The 10 Most Compelling House Races of 2014

This year’s contests feature a blind state senator, the first female Hispanic chief of staff in the Senate, and three openly gay Republicans.

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 13: U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), ranking member of the House Resources Committee, ask questions during a Congressional forum on mine safety sponsored by U.S. House of Representatives Democrats February 13, 2006 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Family members of miners killed in mining disasters in West Virginia last month and in Alabama in 2001 were invited to tell their stories. Miners who previously worked at the Sago Mine in West Virginia also testified. 
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Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 22, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

With the con­trol of the Sen­ate squarely at stake this year, com­par­at­ively little at­ten­tion has been paid to House races. But even if Re­pub­lic­ans hold a near-lock on the ma­jor­ity, it doesn’t mean there aren’t con­sequen­tial races tak­ing place in Novem­ber, which will of­fer clues about the na­tion­al polit­ic­al land­scape.

All told, giv­en the fa­vor­able na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment for Re­pub­lic­ans, the ma­jor­ity party is ex­pec­ted to net seats. Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden’s goal is to win 12 ad­di­tion­al House seats, the up­per end of The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port‘s latest pro­jec­tion, which calls for GOP gains of 2-12 seats. But more in­ter­est­ing than the fi­nal seat break­down are the per­son­al­it­ies of the can­did­ates in­volved.

In Min­nesota, a blind state sen­at­or is run­ning in a com­pet­it­ive race for the Re­pub­lic­ans, while the first His­pan­ic Sen­ate chief of staff is one of the Demo­crats’ top re­cruits. And Re­pub­lic­ans boast three openly gay can­did­ates — two of whom hold sol­id odds of de­feat­ing House Demo­crats. Im­port­ant is­sues are be­ing lit­ig­ated, too, wheth­er it’s the pres­id­ent’s health care law for Demo­crats in con­ser­vat­ive-minded dis­tricts or im­mig­ra­tion for Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing di­verse battle­ground seats.

Here are 10 of the most com­pel­ling races to watch:

1. ARI­ZONA 02: Rep. Ron Barber (D) vs. Martha Mc­Sally (R)

Barber is one of the most vul­ner­able House Demo­crats, a sur­pris­ing turn of events since he won elec­tion as Rep. Gab­ri­elle Gif­fords’s hand­picked suc­cessor. Barber was ser­i­ously in­jured in the at­tack that wounded the con­gress­wo­man, but the former Gif­fords dis­trict dir­ect­or re­covered to com­fort­ably win a com­pet­it­ive spe­cial elec­tion in 2012 against a tea-party-aligned op­pon­ent. However, against a stronger Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger in Novem­ber — re­tired Air Force Col. Martha Mc­Sally — Barber barely won, pre­vail­ing by just 2,454 votes.

Mc­Sally is run­ning again, and her pro­spects are more prom­ising the second time around. An April poll from her cam­paign showed her lead­ing Barber by 3 points, a good po­s­i­tion for a chal­lenger this far out be­fore Novem­ber. If she wins, her mil­it­ary pro­file prom­ises she’ll play a prom­in­ent role for House Re­pub­lic­ans. One X factor: the role Gif­fords will play for her former staffer, which could make a dif­fer­ence in a close con­test.

2. CALI­FOR­NIA 21: Rep. Dav­id Valadao (R) vs. Aman­da Renter­ia (D)

Valadao is something of an an­om­aly in the House Re­pub­lic­an caucus. The fresh­man con­gress­man is one of the few mem­bers of his party to rep­res­ent a dis­trict where His­pan­ics make up a ma­jor­ity of the vot­ing-age pop­u­la­tion, and sup­ports a path to cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants as part of a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion plan. He won his first elec­tion after Demo­crats failed to land a cred­ible re­cruit to run against him.

That’s changed this year. He’s likely to face Demo­crat Aman­da Renter­ia, the first fe­male His­pan­ic chief of staff in the U.S. Sen­ate (for Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow). For a party lag­ging be­hind Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cruit­ing na­tion­al His­pan­ic polit­ic­al lead­ers, Renter­ia would carry a high pro­file in Con­gress. She’s got a good chance to win in a dis­trict where Pres­id­ent Obama won 55 per­cent of the vote in 2012, but she’ll need to turn out enough lib­er­al-minded His­pan­ic voters in a midterm elec­tion to do so.

3. CALI­FOR­NIA 52: Rep. Scott Peters (D) vs. Carl De­Maio (R)

If Re­pub­lic­ans hope to im­prove their party’s battered brand, a good start would be pick­ing up a seat in this coastal San Diego dis­trict, held by fresh­man Demo­crat Scott Peters. The GOP re­cruited openly gay former San Diego City Coun­cil­man Carl De­Maio to enter the race, and he’s been run­ning as a “new-gen­er­a­tion Re­pub­lic­an” — mod­er­ate on so­cial is­sues, but fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive. (He aired an ad that shows him hold­ing hands with his part­ner at an LGBT rally.) But if the GOP nom­in­ee for Cali­for­nia gov­ernor is tea-party act­iv­ist Tim Don­nelly, it could dampen Re­pub­lic­an turnout in Novem­ber and help Peters’s reelec­tion pro­spects. The all-party primary res­ults in June should give im­port­ant clues about the tra­ject­ory of this race.

4. COL­OR­ADO 06: Rep. Mike Coff­man (R) vs. An­drew Ro­man­off (D)

For a case study in how a politi­cian can re­in­vent him­self, look no fur­ther than Coff­man, who was elec­ted in a deeply con­ser­vat­ive seat but was re­dis­tric­ted in­to a swing, di­verse Den­ver-area dis­trict. He faces one of the most high-pro­file Demo­crat­ic chal­lengers of the cycle, former state House Speak­er An­drew Ro­man­off, who has raised more than $2.5 mil­lion for the race. This is one of the few GOP-held seats where im­mig­ra­tion is poised to be­come a ma­jor is­sue in the cam­paign, be­cause the dis­trict is one-fifth His­pan­ic.

Coff­man’s dis­trict is the type of af­flu­ent sub­urb­an seat that a fu­ture Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate needs to win. Obama won 52 per­cent of the vote here in 2012, and if Coff­man loses in a midterm year, it wouldn’t bode well for the GOP’s long-term pro­spects.

5. GEOR­GIA 12: Rep. John Bar­row (D) vs. Rick Al­len (R)

Can red-state Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors like Mark Pry­or and Mary Landrieu hang on to their seats in a tough en­vir­on­ment? Ask Bar­row, who’s the last white House Demo­crat left in the Deep South. Bar­row has man­aged to fend off nu­mer­ous GOP op­pon­ents, des­pite rep­res­ent­ing a dis­trict where Obama only won 43 per­cent of the vote. He’s won over enough Re­pub­lic­an voters by break­ing with the pres­id­ent on nu­mer­ous is­sues, most re­cently emer­ging as the first Demo­crat to call for em­battled Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion. In the past, Re­pub­lic­ans have struggled to re­cruit strong can­did­ates in this con­ser­vat­ive dis­trict, but busi­ness­man Rick Al­len won an im­press­ive 54 per­cent of the primary vote to avoid a run­off. If Bar­row loses in Novem­ber, it’s a sign of a GOP wave, at least in the South — one large enough to sweep Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates to vic­tory.

6. IOWA 03: Staci Ap­pel (D) vs. GOP chal­lenger

The seat is one of the true House bell­weth­ers of the cycle — it’s one of only 18 dis­tricts Obama car­ried in 2012 that’s held by a House Re­pub­lic­an. With pop­u­lar GOP Rep. Tom Lath­am re­tir­ing, Demo­crats are ex­cited about their pro­spects with former state Sen. Staci Ap­pel, who’s vy­ing to be­come the first fe­male mem­ber of Con­gress from Iowa.

This is one of the strongest Demo­crat­ic pickup op­por­tun­it­ies: Re­pub­lic­ans face a crowded June 3 primary while Ap­pel faces no Demo­crat­ic op­pos­i­tion. Ap­pel’s a stronger can­did­ate than her pro­spect­ive GOP rivals, but she lost reelec­tion to the state Sen­ate against a tea- party-aligned can­did­ate in 2010. The en­vir­on­ment could be sim­il­ar in 2014, with Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting a boost by a strong show­ing from Gov. Terry Bran­stad at the top of the tick­et.

7. MAS­SACHU­SETTS 06: Rep. John Tier­ney (D) vs. Seth Moulton (D) and Richard Ti­sei (R)

In the last 22 years, no mem­ber of Con­gress from Mas­sachu­setts has lost reelec­tion, but Tier­ney is one of the most threatened in­cum­bents in all of Con­gress this year — thanks to his fam­ily’s in­volve­ment in a gambling scan­dal. Des­pite rep­res­ent­ing a Demo­crat­ic-friendly seat, he barely de­feated Re­pub­lic­an Richard Ti­sei, a former state Sen­ate minor­ity lead­er. Ti­sei is mount­ing a comeback this year and run­ning in a more fa­vor­able polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment than in 2012. But first Tier­ney needs to get through the primary, where he’s fa­cing strong op­pos­i­tion from Har­vard-edu­cated Ir­aq War vet­er­an Seth Moulton, who has out­raised the con­gress­man in three straight quar­ters. If Moulton wins the nom­in­a­tion, Demo­crats’ chances of hold­ing the seat in­crease markedly.

8. MIN­NESOTA 07: Rep. Col­lin Peterson (D) vs. Tor­rey Westrom (R)

Min­nesota state Sen. Tor­rey Westrom may be one of the most in­triguing House re­cruits of the year. When he was 14, Westrom lost his vis­ion in a farm­ing ac­ci­dent but per­severed as an ac­com­plished high school wrest­ler. He put him­self through law school, and was elec­ted to the Min­nesota state Le­gis­lature at age 23.

He will have a chal­lenge un­seat­ing Peterson, a 12-term con­gress­man and rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee who has eas­ily won every cam­paign since 1994 — even sur­viv­ing the 2010 GOP wave. But as one of the few rur­al, mod­er­ate Demo­crats left in the House, he’s been ex­posed as the Demo­crat­ic Party has drif­ted left. Like many oth­er Blue Dog Demo­crats, Peterson con­sidered re­tir­ing, but de­cided to run for reelec­tion just sev­er­al months be­fore the fil­ing dead­line. Count this as the sleep­er race of the cycle.

9. NEW HAMP­SHIRE 01: Rep. Car­ol Shea-Port­er (D) vs. Frank Guinta (R)/Dan In­nis (R)

If there’s a GOP wave in Novem­ber, Shea-Port­er will be one of the first mem­bers of Con­gress to feel it. The con­gress­wo­man who ran on an an­ti­war plat­form was elec­ted in the Demo­crat­ic sweep of 2006 and then was ushered out of of­fice four years later when Re­pub­lic­ans re­took con­trol of the House. On the heels of Obama’s reelec­tion in 2012, she won back her old seat but is fa­cing an­oth­er tough con­test in 2014.

In Septem­ber, Re­pub­lic­ans face a com­pet­it­ive primary, pit­ting former Rep. Frank Guinta, who lost to Shea-Port­er in 2012, against Dan In­nis, one of the three openly gay Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning for Con­gress this year. Guinta be­gins the race as the fa­vor­ite.

10. WEST VIR­GIN­IA 03: Rep. Nick Ra­hall (D) vs. Evan Jen­kins (R)

Ra­hall is an­oth­er House Demo­crat who is fa­cing the hard real­ity that House races have be­come in­creas­ingly na­tion­al­ized. A pro­tect­or of his dis­trict’s coal in­terests, the 38-year House vet­er­an has seen his for­tunes de­cline as his party has sided with en­vir­on­ment­al in­terests over en­ergy pro­duc­tion. After win­ning only 54 per­cent of the vote in 2012, Re­pub­lic­ans re­cruited a former Demo­crat, state Sen. Evan Jen­kins, to chal­lenge him. Early spend­ing from Koch-af­fil­i­ated groups badly hurt Ra­hall’s stand­ing, but Demo­crat­ic su­per PACs have re­spon­ded in kind to keep him in con­ten­tion.

COR­REC­TION: Renter­ia was the first fe­male His­pan­ic Sen­ate chief of staff, not the first over­all His­pan­ic Sen­ate chief of staff.

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