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HOUSE RATINGS CHANGES

A Commentary by Isaac T. Wood

Friday, October 01, 2010

As Election Day nears, more of the House election picture comes into focus. While our overall view of the level of Republican gains remains unchanged at +47 seats, we are changing the ratings of many key races as the list of endangered seats, and their relative degrees of vulnerability, becomes clear.

This week we are changing the ratings of 21 House races, all in the direction of the GOP, including 10 seats formerly listed as Toss-Ups that are now leaning into the Republican column.

Toss-Up to Leans Republican (10 races)

AZ-01 (Kirkpatrick-D): When an incumbent releases a month-old internal poll showing her statistically tied with her challenger and significantly under 50%, it is a sure sign she is feeling the heat. That is the case for Ann Kirkpatrick, a freshman Democrat who finds herself in the unenviable position of hailing from a state where GOPers are fired up about everything from immigration to the economy and itching to send a message to Obama. Republican Paul Gosar, a dentist, is her general election opponent and is already up on television with help from the NRCC, which seems to be all-in on ensuring her defeat. With state winds blowing in the GOP direction, matching the prevailing national ones, Kirkpatrick looks more likely to be toppled in November, leading the Crystal Ball rating to change from Toss-Up to Leans R .

CO-04 (Markey-D): From the day of Democrat Betsy Markey’s 2008 victory in this Republican district, this seat has been at the top of the GOP target list. So far she’s had the airwaves to herself, as her Republican opponent, state legislator Cory Gardner, has yet to run a television ad, but that has not given her the head start you might expect. Her own polling shows her tied and sitting at just 38%, a miserable situation for a sitting congresswoman. With Gardner going on air with a sizeable ad buy starting next week, expect significant movement in his direction. As a result, the Crystal Ball changes our rating from Toss-Up to Leans R .

FL-24 (Kosmas-D): Another in a long string of Democratic incumbents forced to release polling showing themselves in a statistical dead heat, Rep. Suzanne Kosmas is in a tenuous position. The NRCC has released two straight polls showing her trailing her GOP opponent, state legislator Sandy Adams, by double-digits and Kosmas has had to go negative early on TV. All of this points to an uphill battle for Kosmas, and the Crystal Ball rating moves from Toss-Up to Leans R .

MI-01 (OPEN-D): This is a symbolic district for Republicans, since it is the one vacated by retiring Democrat Bart Stupak, who was the strongest pro-life voice in the Democratic caucus and earned Republican scorn by throwing his support behind health care reform at the last minute. Democrats feel they have a strong candidate in pro-life state legislator Gary McDowell, but he has yet to gain traction. Despite heavy spending from Democrats to define physician Dan Benishek, the GOP nominee, polling from both candidates and the NRCC still shows McDowell trailing. The Crystal Ball is changing its rating on this race from Toss-Up to Leans R .

PA-03 (Dahlkemper-D): Pennsylvania’s 3rd District was tight as a tick in the 2008 presidential race, as Republican nominee John McCain triumphed over Barack Obama by just 17 votes among the nearly 300,000 votes cast. Simultaneously, Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper prevailed over incumbent Republican Phil English by just 2%. This is a battleground district, with both parties able to be competitive if the conditions are right. This year, the conditions are simply not right for Democrats. If the 2008 presidential race was run again in this district today, McCain would win by a much larger margin and polling shows Dahlkemper already trailing the Republican nominee, Mike Kelly. Dahlkemper has no choice but to go hard negative against him, running an ad sarcastically asking voters to “pity the multi-millionaires.” Not only does this signal the level of desperation in the Dahlkemper camp, it could also backfire. The Crystal Ball changes our rating from Toss-Up to Leans R .

PA-08 (Murphy-D): In 2006, Democrat Patrick Murphy unseated one-term Republican Mike Fitzpatrick by less than one percentage-point in a heavily Democratic year. After an easy 2008 victory, he now faces a tough rematch of the 2006 race in his first campaign where the national political atmosphere will be working against him instead of for him. Independent polling shows Murphy trailing, while his own polls show him with a statistically insignificant lead. In a year like 2010, that is too close for comfort, prompting a Crystal Ball rating change from Toss-Up to Leans R .

PA-11 (Kanjorski-D): Pennsylvania will be one of the key battlegrounds of 2010, with many close House races from 2006 and 2008 replayed against a different backdrop, with Democrats on the defensive this time. Democrat Paul Kanjorski may be a 13-term congressman, but his constituents nearly gave him the boot in 2008 when he squeaked by mayor Lou Barletta, famous for his strong stances against illegal immigration. Now Barletta is back for a third shot–he actually challenged Kanjorski first back in 2002–and a recent newspaper poll showed him leading Kanjorski 43%-32%, a pitiful position for an incumbent who should be very much entrenched after 26 years in office. Given the state of this race, the Crystal Ball is moving our rating from Toss-Up to Leans R .

TX-17 (Edwards-D): After the start of the general election campaign was delayed by a Republican primary runoff, this race took a few weeks to take shape. Now it is in full swing, with a new ad released each day this week. Democrat Chet Edwards has a long history in the district and a conservative voting record that matches the district’s predilections. Unfortunately for him, when voters enter the voting booths in November, they will not see that record, only the “D” next to his name. In a district that is two-thirds Republican at the presidential level, and in an election that has been very much nationalized, this will be Edwards’ toughest race ever. After being pushed as a potential vice-presidential nominee by Nancy Pelosi in 2008, Edwards has cut all ties, running an ad saying he “stood up to” Pelosi and Obama. Republican nominee Bill Flores is running a solid campaign that has turned a long-time Democratic district into one of the GOP’s best pick-up opportunities. The Crystal Ball changes our rating here from Toss-Up to Leans R .

VA-02 (Nye-D): Glenn Nye was one of a host of Democrats to win a Republican seat in 2008, aided in part by Obama’s coattails, only to find themselves immediately in the GOP cross-hairs. While Obama narrowly carried the district in 2008, Democratic enthusiasm has since plummeted while Republicans have rallied. As a result, Nye’s GOP challenger, used car dealer Scott Rigell, will be running with the wind at his back. Nye has tried to boost his moderate and conservative credentials, voting against health care reform and a handful of other Democratic priorities, but voters may care more about his party affiliation than his voting record. There is a former Republican official, Kenny Golden, running as an Independent but so far he has shown few signs of fundraising or support and seems unlikely to siphon off enough votes from Rigell to make much of a difference. All the polling and news indicates the momentum belongs to Rigell, and the Crystal Ball rating moves from Toss-Up to Leans R .

VA-05 (Perriello-D): The closest House race in the nation in 2008 is living up to its billing again in 2010. After a contentious seven-way GOP primary that stunted Republican fundraising and enabled incumbent Democrat Tom Perriello to sprint to an early cash advantage, it seemed possible that Democrats could hold this hard-won seat. Now the momentum is firmly behind Republican nominee Robert Hurt, a state senator from the southern part of the district, who has matched Perriello ad-for-ad on television and led every single partisan and independent poll released so far. The Crystal Ball cautions against counting out Perriello, who won one of the most stunning upsets of 2008, but this will be a far different year, and we are moving this race from Toss-Up to Leans R .

Leans Democratic to Toss-Up (5 races)

HI-01 (Djou-R): The only Republican-held seat where we are making a rating change this week is the Hawaii seat of Charles Djou. Djou won a surprising special election victory earlier this year when two serious Democrats were on the ballot opposing him, due to the peculiar voting procedure in place. This November he will be facing just one of his May opponents, state senator Colleen Hanabusa, eliminating the possibility that he could win by default with a split Democratic vote. While Obama won 70% of the vote here in 2008, Djou supporters point out that it was Obama’s birthplace and claim that favored-son status, more than Democratic sentiment, was the cause for his margin of victory. As evidence they cite the much closer 2004 presidential election where the Democrat, John Kerry, topped Republican George W. Bush by just 6%, hardly a sign of a deep Democratic district. Djou’s internal polling backs up this argument, showing him at 50%, and leading Hanabusa by 8%. While it first looked like this seat might remain in Republican hands for only a matter of months, it is now certainly possible that Djou could hold on, prompting the Crystal Ball rating to change from Leans D to Toss-Up .

AZ-05 (Mitchell-D): In this rematch of the 2008 general election, Republican nominee David Schweikert is closing the gap with Democratic incumbent Harry Mitchell. Mitchell’s polling shows the race tied, while Schweikert’s camp claims they have the lead. While they may disagree on the exact numbers, both sides acknowledge this is a tight race that is heating up as summer ends. The Crystal Ball changes our rating from Leans D to Toss-Up .

FL-22 (Klein-D): In 2008, first-term Democrat Ron Klein handily dispatched underfunded Republican nominee Allen West. This year, West is back and with the money and momentum to make for a much closer race. Both Democratic and Republican polls show this race to be currently within the margin of error and the Crystal Ball rating is changing from Leans D to Toss-Up .

GA-08 (Marshall-D): Democrat Jim Marshall has been a perennial Republican target, and they certainly have found the year, and the candidate, to make a serious race. Republican Austin Scott has been named an NRCC “Young Gun,” signaling the national GOP’s support and it came coupled with a NRCC-funded TV ad targeting Marshall’s voting record. Both sides’ polling shows Marshall in the lead, but narrowly and he is under 50%, a scary place for a four-term incumbent to be given the Republican tilt of the district and the especially-Republican year 2010 is shaping up to be. The Crystal Ball moves this race from Leans D to Toss-Up .

NY-19 (Hall-D): After moving this race to Leans Democratic earlier this month, the outlook has brightened even further for Republicans and their nominee Nan Hayworth. Democratic incumbent John Hall is only a sophomore, far from entrenched in this district, which has a slight Republican tilt to begin with. This will be his first election facing a Republican headwind and Hayworth is a highly-touted GOP candidate. In a district that is closely divided between the two parties, but with a slight Republican edge, we move this race from Leans D to Toss-Up .

Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic (2 races)

CT-04 (Himes-D): Two straight GOP polls have had the Republican nominee, state senator Dan Debicella, within striking distance of Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, bad news for Democrats worried about spreading their resources too thin to defend almost 100 vulnerable seats. This is a somewhat Democratic district, with Obama winning 60% of the vote here in 2008, but the past year and a half has not been good to the Democratic Party and their voters may not show up to the same degree as 2008. Another factor in Debicella’s favor is the legacy of Chris Shays, a Republican who represented the district until Himes’ victory in 2008, demonstrating that a Republican representative in Connecticut’s 4th District is not an impossibility. The Crystal Ball moves this district from Likely D to Leans D .

GA-02 (Bishop-D): Democrat Sanford Bishop’s woes continue as he continues to face questions over scholarship funds directed to his relatives, staff members, and campaign donors. Republicans thought they had a shot here even before the controversy exploded onto the scene, but now Republican state legislator Mike Keown has an even bigger opening to exploit. The Crystal Ball changes our rating from Likely D to Leans D .

Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic (4 races)

IA-02 (Loebsack-D): Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack followed up a narrow 2006 victory over 15-term Republican congressman Jim Leach with a decisive 2008 victory over Mariannette Miller-Meeks, but 2010 brings a more toxic national atmosphere for Democrats. The district is Democratic in presidential years, but without Obama on ballot and his luster fading anyway, Miller-Meeks faces an opportunity she did not have in 2008. This race was a low profile race then, with neither candidate spending even $1 million. That will not be the case this year, as Republicans scour the country for possible upset victories. With this race falling into that category, the Crystal Ball rating shifts from Safe D to Likely D .

IL-17 (Hare-D): Phil Hare has been the name on the lips of Republicans this past week, the latest example of a surprisingly vulnerable Democratic incumbent. The NRCC released a survey this week showing their nominee, restaurateur and businessman Bobby Schilling, leading Hare 44%-43%. It was a shocking result, but actually matches earlier GOP polling in this district, while Democrats have yet to release any polling on their view of the race. That omission causes one to wonder: did this race sneak up on them or do they simply not have any good news to report? Whatever the case, this race rating moves from Safe D to Likely D .

MS-04 (Taylor-D): Democrat Gene Taylor hails from a two-thirds Republican district, but as a ten-term incumbent, this was not one of the first places the GOP looked for a pick-up. As such, the race has been slow to develop, but now it appears to be a competitive contest with state legislator Steven Palazzo mounting a credible challenge. Both candidates are now on the air and Palazzo’s internal poll showing him within the margin of error against Taylor will likely lead to increased attention from national donors and organizations. The Crystal Ball changes our rating from Safe D to Likely D .

OH-06 (Wilson-D): With Democratic fortunes sagging in Ohio’s statewide races, Democrat Charlie Wilson has been dealt a tough hand as well. His Republican opponent is a businessman and former Air Force officer Bill Johnson who recently released a poll showing him just 3% behind Wilson. His 2006 and 2008 victories were both with 62% of the vote, but that kind of margin simply does not seem in the cards in 2010. The Crystal Ball rating here shifts from Safe D to Likely D .

Isaac T. Woods is the House Race Editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries By Isaac T. Wood

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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