The two House campaign committees released their first independent expenditure television ads earlier this month -- four by the National Republican Congressional Committee and two by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Another one, a Republican ad targeting Utah's 4th District, is slated to start running later this week. Many candidates have spent a busy month releasing internal polling information and opening TV ads.
That is nothing compared to what lies ahead. Between them, the national committees have already reserved about $90 million in TV airtime, with outside groups likely to multiply that. Then there are the candidates themselves, who will hit the trail in earnest after Labor Day and spend down the campaign accounts some have spent a year and a half building up.
August marked the last steps by both Republicans and Democrats to solidify the fundamentals of the fall race before that tumultuous sprint begins. With no wave emerging for either side for the first time in four cycles, campaign strategy and candidate strength will matter more than they have recently. Candidates across the country have spent the last month tackling and testing answers to key questions, like how Paul Ryan and his budget plan could affect the campaign and how incumbents can defend or even harness their records in a year when Congress is as unpopular as ever. Even in the traditional non-political month of August, we've seen some early clues about the fall in a few races.
In our monthly 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. (Last month: 1) NC-13 (Open D, Rep. Brad Miller retiring). Say it with us: Rep. George Holding.
2. (2) AR-04 (Open D, Rep. Mike Ross retiring). We can't wait until Democratic nominee Gene Jeffress gets a real website. Tom Cotton will help complete the GOP's remarkable Arkansas sweep.
3. (3) IL-08 (R, Rep. Joe Walsh): Walsh told The Hotline he can pull of another upset like his late-breaking 2010 win, even though the environment is completely different. One constant remains, though: The NRCC hasn't earmarked any of its Chicago TV reservations for defending Walsh. He'll be going it alone in the fall, just like in 2010.
4. (4) MD-06 (R, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett). Bartlett will be one of the few victims of Democratic redistricting outside Illinois.
5. (5) NC-11 (Open D, Rep. Heath Shuler retiring): Democratic nominee Hayden Rogers is winning plaudits as a candidate, but his math in this district -- the most Republican-leaning in the state -- is just so difficult for a candidate without the benefits of incumbency.
6. (6) NY-24 (R, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle). Former Rep. Dan Maffei looks like a safe bet to head back to Congress.
7. (7) OK-02 (Open D, Rep. Dan Boren retiring). Republicans have always loved the math in this seat. They just couldn't peel away traditional Democratic voters fast enough. With Boren gone, they should succeed.
8. (9) NC-08 (D, Rep. Larry Kissell): Republicans got a stronger, better-funded campaigner as their nominee when Richard Hudson won the GOP primary runoff.
9. (8) IL-10 (R, Rep. Robert Dold): The GOP is remarkably optimistic about Dold despite his seat's partisan lean. Voters in this neck of the woods are simply used to voting for Republicans for Congress. One of Democrat Brad Schneider's tactics for loosening those votes has been snapping up endorsements from groups -- like the Human Rights Campaign and the League of Conservation Voters, among others -- who backed Dold last time and used to reliably support now-Sen. Mark Kirk, legitimizing him with moderate voters. We'll see if that helps Schneider loosen up the race in the fall; every poll we've seen has been deadlocked.
10. (11) IN-02 (Open D, Rep. Joe Donnelly running for Senate): Repeat Republican nominee Jackie Walorski just released one of the earliest candidate-funded attack ads of the general election. After losing narrowly to Donnelly in 2010, Walorski doesn't have as much work as usual to build up name ID and is running an accelerated campaign -- she released her first TV ad at the end of July. She would be saving herself a lot of work in the fall if she could crush Army veteran Brendan Mullen's candidacy early. But Democrats suggest Walorski's negative turn is a sign that something isn't working for her, and she does have bruises left over from the contentious midterm elections.
11. (10) NH-02 (R, Rep. Charlie Bass): Bass is viewed as the more vulnerable of New Hampshire's two Republican incumbents, though independent polls have shown him in better position. Strong, repeat Democratic candidate Ann McLane Kuster has a lot to do with the threat to Bass, and she has some name recognition to make up, but we'll be keeping an eye on this race to determine if Bass's Bowles-Simpson-supporting, pox-on-both-houses campaign is gaining any traction as we get into the fall.
12. (13) AZ-01 (Open R, Rep. Paul Gosar running in different district). Ex-Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is a good fit for a seat that moved left in redistricting.
13. (16) IL-17 (R, Rep. Bobby Schilling). The chips fell Democrats' way in Illinois, even if Cheri Bustos has a lot of name ID to make up in the coming weeks.
14. (14) GA-12 (D, Rep. John Barrow): The protracted Republican primary runoff is good news for Barrow, and candidates Lee Anderson and Rick Allen are obliging him with some nasty fighting. But the NRCC's first ad there, with tape of President Obama asking for support of Barrow, won't help the Blue Dog win the Mitt Romney supporters he needs to survive.
15. (12) RI-01 (D, Rep. David Cicilline): If Paul Ryan becoming the Republican VP nominee was good news for any Democrat, it was Cicilline, who needs something to help overcome stifling personal unpopularity in his deep blue seat. Brendan Doherty is clearly uncomfortable discussing Ryan's budget plan, and Cicilline may need it to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans.
16. (19) NY-27 (D, Rep. Kathy Hochul): Hochul starts out behind in the first public polls of the race, but no candidate on either side has made Medicare work for them on the trail more than Hochul, and Ryan's elevation gives her the opportunity to try it again.
17. (17) IL-11 (R, Rep. Judy Biggert): Perhaps Biggert is a case study of how much more enjoyable it is to be a member of the House majority than the minority. Many of the Democrats thrown into similarly gerrymandered districts chose to retire, but Biggert is waging battle against former Rep. Bill Foster with gusto. NRCC chair Pete Sessions did cite Biggert, along with Walsh, as the Illinois members in particularly tough spots, though.
18. (22) MA-06 (D, Rep. John Tierney): It's not just Republican Richard Tisei who's lining up opposite Tierney at this point; The Boston Globe has also sunk its teeth into the offshore gambling charges plaguing his family. This week, NRCC chair Sessions tabbed Tierney as the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the entire House.
19. (15) CA-07 (R, Rep. Dan Lungren): Democrat Ami Bera's campaign faltered under outside attacks and the GOP wave in 2010; this year, it's notable that several Democratic outside groups -- House Majority PAC, the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of Democracy -- are gearing up on the other side. This race figures to be one of the tightest in the country.
20. (26) CA-52 (R, Rep. Brian Bilbray): Democrat Scott Peters has shown observers why the national party hoped he would make it out of the primary, and the DCCC ponied up a big San Diego ad reservation since the last edition of our rankings came out.
21. (18) IA-03 (Merged D, Reps. Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)): Des Moines is poised to become one of the most saturated ad markets in the nation, and this matchup has a lot to do with it. Boswell just reserved his closing ad buy in the state capital, and Latham will obviously be spending all that money on something, as will the outside groups that have lined up on both sides, including Crossroads.
22. (23) IL-12 (Open D, Rep. Jerry Costello retiring): Democrats have the same problem here that Republicans could have in the 13th District: It's just hard for a nominee to jump in midstream. Bill Enyart is hitting a lot of the right notes after entering the race late, but it'll take a strong push on TV and the stump in the fall to make up for never having been in front of voters before. Democrats are painting Enyart as a more authentic representative of the blue-collar district and would like to tag Jason Plummer with some of the same resume doubts that plagued his lieutenant governor run in 2010.
23. (20) FL-18 (R, Rep. Allen West): This race hinges on what the Bob Crowder Republicans decide to do. West vanquished his moderate Republican primary opponent by 50 points last week, but the district is has a real core of moderate voters and is extremely tightly balanced. If Republican-turned-Democrat Patrick Murphy can appeal to them, that could break the deadlock in his favor. But West is running a solid campaign so far. It would help Murphy's chances if the super PAC partly funded by his family stopped playing into West's hands.
24. (21) NC-07 (D, Rep. Mike McIntyre): Both the DCCC and the NRCC are already on the air in southeastern North Carolina, while McIntyre is also on TV to introduce himself to new voters in the Raleigh media market. The DCCC hopes to cushion the big internal polling lead McIntyre's camp recently touted, but David Rouzer is bound to hit the air and fix his name ID deficiency soon, setting up a fall barn burner.
25. (24) OH-16 (Merged R, Reps. Jim Renacci (R) and Betty Sutton (D)): Mitt Romney and Jim Renacci are similar figures, for better or worse. If Romney repeats John McCain's 2008 win in this district, Renacci can expect to do well, too. If Democrats' attacks on Romney's business career catch on, this could be a place where Obama -- and Betty Sutton -- capitalize. In the meantime, we're eagerly awaiting any poll that shows the race at something other than a 40-40 tie, as constituents struggle to get acquainted with the new district lines.
26. (35) NH-01 (R, Rep. Frank Guinta): Guinta's early efforts to paint himself as an outsider challenging "Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter" backfired with negative media attention, and recently he's focused on turning his congressional service into a positive.
27. (34) MI-01 (R, Rep. Dan Benishek): Benishek is another Republican freshman running away from his incumbency. He was the first target of a Ryan budget-themed TV ad from the DCCC, and the potent TV spot -- which featured Benishek himself talking about "privatizing" and "phasing out" entitlements -- raises an interesting question: Just how much juicy tracker video of Republican freshmen is out there?
28. (27) CA-26 (Open R, Rep. Elton Gallegly retiring): Many California Democrats are concerned about their party's odds of besting GOP nominee Tony Strickland, a great fundraiser and campaigner. Democrats will have plenty of money to put toward their structural advantage, though: Outside groups like House Majority PAC and EMILY's List spent big to get Julia Brownley into the general election, and they won't just leave the race at that.
29. (28) CO-06 (R, Rep. Mike Coffman): Obama won this district by the same 9-point margin as his statewide spread in 2008, so the recent polls showing Obama and Mitt Romney tied in Colorado give some indication of how close this district is likely to be.
30. (30) PA-12 (D, Rep. Mark Critz): Here comes the cavalry. Neither candidate had all that much cash -- compared to other premier races, at least -- as of the last FEC deadline, so outside groups figure to play as big a role here as anywhere. The NRCC included Critz's district in its earliest ad buy of the cycle, and they plan to keep hitting him through Election Day, while House Majority PAC just released its own tough ad hitting Keith Rothfus this week.
31. (25) UT-04 (D, Rep. Jim Matheson): Republican bigwigs are parading to Utah to raise funds for a potential D.C. rock star in Mia Love, who just got a prime-time speaking role at the Republican National Convention. For their part, Democratic groups have already reserved about $2 million of Salt Lake City TV time to defend their lone seat in the state, and Matheson's support from the Chamber of Commerce demonstrates why he'll be so tough to beat.
32. (32) NY-18 (R, Rep. Nan Hayworth): Groups from both parties are pouring enough money into this district to make a fair test of whether Hayworth's wholehearted embrace of the Ryan budget is in fact too conservative for the area.
33. (33) MN-08 (R, Rep. Chip Cravaack): Rick Nolan won over a plurality of the Democratic primary electorate, but he'll need plenty of help to overcome Cravaack after fundraising weakly during the primary; the state DFL, which aired primary ads on his behalf, should step in nicely here. Even though Obama won 53 percent here in 2008, some Democrats worry the 8th District isn't strong blue territory so much as it was strong Jim Oberstar territory.
34. (29) NY-19 (R, Rep. Chris Gibson): Even Democrat Julian Schreibman's internal polling shows he has a long way to climb to catch Gibson. But both parties' investments in airtime on Albany TV stations are telling.
35. (31) NV-03 (R, Rep. Joe Heck): Heck should be feeling a little more endangered than he likely is, but his opponent has glaring weaknesses and isn't inspiring much confidence among Nevada Democrats. Still, Democratic registration just inched ahead of the GOP there, and if John Oceguera runs a quality fall campaign, no one will remember his early stumbles.
36. (38) TX-23 (R, Rep. Francisco (Quico) Canseco): State Rep. Pete Gallego had to wait for a runoff to secure the Democratic nomination. This district, which divided evenly in 2008, is a major testing ground for measuring the Hispanic shift toward Democrats.
37. (36) NY-21 (D, Rep. Bill Owens).
38. (37) WI-07 (R, Rep. Sean Duffy).
39. (39) PA-08 (R, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick): The massive hullabaloo over Todd Akin could end up playing out in suburban Philadelphia. Democrat Kathy Boockvar told National Journal earlier in August that social issues -- specifically abortion -- are among the main reasons why Fitzpatrick is too conservative for the district.
40. (51) NY-01 (D, Rep. Tim Bishop): It didn't seem like there was much to this race until pay-to-play allegations against Bishop surfaced recently. Accusations of trading official favors for campaign donations are awfully easy to distill into a TV spot, and the local press is providing Randy Altschuler's camp with plenty of good headlines to pick from when the inevitable ad comes. For his part, Bishop is going back at Altschuler with ads calling him an outsourcer, but this rematch could open up a little.
41. (41) CO-03 (R, Rep. Scott Tipton).
42. (42) VA-02 (R, Rep. Scott Rigell): Southeastern Virginia will be one of the front lines of the public opinion battle over sequestration, and Democrats are eager to appeal to residents with military-related jobs by hitting Rigell's vote for the 2011 budget deal. Meanwhile, Rigell is doing some reaching across the aisle of his own and working with black community activists to appeal to that demographic.
43. (47) NY-11 (R, Rep. Michael Grimm): The recent arrest of Grimm's chief fundraiser from 2010 could mark another step toward federal money-laundering charges against him, or it could spin off into a different issue. Either way, it didn't make him safer right now, nor did the news that the FBI was probing a foreign trip he took in 2011.
44. (45) FL-26 (R, Rep. David Rivera): Three-time Democratic nominee Joe Garcia brings a lot of baggage from his previous runs, especially his nasty 2010 fight with Rivera. But it's difficult to see the freshman as safe after all the ethics trouble he's had. Most recently, Rivera stands accused of having used envelopes stuffed with cash to finance mailings for a ringer candidate in the Democratic primary.
45. (40) NV-04 (New D): Democrat Steven Horsford has his liabilities, but Danny Tarkanian has managed to insult members of the two biggest ethnic groups in a majority-minority district over the last few weeks. We're not writing him off; we've just seen how this story ends before.
46. (49) NJ-03 (R, Rep. Jon Runyan).
47. (43) FL-16 (R, Rep. Vern Buchanan): Democrat Keith Fitzgerald has been hit with an ethics complaint, which Republicans hope will drag down his squeaky-clean image whether or not there's something more to it. But that won't matter if any of the fundraising investigations plaguing Buchanan blow up.
48. (55) KY-06 (D, Rep. Ben Chandler): Chandler was another early target for the NRCC's independent expenditure department.
49. (53) IL-13 (Open R, Rep. Tim Johnson retiring): Private polls show the race hasn't moved much since the primary; the fall TV wars will help introduce new GOP nominee Rodney Davis to an electorate that doesn't know him yet.
50. (59) CA-09 (D, Rep. Jerry McNerney): McNerney's residency -- he's moving to Stockton from Pleasanton -- recently became an issue, but this race is all about Republican Ricky Gill, the 25-year-old fundraising wunderkind who just got a speaking gig at the Republican National Convention. Once he gets back, he'll have to convince voters that he has the right experience, but there have rarely been years when more voters wanted to see a fresh face.
51. (48) WV-03 (D, Rep. Nick Rahall): If and when Rahall retires, Democrats could face an uphill battle for a seat that was once safe blue territory.
52. (50) WI-08 (R, Rep. Reid Ribble).
53. (63) CA-24 (D, Rep. Lois Capps): Missing taxable income (since properly reported) defanged one of Capps's principal lines of attack against Abel Maldonado, but she still has a structural advantage in the district.
54. (54) AZ-09 (New D): As expected, the Democrats are pummeling away at each other in the primary, but no clues about the general election have emerged.
55. (57) IN-08 (D, Rep. Larry Bucshon).
56. (58) CA-10 (R, Rep. Jeff Denham): This district seems bound to turn Democratic eventually; the question is when. A quick walk around Modesto is all you need to understand the pace of demographic change in this area and why Republicans need to figure out how to recover ground with Hispanics sooner rather than later.
57. (60) IA-04 (R, Rep. Steve King): Unlike Mike Coffman, who has had a quiet month in Colorado after some early missteps, King is still running (and running his mouth) like he's in a safe Republican district, and Christie Vilsack's name alone will bring some cross-party appeal. It's worth remembering, though, that this is the most Republican district in a closely divided state.
58. (67) CA-36 (R, Rep. Mary Bono Mack): Democrats remain optimistic they can break new ground in Palm Springs this cycle behind nominee Raul Ruiz. And more than one Southern California Republican said they wouldn't mind if the other party would sink some money into what the GOP sees as a safe seat.
59. (46) CT-05 (Open D, Rep. Chris Murphy running for Senate): Republicans' chances of a third New England pickup opportunity took a steep dive when Chris Donovan lost the Democratic primary, though moderate Republican nominee Andrew Roraback is the best fit for the district. Donovan could still cause Democrats trouble if he defies a few close labor allies and stays in the general as the Working Families candidate.
60. (61) MI-11 (Open R, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter resigned): Democrats got the GOP nominee -- Kerry Bentivolio -- that they wanted and local Republicans feared. Now they need to quickly assess whether Democrat Syed Taj can put together a competitive operation quickly.
61. (56) FL-02 (R, Rep. Steve Southerland): Al Lawson isn't the strongest Democratic nominee, but Southerland could cause his own problems. Recent revelations of his involvement in a rowdy congressional party in Israel are one good example.
62. (62) FL-22 (New D). Former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel is the candidate Democrats want. Republicans put themselves in good position with erstwhile Senate candidate Adam Hasner, but Allen West decided to run in the neighboring district for a reason.
63. (70) IA-02 (D, Rep. Dave Loebsack): See below.
64. (71) IA-01 (D, Rep. Bruce Braley): Republicans just laid down about $1 million worth of TV advertising reservations in Eastern Iowa, and that coupled with President Obama's frequent visits to the region suggest this area is one to watch in the fall.
65. (44) WA-01 (Open D, Rep. Jay Inslee resigned): National Republicans were prepared to spend on this race if Darcy Burner advanced to the general election, but Suzan DelBene will be the Democratic standard bearer, likely extinguishing chances of a Republican pickup.
66. (65) CA-03 (D, Rep. John Garamendi).
67. (66) OH-06 (R, Rep. Bill Johnson).
68. (72) CA-47 (New D).
69. (73) CA-41 (New D).
70. (52) FL-09 (New D): Maybe John Quinones could have given Alan Grayson a run here, but Republican nominee Todd Long cannot.
71. (68) PA-06 (R, Rep. Jim Gerlach).
72. (64) AZ-02 (D, Rep. Ron Barber): GOP polling shows a tight race between Barber and Martha McSally, but it would be exceedingly rare for the district's voters to turn on Barber so quickly after a special election, even if McSally is a strong candidate.
73. (74) FL-10 (R, Rep. Dan Webster).
(Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter's NY-25 and GOP Rep. Richard Hanna's NY-22 have dropped off our race rankings. They or other races could be added back in the future.)