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POLITICS

Dems' Backdoor Strategy

Democrats hope to keep their House majority by taking out a few GOP incumbents.

Updated at 11:17 a.m. on October 22.

New Orleans. Honolulu. Sacramento. Suburban Chicago and Seattle. The southern tip of Florida. Delaware. Maybe Allentown, Pa.

 

This is not some disjointed vacation showcase on The Price Is Right. It's not a postcollege odyssey of discovery. It's not a road map for Zach Galifianakis's The Hangover 2 (though, come to think of it ... ).

No, this is what remains of the House Democrats' midterm opportunity map, congressional districts where they might be able to capture Republican-held seats and in so doing, retain their majority.

Republicans need to win 39 net seats to retake the House. But each district they lose makes that task a little harder. If the GOP wins 42 Democratic seats but loses five of its own, the party falls two seats short of the necessary 39. Gross versus net often determines the viability of any enterprise. Next month, it will determine the viability of the Democrats' House majority.

 

The last time House Democrats faced a potential Republican wave, they lost the net game in a blowout. Republicans took 58 seats total from the Democrats in 1994 (including May special-election victories in Oklahoma and Kentucky). On election night, they lost four open-seat races in Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, giving them a net gain of 54 seats over their 1992 total. Democrats have vowed that this cycle will be different. A crucial part of their save-the-majority strategy is opening trapdoors wherever they can.

Democratic strategists believe that two GOP-held seats are already locked up -- the New Orleans-based 2nd District in Louisiana and Delaware's at-large district.

In New Orleans, Rep. Joseph Cao trails state Rep. Cedric Richmond (among the few Democratic candidates embracing President Obama's endorsement) by 11 points in the most recent poll. Cao won a low-turnout special election in December over indicted Rep. William Jefferson, but he appears unlikely to survive a race with a normal turnout in one of the nation's most reliably Democratic districts. In Delaware, the opening left by Rep. Michael Castle, a moderate who lost his bid for the GOP Senate nomination to conservative Christine O'Donnell, produced a similar result when conservative Glen Urquhart defeated moderate Michele Rollins. The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Carney, leads Urquhart by double digits, and Republicans privately rate both of these races as lost.

Democrats also expect to win Hawaii's 1st District, but that race has been complicated by GOP Rep. Charles Djou's resilience against Democratic state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa. Djou won a special election for Rep. Neil Abercrombie's seat when fractious Democrats split their vote between Hanabusa and Ed Case. A unified party, Democrats assumed, would make short work of Djou, but public and private polls show a tight contest, and both candidates have plenty of money and party backing for the homestretch. Plus, Djou has history on his side: Hawaii has never tossed an incumbent from federal office.

 

The Democrats' next two targets couldn't be less alike: open seats in the leafy, well-manicured North Chicago suburbs that make up Illinois's 10th District and in southern Florida's vast, swampy 25th District, a growing, ethnically polyglot swath wedged between Miami and Naples.

With GOP Rep. Mark Kirk vacating his Illinois seat to try for Senate, Democrat Dan Seals is running for the third straight cycle, drawing Republican Bob Dold as his opponent in a House district that tilts Democratic and has been a battleground in the last two elections. On Wednesday, a poll in The Hill showed Seals leading by 49 percent to 37 percent. In Florida's 25th, Republicans are angry -- not at Washington, but at Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a first-generation Cuban-American. He fled this seat to run in the more compact and nominally more Cuban 21st District, creating an opening for former Miami-Dade County Democratic Chairman Joe Garcia, who lost to Diaz-Balart, 53 percent to 47 percent, in 2008. Garcia is running again and Republicans privately admit that their candidate, former state House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Rivera, though well-funded, is flawed. Republicans worry that higher turnout driven by races for governor and Senate will benefit the better-known Garcia. One Democratic poll in September had Garcia up by 7 points.

These are the Democrats' five best prospects. Two more GOP seats stick out among a grab bag of eight others on their radar: California's 3rd District and Pennsylvania's 15th District.

In California, Rep. Dan Lungren survived a fierce challenge in his suburban Sacramento district in the Obama-wave year of 2008 and should be safe this cycle. But he's not. Lungren continues to poll in the mid-40s against newcomer Ami Bera, a first-generation Indian-American physician likely to out-raise him. National party strategists say Lungren is on his own and can eke out a victory.

The last Democratic hope for a victory over a GOP incumbent can be found in Pennsylvania's 15th District, dominated by Allentown and Bethlehem. Rep. Charlie Dent represents former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey's district, and Toomey's Senate campaign could provide a turnout boost. It looks like Dent will need all the votes he can get to fend off Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who has stayed close in the polls. Jon Vogel, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, this week rated the race as the Democrats' top upset prospect. With so many Democratic seats threatened, the party may need that upset -- and a few more -- to hold the House.

CORRECTION: The original version of this report should have stated that Republicans lost four open seats on election night in 1994.

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