With less than a week to go until Election Day, we feel confident saying that the “Drive to 25” is dead. Democrats will not take back the House on Tuesday night, and privately at least, most Democratic strategists will admit that. The party is likely poised to make gains, but as many as 30 House districts that will determine the size of that net change are each balanced on an individual knife’s edge.
Without a partisan wave in sight, both parties are rediscovering the difficulty of knocking off incumbents. Despite favorable redistricting and partisan leans, the districts of Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre, Jim Matheson, Mark Critz, and John Barrow are far from certain pickup opportunities for Republicans. Nor is the most Democratic-leaning GOP-held seat in the country, Rep. Robert Dold’s 10th District in Illinois, or a host of other diverse congressional districts in Illinois, California, and other areas where President Obama is expected to do well.
A similar pattern has emerged in open seats: Without those waves we’ve gotten used to, both parties are having trouble locking down races that should have been over months ago. The middle 30 or so races in the Hotline’s final House rankings are packed with these kinds of districts, and it looks as if individual factors will play a bigger role than the national environment in determining what happens to them and thus what next year’s House of Representatives looks like.
As a result, there is a wide range of possible outcomes. If fortune -- and the presidential election, and turnout projections -- favors the GOP, it could actually add a few seats to its historically large majority. If Democrats can tilt most of the toss-ups their way, partly by having better Hispanic turnout in California and elsewhere, they could potentially net double-digit gains. The most likely scenario in this closely divided election year is something in the middle, with Democrats gaining three to seven seats.
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 view as most competitive in this election, ranked in order of most likely to change partisan control (and with last month's rankings noted):
1. (1) NC-13 (Open D, Rep. Brad Miller retiring): George Holding has had this race on lockdown since May 8, the night he won the GOP nomination.
2. (2) AR-04 (Open D, Rep. Mike Ross retiring): Tom Cotton's victory is a foregone conclusion. The really interesting question is whether Democrats' failure to mount serious congressional campaigns in Arkansas foretells trouble ahead for Sen. Mark Pryor in 2014.
3. (3) MD-06 (R, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett retiring): Bartlett will be a victim of Maryland Democrats' gerrymandered congressional map.
4. (4) NC-11 (Open D, Rep. Heath Shuler retiring): Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. -- we ought to get used to that.
5. (5) IL-08 (R, Rep. Joe Walsh): Walsh's prospects experienced something of a boomlet after the first presidential debate, but that has completely faded, especially after his recent abortion comments. Now or Never PAC abandoned and then restarted its quixotic, multimillion dollar effort to save Walsh as the polls dipped. It is seriously unlikely to make a difference.
6. (6) OK-02 (Open D, Rep. Dan Boren retiring): Boren himself probably would have held on, but Democrats were never going to find a replacement after he decided to retire.
7. (7) NC-08 (D, Rep. Larry Kissell): Maybe if Charlotte TV wasn't so expensive, Kissell could have gotten some help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But it is, and he didn't.
8. (9) FL-26 (R, Rep. David Rivera): Rivera has shown no signs of improvement since our last rankings. Most Republicans have written him off and look forward to contesting the seat in 2014.
9. (8) IN-02 (Open D, Rep. Joe Donnelly running for Senate): Outside groups on both sides (Crossroads GPS and House Majority PAC) have invested late money in the race, but repeat GOP nominee Jackie Walorski is still the front-runner. One wild card: Could Richard Mourdock's struggles in the Senate race boost Democrats in Donnelly's district?
10. (10) NY-24 (R, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle): National Republicans expected to have to triage this race -- that is, cutting off their own incumbent -- but Buerkle has shown enough resilience for them to stay in. Dan Maffei's high unfavorables -- this is his fourth time running -- are keeping the polls close, but the undecideds will be heavy on Obama voters and are expected to break Maffei's way.
11. (11) MA-06 (D, Rep. John Tierney): The National Republican Congressional Committee and outside groups like YG Action Fund broke Tierney's image early, and we've seen nothing suggesting that he's making a comeback.
12. (15) IL-11 (R, Rep. Judy Biggert): Various GOP operatives see Biggert as the most endangered Illinois Republican after Walsh, with her numbers slipping over the past few months.
13. (16) NY-27 (D, Rep. Kathy Hochul): If there was a wave, or if a less dynamic Democrat was defending the seat, Chris Collins would be coasting home. But Hochul's skill as a candidate keeps this race from leaning strongly Republican.
14. (13) NH-02 (R, Rep. Charlie Bass): Ann McLane Kuster never blew this race open, but Democrats are still confident in her rematch effort against Bass.
15. (18) IL-17 (R, Rep. Bobby Schilling): Like Biggert, Schilling has slipped as the fall campaign swung into gear, though Republicans hope Obama slips further in the rest of the state than he does in the Chicago suburbs, putting the brakes on a few challengers like Cheri Bustos.
16. (19) IA-03 (Merged D, Reps. Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)): Boswell needs to hold onto nearly all of the district's Obama voters to win, and reports suggest Latham is winning enough to his side. The seat is too evenly split for Republicans to feel comfortable, but Latham is in a good position.
17. (20) CA-07 (R, Rep. Dan Lungren): Ami Bera has outspent Lungren and gotten more outside help, and that's driven Lungren's numbers down. Bera commands a slight advantage, but it's a closely divided district and the race is likely to be close.
18. (12) GA-12 (D, Rep. John Barrow): Barrow's excellent campaign, which successfully appealed to liberal blacks and white conservatives at once and included the best flight of TV ads we saw this cycle, has kept him in contention in a very tough district. GOP nominee Lee Anderson has something to do with it, too. It's still an uphill climb for Barrow to survive, but Republicans are suddenly not optimistic about their chances of taking what once looked like a slam-dunk seat.
19. (23) CA-52 (R, Rep. Brian Bilbray): This race is emblematic of the situation in California at large. Both parties think they're in control here, having defined the other candidate effectively and driven down his poll numbers. If either Bilbray or Scott Peters wins comfortably, that will be a good sign for their party in the state, suggesting the other side’s minority-turnout estimates were seriously wrong.
20. (17) AZ-01 (Open R, Rep. Paul Gosar running in different district): Former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has slipped in the past month as the presidential race has tightened; the question is whether she slipped below Republican Jonathan Paton. Losing the Arizona Republic's endorsement was an embarrassing setback for Kirkpatrick.
21. (21) UT-04 (D, Rep. Jim Matheson): Matheson and Mia Love are competing for an unusual bloc of swing voters -- solid Republicans -- in the final days. Love's camp is airing a direct-to-camera appeal from Mitt Romney to discourage ticket-splitting, while Matheson touts his own GOP support. The incumbent is below 50 percent support, but his popularity means he won’t be blown out, even if he does fall short.
22. (22) MI-01 (R, Rep. Dan Benishek): Republicans say Benishek's numbers have improved in October, but he was under sustained assault from Democratic outside groups for so long he might not be able to recover. Democrats expect a win here.
23. (33) MN-08 (R, Rep. Chip Cravaack): Polling is all over the place here, and if Minnesota is in fact getting closer at the presidential level, this district could be a prime trouble spot for Democrats. Some Republicans had expected Cravaack to be toast by now, but he's run a good campaign. This is still a district John Kerry won in 2004, though.
24. (25) IL-12 (Open D, Rep. Jerry Costello retiring): This race might belong higher on the list, but there is so much conflicting information coming out of this district that it's hard to tell what’s really happening. Republican Jason Plummer has not had a strong finish to his campaign, but GOP polls show him up comfortably. Democrats likewise see Bill Enyart in command of a close race. The races in this section of the rankings really could go either way.
25. (14) IL-10 (R, Rep. Robert Dold): Despite representing the most Obama-friendly GOP-held district in the country, Dold isn't even the most threatened GOP incumbent in Illinois. He might be an even better candidate than Mark Kirk. He doesn't yet have the long-time connections and name ID that allowed Kirk to survive tough races, though, and that could help Brad Schneider line up enough Obama voters to win, even if his campaign hasn't set the world on fire.
26. (35) PA-12 (D, Rep. Mark Critz): Stop us if we're getting repetitive: Like previous (and future) incumbents on this list, Critz's numbers took a dive after sustained attacks by Republicans and improved performance by Mitt Romney in western Pennsylvania. Romney has pushed close to 60 percent in this district, causing Critz to double down on his conservative bona fides in his campaign. Critz has pulled a rabbit out of his hat in three elections in the past two years, a characteristic that elicits nervousness in GOP strategists who would love to finally win this seat.
27. (26) CA-26 (Open R, Rep. Elton Gallegly retiring): Republican Tony Strickland is making this race closer than its partisan performance and voter-registration statistics suggest, and he started the general with an advantage over Democrat Julia Brownley. Like the Bilbray race, the results here could provide a barometer for the rest of California. Both sides think they're winning for reasons that translate to other districts in the state.
28. (53) KY-06 (D, Rep. Ben Chandler): Democrats acknowledge this race has gotten close -- the DCCC invested here late. They still can't see Chandler losing to his 2010 opponent in a more favorable district and environment. But this coal-focused race has taken place on different terms than the 2010 contest, exposing the vulnerabilities you'd expect for a Kentucky Democrat in a federal race.
29. (28) NH-01 (R, Rep. Frank Guinta): Carol Shea-Porter has impressed Democrats and Republicans alike with her campaign, and Guinta's public poll numbers have been low. Romney's performance will be key to helping Guinta across the finish line; this district has a helping of undecided voters still making up their minds.
30. (30) NC-07 (D, Rep. Mike McIntyre): Like Critz, McIntyre's penchant for survival frustrates Republicans, and they credit him for running a good campaign emphasizing his conservatism. Still, a strong night for Romney could help topple yet another Blue Dog Democrat and complete a GOP sweep of vulnerable North Carolina House seats.
31. (34) CA-10 (R, Rep. Jeff Denham): This race evolved from a Democratic reach to a true toss-up and forced American Action Network to make the biggest outlay (more than $2.5 million) of all of its pro-GOP expenditures this cycle.
32. (24) OH-16 (Merged R, Reps. Jim Renacci (R) and Betty Sutton (D)): By waiting until October to go on TV, Sutton risked her message getting lost in the turbulent airwaves of the country's prime battleground media market. Both Sutton and Renacci are disliked after millions of dollars in attack ads against them, but Republican polling shows Renacci opening a consistent lead, and we haven't seen a Democratic one in a while.
33. (27) RI-01 (D, Rep. David Cicilline): Even when Cicilline's numbers jumped after the convention, he never got near majority support, and his unfavorable ratings are still sky-high in public polls. That's why the NRCC bought TV time here for the final week: to convert that unpopularity into a few more Obama-Brendan Doherty voters, of which they'll need a ton.
34. (32) NY-19 (R, Rep. Chris Gibson): Democrat Julian Schreibman has made up ground quickly over the last month, and Obama sports a solid lead in the district, too. Medicare hasn't been the electoral talisman Democrats had hoped for nationwide, but it has been a major factor in this race. Democrats expect to win one of the two GOP-held seats to the north of New York City, but they're not sure which one will break.
35. (29) NY-18 (R, Rep. Nan Hayworth): Hayworth's standing didn't deteriorate from September to October, according to independent Siena polls, but Democratic groups and their well-funded candidate are running hard in a race both sides call close. One wild card: Will Hurricane Sandy dredge up unhappy memories of Hayworth's reaction to Hurricane Irene, when she upset locals by favoring budget offsets for disaster-relief funding?
36. (41) NV-04 (New D): Democrats hoped to come out of this election with a 3-1 advantage in Nevada's House delegation, but Steven Horsford's inability to put this district away has made a 3-1 split the other way a distinct possibility. Horsford still has demographics and a distinct Democratic lean on his side, but time is running out and we've never seen a poll showing Horsford tied with Danny Tarkanian, much less ahead.
37. (50) IL-13 (Open R, Rep. Tim Johnson retiring): Both sides express confusion about a district that's seen its twists and turns this year. It was redrawn to help Democrats; then the less-favored Democrat won the primary. Then Johnson retired, and Democrat David Gill, a physician and three-time loser to Johnson, did an unexpectedly good job connecting with voters and translating his bedside manner to campaign interactions. The GOP has also run some very effective ads against him. If both this and the 12th District break the same way, that'll be a very good sign for the winning party.
38. (55) CT-05 (Open D, Rep. Chris Murphy running for Senate): Democrat Elizabeth Esty has struggled to break through against a popular moderate Republican in Andrew Roraback. (If the GOP tried to build a successful New England Republican House candidate in a laboratory, the result would look like Roraback.) Murphy's recent recovery in the Senate race helps her, but it doesn't guarantee anything. The DCCC had hoped to avoid committing serious resources here after Esty won the primary.
39. (43) CA-36 (R, Rep. Mary Bono Mack): Bono Mack is severely underperforming. The NRCC and a few other outside groups hope to arrest Democrat Raul Ruiz's momentum with harsh ads featuring audiotape of a protest-rally speech he gave in the '90s, in which he praised two convicted cop killers. But that didn't stop the Palm Springs Desert Sun from endorsing Ruiz, and Bono Mack's made plenty of her own missteps. Ruiz's chances rest on a mobilized Hispanic electorate, and Bono Mack recently said that Hispanic outreach on her part could wait until after the election.
40. (38) OH-06 (R, Rep. Bill Johnson): The districts where Democratic and Republican expectations most diverge tend to fall into two categories: very diverse districts, like the California battlegrounds, and ones like this with a more working-class white profile. Democrats have shown former Rep. Charlie Wilson consistently improving and taking a lead, while Republicans never saw Johnson dip below 48 percent. It's easier to imagine Romney's coattails carrying Johnson over the finish line, but don't forget that this is a traditional Democratic district, once held by Ted Strickland.
41. (44) NY-21 (D, Rep. Bill Owens): The latest Siena poll had Owens tied with Matt Doheny and well under 50 percent, and the DCCC made a late TV investment in the district. Both moves suggest Owens looks far less safe than he did in September, though Democratic internals show Doheny doing less well.
42. (36) TX-23 (R, Rep. Francisco (Quico) Canseco): The 23rd is a vast, heavily Hispanic district that neither party has a clear read on -- results simply vary poll by poll. The demographics suggest a Democratic trend, but it’s a traditional GOP district where Republicans expect Obama and his party to regress after a narrow win in 2008.
43. (31) FL-18 (R, Rep. Allen West): Democratic groups and Patrick Murphy have outspent West on TV some weeks, but the incumbent has maintained an Obama-like advantage on the airwaves, consistently airing more spots than the forces opposing him. This district has a habit of dividing nearly evenly, and Republicans see West leading (and above 50 percent) in a close race. Murphy could make a late charge, but West has had the upper hand from the start on the Treasure Coast.
44. (52) CA-24 (D, Rep. Lois Capps): Capps hasn't had to run a real race in years, and it has showed against Abel Maldonado. Even though the district isn't as Democratic as it was pre-redistricting, it still leans that way, which could be enough to lock out Maldonado, one of the few California Republican candidates who is overperforming.
45. (42) FL-10 (R, Rep. Dan Webster): Webster, a weak fundraiser, improved his standing after the first presidential debate, but now he's getting hammered by outside groups including Michael Bloomberg's super PAC, while American Action Network came in to bail him out on the other side. The 10th District leans decisively Republican now, but that's about all Webster has going for him.
46. (37) CO-06 (R, Rep. Mike Coffman): Both sides expect the party that carries Colorado's electoral votes to carry this bellwether district, too, and the GOP likes what it's seen from early voting.
47. (40) NV-03 (D, Rep. Joe Heck): Democrats' hope here is that the machine turning out support for Obama and Shelley Berkley can drag John Oceguera across the finish line, too, but Heck has proven to be one of the GOP's most durable freshmen in tough races.
48. (51) NY-01 (D, Rep. Tim Bishop): As with Chandler's race in Kentucky, Bishop faces the same opponent as the last time and Republicans see him making a charge. The dynamics of this race are much the same as they were in 2010, though, the accusation that Bishop traded constituent services for campaign contributions notwithstanding. Hurricane Sandy adds a layer of mystery here, however.
49. (47) AZ-09 (New D): Republican ads continue to focus on Kyrsten Sinema's old comments criticizing stay-at-home mothers, but those ads have been running for weeks and the race hasn't broken yet.
50. (--) TN-04 (R, Rep. Scott DesJarlais): Thanks to late-breaking revelations about affairs DesJarlais had with his medical patients, it's anyone's guess what will happen here. The district is very (even severely?) conservative, which gives the Republican a cushion but also could make the abortion-related aspects of the story very damaging for him. House Majority PAC is on the air trying to make the story stick.
51. (--) FL-02 (R, Rep. Steve Southerland): Democrats have made a late, hard push at this conservative-but-swing district that Southerland never shored up after riding the wave to victory in 2010. But those same Democrats worried earlier this cycle that Al Lawson would be too liberal for the Panhandle seat.
52. (39) IA-04 (R, Rep. Steve King): After an early-autumn scare, King's numbers have recovered along with Republican fortunes overall in the "post-debate" era. But Democrats led by House Majority PAC are still driving hard at him.
53. (54) CA-09 (D, Rep. Jerry McNerney): 25-year-old Republican Ricky Gill could still make it close, but few in the GOP hold out hope for a victory any longer. He has plenty of time to make another foray into politics, though.
54. (--) MN-06 (R, Rep. Michele Bachmann): Terrible unfavorable ratings hamper Bachmann even though her district got more conservative. Whether that's enough to make Romney voters pull the lever for Jim Graves is an outstanding question.
55. (49) WI-07 (R, Rep. Sean Duffy): The DCCC reinvested money here when it shuffled ad buys in October, but Republicans say we'll look back at this district as that committee's biggest waste of money this cycle, especially when they could have used it in the next-door Minnesota 8th.
56. (56) IN-08 (R, Rep. Larry Bucshon): Bucshon is one of several weak freshman Republicans whose districts never should have been in danger, but Romney's October improvement helped solidify his position, anyway.
57. (57) NJ-03 (R, Rep. Jon Runyan): Of all the freshmen in the Philadelphia media market, Runyan was the only one adjudged to need help in the form of a big outside media buy. But Democrats never came to Shelley Adler's aid on the other side.
58. (46) CO-03 (R, Rep. Scott Tipton): A growing Hispanic population and a strong Democratic nominee in Sal Pace gave the DCCC reason for hope here initially, but Americans for Tax Reform's big TV buy unbalanced the scales too much while Democrats focused on the Denver-based battlegrounds.
59. (67) CA-47 (New D) and 60. (68) CA-41 (New D): Strong candidates and sleepy circumstances give Republicans a glimmer of hope in these two Democratic-leaning open seats, which are often tough to win for the favored party. But demographics and support for Obama favor the Democrats heavily.
61. (--) CO-07 (D, Rep. Ed Perlmutter): Democratic groups helped stop GOP nominee Joe Coors in his tracks with some sharp ads earlier, though Republicans still believe a really strong Election Night from Romney could bring a win here.
62. (70) AZ-02 (D, Rep. Ron Barber): As we've written before, it would take a historic surprise for voters to reject Barber so soon after putting him in office.
63. (64) FL-22 (New D): Like many open-seat races, this one will likely be closer than the presidential spread in the district, but Democrat Lois Frankel is still expected to win.
64. (--) TX-14 (Open R, Rep. Ron Paul retiring): One Republican strategist described the 23rd District as a GOP-leaning area where they could have potentially had trouble, but the party had invested in plenty of air cover. That's not the case here, where Republican nominee Randy Weber has run a weak campaign and former Rep. Nick Lampson has an independent brand. This is a very conservative district, so some straight-ticket voting should help get Weber through. Still, Lampson has an undeniable, if slim, opportunity, which the DCCC aided with a late ad buy.
65. (--) MI-11 (Open R, former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter resigned): Republican reindeer farmer and part-time Santa Claus Kerry Bentivolio will probably win the seat. But, as the weirdness of that sentence hopefully conveys, it's been such a strange cycle in this district that nothing would surprise us, and again, open seats make surprises more likely. The Democratic candidate isn't an all-star either, though.
66. (45) PA-08 (R, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick): The Democratic outside-group retreat from Philadelphia sewed this one up for Fitzpatrick.
67. (60) WV-03 (D, Rep. Nick Rahall): With more time and money, Republicans feel that they could've made a move here, but the West Virginia Democratic brand endures in the House -- for now.