When I first put together this cycle’s House ratings last spring, I found the landscape to be remarkably balanced: 62 GOP-held seats and 68 Dem-held seats were on the map, with both parties defending a relatively comparable number of seats in the most competitive categories - 18 for Republicans, 28 for Democrats. The eight months that have passed since then have been rough for the DCCC, and it will surprise nobody that my new House ratings look radically different.
The number of Republicans seats that are worth keeping an eye on has plummeted to 34, while many more Democratic seats are on the map today than there were in the spring: 89.
This disparity is as stark when we only consider the most vulnerable categories (lean retention and above): At the moment, the GOP has to worry about just 13 of its seats compared to 43 for Democrats - just above the magic number of 41 seats Republicans need to pick-up to regain a majority, though the DCCC has somewhat of a lifeline with the three GOP-held seats it has a great shot at picking-up (DE-AL, IL-10 and LA-02).
Some of Democrats’ troubles have come from the retirements that have befell the party since November: Had they not been open, AR-01, KS-03, NH-02, TN-06 or WA-03 would either not have been on the map at all or they would have hovered in the potentially competitive column. Instead, they have become some of the DCCC’s biggest headaches. That said, it does appear that Democrats did manage to keep the floodgates closed. But while the GOP does not have as many retirements to exploit as it would like, they have pulled many remarkable recruitment coups in districts that had been uncontested for years, sometimes for decades. As the cycle started, who could have expected that AR-02, MO-04, ND-AL, PA-08, PA-17, SC-05 or WV-01 would find themselves on our radar screen?
Republicans should not expect to sweep all vulnerable seats. For one, a red wave wil not make itself felt equally in all the states, e.g. NY Democrats could be in better form since they’ll probably be helped by Cuomo’s coattails. Second, a number of incumbents who have prepared themselves for a tough run since the cycle started should survive - just as Reps. Gerlach, Kirk, Reichert or Shays managed to win one or both of their 06/08 contests. This is why I have for now maintained all Democratic incumbents in the toss-up category; I fully expect the party to lose many, perhaps most, of its vulnerable districts (AL-02, CO-04, FL-24, ID-01, MD-01, NM-02, NV-03, OH-01, VA-02, VA-05), but for now we have little evidence but the national environment, which makes it all but impossible to differentiate between them.
Conversely, a number of Democrats who at the moment appear to be keeping their head above the water could easily find themselves submerged if the environment is as toxic as the GOP is hoping; this includes incumbents like Reps. Altmire (PA-04), Dahlkemper (PA-03), Pomeroy (ND-AL), Salazar (CO-03), Matheson (UT-02), Boucher (VA-09), Kirkpatrick (AZ-01), Davis (TN-04) and others. While many of these districts are likely to rise to the more competitive categories by the time all is said and done, it goes without saying that efforts to expand the map often fail (see Democrats’ utter failures in IN-03 and ME-Sen in the past cycle), and it is simply too early to differentiate between the Democrats’ marginally vulnerable seats.
Besides the prospect of getting at least get something to campaign if they manage to pass some major legislation or the hope that the economic recovery will make itself felt by the fall, Democrats are banking on two additional wild cards. The first is the possibility that Republican primaries complicate the party’s chances in some districts. Doug Hoffman is for instance threatening to mount yet another third-party bid in NY-23 if he loses the GOP nomination; other primaries could produce a weaker candidate because of crowded fields in which anything is possible, which is arguably what happened to the GOP in last week’s IL-Gov and IL-10 primaries. (Look no further than what happened in 2008 to Democrats in LA-06 and NY-26 or what happened to Republicans in MD-01 to see how perfect opportunities can be ruined by brutal primaries.)
The second major wild card is the GOP’s financial limitation: The NRCC does not have a lot of money, especially when compared to the millions the DCCC relied on to bankroll the blue waves in 2006 and in 2008. That means a number of promising challengers could find themselves swamped come the fall, when well-financed incumbents and the DCCC go all-out to attack them while national Republicans has to prioritize some districts over others in a way that was less problematic for Democrats in the past two cycles. Might they still be rescued by independent groups, which will no longer have to abide by spending restrictions?
Without further delay, here are my rating charts. There is unfortunately no district-by-district explanation (while I have done that in the past, I would have no more time to do any other blogging work if I attempted to pull it off again), but you will find a handy graphic showing the projected balance of power.