill Clinton.
30. (24) NC-07 (D, Rep. Mike McIntyre): This has been the most expensive district in the country for outside groups over the last month and a half, seeing over $2.5 million in independent expenditure ads. YG Action Fund's polling shows downward movement for McIntyre. But the district has proven the lone frustration for Republicans in an otherwise stellar North Carolina congressional landscape.
31. (23) FL-18 (R, Rep. Allen West): Democrats insist this race is balanced on a knife's edge, but Republicans think West's robust TV campaign has basically ended the race -- and that was before his camp released a brutal new ad contrasting Patrick Murphy's 2003 drunk and disorderly charge with West's military service. It's hard to know exactly what House Majority PAC's big investment means; in the age of unlimited contributions, it could be an expenditure directed by one of their big donors. But their poll showing Murphy leading suggests the race really is competitive still.
32. (34) NY-19 (R, Rep. Chris Gibson): National Republicans actually profess more worry about Gibson than Hayworth, despite the 19th District's more favorable GOP fundamentals. That has to do with more centralized messaging coming out of the Albany media market, which is why Crossroads GPS just invested $460,000 there to beat up Democrat Julian Schreibman before Democratic attacks on Gibson over Medicare can sink in.
33. (33) MN-08 (R, Rep. Chip Cravaack): Former Rep. Rick Nolan had to recover quickly from a tough, expensive primary. A few Democratic polls showed a tied race before the ads started flying, and we haven't had an update since then.
34. (56) CA-10 (R, Rep. Jeff Denham): Even though Washington Democrats touted Jose Hernandez's field worker-to-astronaut success story all year, they're still pleasantly surprised to see that he's mobilized Hispanic voters and turned the 10th District into a competitive race. There is a wide disparity in the quality of outside groups' hits against the candidates. GOP ads focus on Hernandez's spotty record of voting in elections and his residency in Houston during his NASA career, while TV spots from Democratic groups have hit Denham on the Ryan budget and legislative pay raises.
35. (30) PA-12 (D, Rep. Mark Critz): Republican Keith Rothfus is making sure to contest Critz's base around Johnstown to prevent a huge blowout there like the one that sunk Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire in the member-versus-member primary with Critz. This district really is a tale of two cities: The Pittsburgh suburbs should be strong Rothfus territory, but as Critz demonstrated in the primary, old-school union Democrats in his turf are motivated to keep Johnstown the unofficial capital of the 12th District.
36. (36) TX-23 (R, Rep. Francisco (Quico) Canseco): This sprawling, heavily Hispanic district is difficult to poll, and groups on both sides think their guy is ahead. That's why the DCCC, NRCC, and assorted outside groups are pouring money in for TV ads right now.
37. (29) CO-06 (R, Rep. Mike Coffman): Joe Miklosi isn't the strongest candidate, and Obama's underperformance in Colorado (relative to other swing states) won't help him in a marginal district.
38. (67) OH-06 (R, Rep. Bill Johnson): Both candidates are trading outsourcing attacks, with Johnson's focusing on Democrat Charlie Wilson's voting record and Wilson's focusing on Johnson's business career. This is a traditionally Democratic seat, but Obama is a drag on Wilson down-ballot (though Mitt Romney has his own challenges throughout Ohio). The amount of outside spending the district has seen speaks for itself.
39. (57) IA-04 (R, Rep. Steve King): Even the NRCC's latest TV ad concedes that former state first lady Christie Vilsack, the Democratic nominee, is personally popular. Republicans are trying to tie her to Obama, and they'll have to be more successful in the next few weeks in order to keep a tightening race from becoming a losing effort.
40. (35) NV-03 (R, Rep. Joe Heck): The overlapping turnout machines of Obama, Harry Reid, and Shelley Berkley will help Democrat John Oceguera, but he's been an unsteady candidate.
41. (45) NV-04 (New D): We haven't seen a poll with Republican Danny Tarkanian behind, and Republicans have a good set of ethical hits against Steven Horsford on TV in Las Vegas right now. The NRCC is pouring more money into the Democratic-leaning district to help Tarkanian make the tough breakthrough from the mid-40s to victory.
42. (73) FL-10 (R, Rep. Dan Webster): Former Orlando police chief Val Demings is a strong, charismatic candidate and is now getting help from House Majority PAC. But it will be tough to overcome redistricting, which put most friendly voters in a next-door district.
43. (58) CA-36 (R, Rep. Mary Bono Mack): Physician Raul Ruiz has mobilized Hispanic voters and raised money well, giving the DCCC enough confidence to open up a new front in its independent expenditure deployment.
44. (37) NY-21 (D, Rep. Bill Owens): Owens started out with a big lead in September's Siena poll, despite winning a squeaker against repeat GOP nominee Matt Doheny last cycle.
45. (39) PA-08 (R, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick): The NRCC took a nasty swipe at Democrat Kathy Boockvar last week, making a tenuous connection between her and convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal in robocalls and online ads. At the time of this writing, Philadelphia was the last major media market still waiting for outside groups to come in on TV. That will move the race one way or the other when it starts later this month.
46. (41) CO-03 (R, Rep. Scott Tipton): With Democrats having to spend money to defend two Denver-area seats instead of one, that leaves less left over to help nominee Sal Pace in a McCain district.
47. (54) AZ-09 (New D): Another district where Democrats and Republicans are on opposite wavelengths. The GOP is sure it can turn Democrat Kyrsten Sinema into a caricature, using past comments about stay-at-home mothers being "leeches," among other things. Republican Vernon Parker has his own liabilities, too. The August primary has left this race little time to develop so far.
48. (43) NY-11 (R, Rep. Michael Grimm): Grimm sported a lead and was near 50 percent in a September Siena poll, even though Obama led Mitt Romney in the Staten Island district. But you have to factor in the distinct possibility that one of several scandals breaks against him in the last five weeks, or that Democrat Mark Murphy's TV ads about those scandals resonate. There is plenty of material to work with.
49. (38) WI-07 (R, Rep. Sean Duffy): This race is a perfect example of why the parties are recruiting fewer and fewer state lawmakers to run for Congress. Duffy gave Democrats plenty of quotable material to work with, but Republicans are making some memorable ads out of Pat Kreitlow's state legislative record.
50. (49) IL-13 (Open R, Rep. Tim Johnson retiring): Outside groups on both sides are spending a bunch of money here, and Democratic polling has the race essentially tied at 40 percent. David Gill isn't a particularly strong nominee after several losing efforts, but he's making a real race for this seat.
51. (40) NY-01 (D, Rep. Tim Bishop): The hit on Bishop -- that he used constituent services to solicit donations -- sounds perfect for an ad campaign. But Bishop beat up Republican Randy Altschuler so effectively in 2010 that he might not be able to take advantage.
52. (53) CA-24 (D, Rep. Lois Capps): Both Capps and Abel Maldonado are tacking to the middle in personal appearances while slamming each other on the air. It'll be close through October, but the district has a Democratic lean.
53. (48) KY-06 (D, Rep. Ben Chandler): Chandler has a rematch in a much more favorable environment and a slightly more favorable district. Republicans are confident they can turn a recent spat on coal to Andy Barr’s advantage, though.
54. (50) CA-09 (D, Rep. Jerry McNerney): Democrats can't believe Republicans think this race is competitive. The district did get better for Democrats after redistricting, even if it encompasses unfamiliar inland territory; that aspect gets overlooked sometimes as people direct attention to 25-year-old "Young Gun" Ricky Gill's fundraising and natural political skill.
55. (59) CT-05 (Open D, Rep. Chris Murphy running for Senate): Both parties got the nominees they wanted, and that works out in Democrats' favor. The NRCC hasn't bothered spending in support of Andrew Roraback yet.
56. (55) IN-08 (R, Rep. Larry Bucshon): American Action Network tapped this race for one of their few September media buys, so there's a chance Democrat Dave Crooks could surprise. Bucshon is one of the weaker incumbents out there, but the district and the environment in Indiana are favorable.
57. (46) NJ-03 (R, Rep. Jon Runyan): Democrats love Shelley Adler's football-themed ads so far, but if this race breaks, it'll break late; both parties are waiting until the last month to get involved in the expensive Philadelphia media market. The NRCC just cancelled a big October buy for this race.
58. (42) VA-02 (R, Rep. Scott Rigell): The DCCC is shifting money out of the race and Republicans claim it's more or less over.
59. (47) FL-16 (R, Rep. Vern Buchanan): Something could happen here with the campaign finance charges against Buchanan's old partner, but as long as they just have allegations against Buchanan, Democrats have shown that they can't take advantage.
60. (51) WV-03 (D, Rep. Nick Rahall): Rahall would probably rather not have Obama on the ballot next to him, but he doesn't have too many problems beyond that. This seat will be a problem for Democrats eventually, but maybe not this year.
61. (63) IA-02 (D, Rep. Dave Loebsack): Loebsack caused a local furor with his ad hitting his opponent for outsourcing jobs, since Republican nominee John Archer worked for John Deere. Even Democratic colleague Leonard Boswell jumped on him a bit. But Archer still has a steep hill to climb to get a win here.
62. (65) WA-01 (Open D, Rep. Jay Inslee resigned to run for governor): Democrats aren't thrilled about spending money here to hit Republican John Koster while millionaire Democratic nominee Suzan DelBene recovers, off the airwaves, from the primary. But Republicans don’t expect anything from the seat.
63. (52) WI-08 (R, Rep. Reid Ribble): Groups like SEIU are already pulling their ad buys from northeast Wisconsin.
64. (62) FL-22 (New D): YG Action Fund is sinking a lot of money into the district highlighting Democrat Lois Frankel's rocky political career, but the material and the terrain in this district just aren't as friendly as elsewhere.
65. (64) IA-01 (D, Rep. Bruce Braley): The NRCC chose not to extend an early ad buy here, though they note that Republican Ben Lange has enough money to keep up the fight. The environment in east Iowa just looks less favorable for Republicans than it did a month and a half ago.
66. (66) CA-03 (D, Rep. John Garamendi): Garamendi has made some unnecessary campaign missteps, but Kim Vann might not have the money to make them matter.
67. (68) CA-47 (New D): Moderate Republican nominee Gary DeLong will prevent a Democratic rout, but probably not a Democratic victory.
68. (69) CA-41 (New D): Riverside County is historically Republican, but demographic change makes this district tough for the GOP.
69. (71) PA-06 (R, Rep. Jim Gerlach): No indications of a surprise here, yet, but you can't completely discount the effects of demographic change around Philadelphia.
70. (72) AZ-02 (D, Rep. Ron Barber): Republican Air Force veteran Martha McSally is one to watch, but probably in the future.
71. (--) CA-21 (New R): Republican David Valadao remains a heavy favorite, but keep an eye on this race. Valadao hasn't been up on TV yet, he's running against a Hispanic Democrat in a Hispanic-majority district, and at least one Republican watching the race says polls are moving in the wrong direction. Yes, the production values on John Hernandez's ads are lacking, but Obama won the district with 53 percent, and Valadao still needs to run a real campaign to win.