Two years ago, Republican congressional candidates overwhelmed their Democratic counterparts, winning just about everything in sight. In the end, the GOP tsunami picked up 66 seats while losing just 3 of its own, and carried a solid majority into the 112th Congress. 2010 was, at least in the House, a historic shift in the balance of power and the largest in over 60 years.
Now, nearly two years removed from that electoral wipeout, it’s time to look ahead to the 2012 edition of the battle for Capitol Hill. The question that usually arises first when evaluating possible House election outcomes is whether the minority party will regain control of the chamber. This year, Democrats will need to realize a net gain of 25 seats in order to accomplish that feat. The current consensus is that they will probably gain a handful but not enough to tip the balance in their favor.
Enough about the big picture — what about the races themselves? All 435 seats are up for election every two years. Most of them are nothing more than formalities in which the incumbent, or incumbent party, waltzes to Washington for another term. Others feature competitive matchups whose outcomes are uncertain. These are the races that make Election Projection’s Contested House Race Summary.
And then there are the truly interesting, pure toss-up contests, made all the more intriguing by unusual circumstances or colorful personalities. They are the “must-watch” races for any political aficionado. Today, we’ll look at five such races you’ll want to follow closely over the next 10 weeks.
Brian Bilbray-inc (R) vs. Scott Peters (D)
Of all the House targets on the DCCC’s wish list, few rate higher than Brian Bilbray. In 2006, Bilbray won a controversial special election against Francine Busby to fill the vacancy in CD-50 left by Randy Cunningham’s resignation and subsequent conviction on an assortment of felony counts. Bilbray followed his special election victory by winning the rematch against Busby in November that year, and then cruising to two more re-election triumphs in 2008 and 2010. Given his 18-point margin of victory in the latter election, one might wonder why this race is on this list.
Something happened on the way to Election 2012 — redistricting. California’s non-partisan redistricting commission played havoc with the former congressional district lines and landed Bilbray in a newly minted District 52. Not only is Bilbray’s seat now much bluer than two years ago (Cook Political PVI D+1), but he must also face a formidable challenger in Democrat Scott Peters.
(Note: PVI = Partisan Voting Index. Developed by political handicapper Charlie Cook, the PVI average results from the prior two presidential elections and compares them to national results. So a PVI of D+1 indicates a district that went Democratic exceeding the national average of the Democratic vote over the last two presidential elections by 1 percentage point.)
After the controversy surrounding Bilbray’s first election victories, Democrats may, at long last, have the opportunity to send Bilbray packing. This race is up for grabs.
Illinois CD-12 (open seat)
William Enyart (D) vs. Jason Plummer (R)
Like Republicans in North Carolina, Democrats in Illinois used redistricting to carve out a substantial advantage in House elections for the next decade. Election Projection currently shows Democrats picking up 4 seats in the Land of Lincoln against just one Republican pick-up, which happens to be Illinois CD-12.
Democrat Jerry Costello was supposed be an easy victor here. His seat was to be a solid hold for the blue team — until Costello decided to retire at the end of the current term. Charlie Cook reacted to the announcement by moving his rating from “Solid Democrat” to “Toss-up” in one drastic shift.
Further complicating their prospects, Brad Harriman, winner of the Democratic primary, dropped out of the race due to health concerns. Now, his replacement, William Enyart, must run double-time to catch up to Republican nominee Jason Plummer. Still, the district does sport a D+3 PVI so Plummer’s road is uncertain at best. Polls show Plummer ahead, but expect them to tighten considerably between now and November 6.
New Hampshire CD-1 and CD-2
Frank Guinta-inc (R) vs. Carol Shea-Porter (D)
Charlie Bass-inc (R) vs. Ann McLane Kuster (D)
These two seats have so much in common and are so competitive that a package deal is in order. Besides, they have mirrored each other in recent elections. In fact, these two seats have gone to the same party in every election since 1992. Both were Democratic pick-ups in 2006, and Republicans reclaimed them both two years ago.
But the similarities don’t end there. All four of the likely nominees (likely because the Democratic primary won’t be held until September 11) were on the ballot in 2010. It’s a pair of rematches, and early polls indicate two razor-close battles are in store.
As red spots in the blue expanse of the Northeast, these two contests hold special significance for the GOP. Along with a competitive Senate race in nearby Connecticut, they represent two of very few opportunities for Republican victories in the region.
Pennsylvania CD-12 (merged seat)
Mark Critz-inc (D) vs. Keith Rothfus (R)
An interesting phenomena of reapportionment after every 10-year census is the incumbent-vs-incumbent race. When a state loses seats to reapportionment, it is quite common for two incumbents to end up in the same district. That’s just what happened in Pennsylvania this year. Republicans used their control over the redistricting process to paint Democratic Congressmen Jason Altmire and Mark Critz into a newly configured CD-12. Critz won the primary and will face Keith Rothfus, a Tea-Party backed Republican who lost to Altmire in 2010 by just 2 percent.
This year, Rothfus may turn the tables on Critz, given the new district’s R+6 PVI, but Critz has proven a formidable challenge in the past. He won a special election to replace the late John Murtha in May 2010 and then held on to win re-election, 51-49, in November of that year, despite seeing so many of his Democratic colleagues go down to defeat.
It’ll be an exciting race in a battleground state, and the winner could be determined by the color and length of the coattails at the top of the ticket.
Chris Cravaack-inc (R) vs. Richard Nolan (D)
Democrat Jim Oberstar rarely campaigned for re-election. His seat was one of those formalities I mentioned earlier. In 2010, Chris Cravaack was supposed to be just the next GOP pretender to lose big to the 19-term incumbent. But then the red wave kept rising and rising. Once Oberstar realized his race was competitive, it was too late. Cravaack’s stunning victory was one of the most surprising in recent memory.
Now, it is Cravaack who must work hard for re-election in this Democrat-leaning district (D+3 PVI). Demographic shifts may have moved his constituency rightward, but this remains difficult territory. His opponent, DFL-endorsed Richard Nolan, has been through the House election wars before — most recently in 1978. No, that’s not a typo, Nolan served three terms in Congress during the 1970s and hasn’t run for office since!
This race will be another nail-biter, but if Cravaack avoids the sophomore slump, he may be set up for easier tests in future cycles.
Overall these races won’t decide who controls the House. If the Democrats manage an unlikely takeover, all of the races on this list — and many other less competitive ones — will have to fall in their favor. If that happens, these races may not turn out to be very competitive after all. But, barring the unforeseen, we will still have a Republican majority come January, albeit a few seats smaller, and these select contests will have provided us the suspense and intrigue that keep us coming back to the elections arena cycle after cycle.