The 2010 cycle is heating up, top-tier congressional candidates are jumping in the race and the national parties are thinking about the seats they should target in the midterm elections. In short, the time has come for new House ratings! Two weeks ago, I took a race-by-race look at 62 GOP-held seats that we could be hearing about next year. Now, it’s time to move on to the vulnerable seats that Democrats will need to defend: I have identified a list of 68 seats that could host competitive races.
The overall numbers suggest the two parties must defend a comparable number of seats, but the detailed breakdown favors Republicans: 28 Dem-held seats are rated “toss-up” or “lean retention,” categories that indicate that these races are already competitive. By contrast, I have given these most-vulnerable ratings to only 18 GOP-held seats.
This differential is not surprising. Over the past two cycles, Democrats picked up a net 54 seats. Many of these were blue-leaning districts like IA-02 and NM-01 that Republicans wil be hard-pressed to recovered, but the vast majority were either swing districts or red-leaning districts that the GOP has an obvious shot at contesting. Add to that the fact that incumbents are typically most vulnerable in their first re-election race and it becomes clear that the NRCC has a wealth of Democrats it can target.
Yet, Republicans should be careful not to let themselves be distracted by marginally vulnerable seats. Unless Barack Obama’s approval rating declines so much that his party face a toxic environment, not all of these recently elected Democrats will be vulnerable enough to be defeated. Thus, the NRCC needs to carefully consider which districts should be targeted in priority.
The obvious answer is the Dem-held districts that gave John McCain clear majorities - and there are a lot. Districts like AL-02, AL-05, ID-01 and MD-01, MS-01 are heavily conservative districts represented by freshmen Democrats; they will be at the top of the GOP’s list. To this list, the NRCC would love to add heavily conservative seats held by Democratic veterans (AR-01, AR-02 and TX-17).
A second group of targets include districts that were close in 2008 but that gave George W. Bush a large victory - a sign that they are in conservative territory that Obama did not manage to swing enough to turn decisively blue: Districts like CO-04, NC-08, NY-29, OH-01, VA-02 and VA-05 are all likely to be contested next year.
Beyond those obvious targets, where should the GOP turn? The answer will largely depend on the quality of Republican recruitment. Districts like AZ-01, CT-05, IL-14, NJ-03, NV-03, OH-16 and WI-08 all have the potential to be competitive, but only if the GOP can field the type of top-tier challengers it often failed to recruit in 2006 and in 2008. And that gets us to the most important question mark of the upcoming cycle: How much of the Democrats’ recent gains were due to the very favorable political environment? Which of the dozens of districts the party conquered experienced a short-term fluke and which experienced a long-term political transformation?
Republicans insist that many districts such as FL-08, OH-01 and PA-03 would not have switched over had their nominees not been weighed down by Bush. While that might be true, it does not negate the Democrats’ response that in each of these districts they had landed top recruits that will make for strong incumbents with no obvious vulnerability. But will they survive their first re-election race, when independent voters who were behaving like Democrats in 2006 and in 2008 might no longer be as sour towards the GOP?
I have tried to build as exhaustive a list as possible and include any district that could potentially be competitive next year. In particular, I have included many first-term lawmakers, even those who sit in relatively safe districts, as freshmen often make the most vulnerable incumbents. Many of these races could drop out of the ratings in the months ahead, but for now it is worth keeping an open eye and monitoring recruitment activities in as many districts as possible.
The rather detailed race-by-race analysis is available here.