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Democrats Roll in U.S. House Races

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The good news just keeps on coming for Democrats. As we discussed last week, presidential nominee Barack Obama is the clear favorite to win a substantial victory in the race for the White House (see updated Electoral College map, HERE). Democratic Senate candidates are doing so well that the party will add at least six or seven seats to its current narrow majority (see Senate update below and our earlier article from two weeks ago). And the third leg of the 2008 election, the contests for U.S. House of Representatives seats, has also tilted strongly Democratic.

Last December, when we first sketched out the upcoming House elections, we suggested that Democrats were likely to have a good year, adding at least half a dozen seats to their total of 236 (with 218 being needed for control of the chamber). When we updated our projections in June 2008, we suggested that up to a dozen new Democratic seats were in the forecast. With the international financial meltdown proceeding apace, and voters increasingly angry and fearful about their families' economic future, Republicans are suffering disproportionately. Even though Democrats control Congress and were more supportive of the Wall Street bailout/rescue/credit restoration package than House Republicans, Americans are mainly blaming deeply unpopular President Bush. Bush's party is paying the price, from the courthouse to the White House.

Therefore, we believe that Democrats have a solid chance to add 15 to 20 more House seats to their total, putting the party's seat share at 251 to 256 of 435 members (up to 59% of the total House)--the party's highest share since the first two years of the Clinton Administration (1993-1995). Our readers should not be surprised if our projected Democratic total rises before November 4.

This result is unusual because an election year like 2006, registering a big House gain (+30 D) for one party, is usually followed by a consolidation election, in which the winning party sees just a few seats added or subtracted to its total. For example, in 1974, the Watergate election allowed Democrats to add 49 net House seats. Two years later, even though Democrat Jimmy Carter captured the White House, Democrats simply held steady in the House, gaining just one seat. Similarly, the GOP swamped Democrats in 1994, piling on 52 House seats in the anti-Bill Clinton midterm election, but the next five elections produced relatively little shift in the House. Republicans lost a few seats in 1996, 1998, and 2000, and gained a few in 2002 and 2004, but remained in control of the chamber.

Occasionally, a big election gain in one year leads to significant losses in the next. In 1980 Ronald Reagan's initial election as President came with strong coattails, and the GOP added 33 House seats. Two years later, in 1982, a serious recession enabled Democrats to win back 26 of the seats they had lost.

It is already certain that 2008 will be more than a consolidation election for House Democrats. At the least they will add half-again as many new seats to their total as they did in 2006, maybe more.

The Democratic tide of 2008 is being augmented by a wide funding disparity between the congressional campaign committees of the two parties. As of August 31, and for the first time in at least two decades, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has out-raised the National Republican Congressional Committee, and by the sizeable margin of $52.3 million to $43.5 million (with cash on hand: $35.1 million D to $4.7 million R).

Furthermore, the open seat situation has helped Democrats all year. Out of 36 open seats for 2008--places where the incumbent member of Congress has decided to step down--over three-quarters (29) are held by Republicans and just 7 by Democrats. Open seats give the opposition party the best chance for a takeover in many instances. As of now, only one retiring Democrat (Bud Cramer of Alabama) is leaving a seat that is very vulnerable to a takeover bid by a Republican, while 14 GOP seats are clearly vulnerable and are rated as TOSS-UP or worse for the GOP.

Here is the current status of all open seat races as of mid-October:

DEMOCRATIC OPEN SEATS

State

Dist.

Incumbent

Rating

AL

5

Bud Cramer

Toss-Up

CO

2

Mark Udall

Safe D

ME

1

Tom Allen

Safe D

NJ

1

Rob Andrews

Safe D

NM

3

Tom Udall

Safe D

NY

21

Michael McNulty

Safe D

OR

5

Darlene Hooley

Likely D

REPUBLICAN OPEN SEATS

State

Dist.

Incumbent

Rating

AL

2

Terry Everett

Leans R

AZ

1

Rick Renzi

Leans D

CA

4

John Doolittle

Likely R

CA

52

Duncan Hunter

Safe R

CO

6

Tom Tancredo

Safe R

FL

15

Dave Weldon

Safe R

IL

11

Jerry Weller

Leans D

IL

18

Ray LaHood

Likely R

KY

2

Ron Lewis

Leans R

LA

4

Jim McCrery

Toss-up

MD

1

Wayne Gilchrest

Leans R

MN

3

Jim Ramstad

Toss-up

MS

3

Chip Pickering

Safe R

MO

9

Kenny Hulshof

Leans R

NJ

3

Jim Saxton

Toss-up

NJ

7

Mike Ferguson

Toss-up

NM

1

Heather Wilson

Toss-up

NM

2

Steve Pearce

Toss-up

NY

13

Vito Fossella

Likely D

NY

25

Jim Walsh

Leans D

NY

26

Tom Reynolds

Leans R

OH

7

Dave Hobson

Safe R

OH

15

Deborah Pryce

Toss-up

OH

16

Ralph Regula

Toss-up

PA

5

John Peterson

Safe R

TN

1

David Davis

Safe R

UT

3

Chris Cannon

Safe R

VA

11

Tom Davis

Likely D

WY

AL

Barbara Cubin

Leans R

And, without further ado, we present our current list (as of mid-October) of all competitive House races:

Republican Held Seats in Play: 55 (144 Safe/Solid R)

Likely R (17)

 

Leans R (16)

 

Toss-up (14)

 

Leans D (6)

 

Likely D (2)

AZ-03 (Shadegg)

 

AL-02 (OPEN)

 

FL-08 (Keller)

 

AK-AL (Young)

 

NY-13 (OPEN)

CA-04 (OPEN)

 

CT-04 (Shays)

 

FL-24 (Feeney)

 

AZ-01 (OPEN)

 

VA-11 (OPEN)

CA-50 (Bilbray)

 

FL-21 (L. Diaz-Balart)

 

LA-04 (OPEN)

 

CO-04 (Musgrave)

   

FL-13 (Buchanan)

 

FL-25 (M. Diaz-Balart)

 

MI-07 (Walberg)

 

IL-11 (OPEN)

   

ID-01 (Sali)

 

IL-10 (Kirk)

 

MN-03 (OPEN)

 

NV-03 (Porter)

   

IL-18 (OPEN)

 

KY-02 (OPEN)

 

NC-08 (Hayes)

 

NY-25 (OPEN)

   

LA-07 (Boustany)

 

MD-01 (OPEN)

 

NJ-03 (OPEN)

       

MO-06 (Graves)

 

MI-09 (Knollenberg)

 

NJ-07 (OPEN)

       

NE-02 (Terry)

 

MO-09 (OPEN)

 

NM-01 (OPEN)

       

NJ-05 (Garrett)

 

NV-02 (Heller)

 

NM-02 (OPEN)

       

PA-06 (Gerlach)

 

NY-26 (OPEN)

 

NY-29 (Kuhl)

       

PA-15 (Dent)

 

OH-02 (Schmidt)

 

OH-01 (Chabot)

       

PA-18 (Murphy)

 

PA-03 (English)

 

OH-15 (OPEN)

       

TX-07 (Culberson)

 

VA-02 (Drake)

 

OH-16 (OPEN)

       

TX-10 (McCaul)

 

WA-08 (Reichert)

           

VA-05 (Goode)

 

WY-AL (OPEN)

           

WV-02 (Capito)

               
                 
                 
               

TX-23 (Rodriguez)

               

PA-08 (Murphy)

               

PA-04 (Altmire)

               

OR-05 (OPEN)

           

WI-08 (Kagen)

 

OH-18 (Space)

           

PA-10 (Carney)

 

NY-24 (Arcuri)

           

NY-20 (Gillibrand)

 

NY-19 (Hall)

           

MS-01 (Childers)

 

NH-02 (Hodes)

           

KY-03 (Yarmuth)

 

MN-01 (Walz)

           

KS-02 (Boyda)

 

KS-03 (Moore)

       

TX-22 (Lampson)

 

IL-14 (Foster)

 

IN-09 (Hill)

       

PA-11 (Kanjorski)

 

GA-08 (Marshall)

 

IN-08 (Ellsworth)

       

NH-01 (Shea-Porter)

 

CA-11 (McNerney)

 

IL-08 (Bean)

       

LA-06 (Cazayoux)

 

AZ-08 (Giffords)

 

GA-12 (Barrow)

   

FL-16 (Mahoney)

 

AL-05 (OPEN)

 

AZ-05 (Mitchell)

 

CT-05 (Murphy)

Likely R (0)

 

Leans R (1)

 

Toss-up (5)

 

Leans D (11)

 

Likely D (15)

Democratic Held Seats in Play: 32 (204 Safe/Solid D)

The most competitive seats are listed as TOSS-UPS, indicating that both sides have a good chance at victory this fall. Many of these are open seats, but some are districts where the incumbent has put him or herself in jeopardy. In total, 14 Republican seats and 5 Democratic seats fit in this category.

The next level of competition, just below the toss-ups, is for seats LEANING to one party or the other. In most of these contests, the incumbent party has a slight advantage, but it is not difficult to imagine the seat being captured by the other party. In other races, the candidate from the non-incumbent party already has a lead and, more likely than not, will win on Election Day. Currently, there are 17 seats leaning to Democrats and 17 that lean to Republicans.

Our final category in this mid-October sorting-out of 2008 House match-ups is LIKELY Democratic or Republican. There are 15 Democrats (almost all of them elected for the first time in 2006) and 17 Republicans (some of whom had close calls in 2006), plus two districts where Democrats are highly likely to switch the seat from Red to Blue. The probability is that a large majority of incumbent congressmen in this category will be reelected, but all the districts bear watching.

If your district is not listed in our toss-up, leans, or likely categories, then you can assume for now the incumbent party has a big leg up to hold it.

With a mere 19 days to go before Election Day, there is not much time left for major upheavals. Nonetheless, we expect at least a few seats to drift between categories of competitiveness. We will update our list each week until the election, with our final predictions for each seat appearing on election eve, November 3rd.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

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