For the first time this election season, the RealClearPolitics (RCP) survey of the 435 U.S House races shows Republicans leading in more contests (203) than Democrats (199), with control of the House dependent on 33 races currently labeled as tossups.
The RCP survey suggests that 108 of the Democrats’ 256 seats are at risk, while only 15 of the Republicans’ 179 House seats are in play. If one removes seats that RCP believes are competitive but likely to be retained by the party currently in control, 86 Democratic-held seats and only seven Republican-held seats are in play. With a net shift of 39 required to give the Republicans control of the House, and the generic ballot polling showing the biggest leads for the GOP in the cycle (several in the 6-7% range, Rasmussen at 12%), it is not hard to see why many analysts are increasing their estimates of the size of the potential Republican gains.
Charles Cook now believes it is likely the GOP will win back control of he House, perhaps with a comfortable majority. Prior to the 2006 midterm elections, the GOP held 232 House seats, so the party suffered a decline of 53 net seats in the last two national elections. In 2004, President Bush won 255 House districts in his re-election race. That number may represent the high-water potential for the party in a real blowout election wave, given the current districts in place in the states for the final time this decade, prior to the reallocation of the 435 House seats among the states and within the states for the 2012 cycle.
The generic ballot polls, while favorable to the GOP, represent a national summary of preference for the House between the two parties and understate the GOP advantage this year in individual House races. The creation of dozens of black majority districts after the 1990 census served to concentrate African American voters (who routinely vote about 90% for Democrats) into these districts, removing a strong Democratic voting group from surrounding districts — many of which fell to the GOP in 1994 by small margins.
This pattern was particularly evident in the Southern states with high African American percentages of the population: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia, as well as some suburban districts in other states. The Democrats won some of these seats back in 2006 and 2008, but several are likely to fall to the GOP this year.
Taking back control of the Senate will be a much a tougher challenge for the GOP. With the Democrats holding a 59-41 lead, the Republicans would need to win ten net seats. This assumes that Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, who won re-election in 2006 as an independent after his defeat in the Democratic primary, chooses to remain an independent caucusing with the Democrats after 2010. Lieberman is very likely to have a Democratic opponent in 2012 and could run as a Republican.
The GOP is in very good shape in many of the competitive races this year, with pickups likely in open seat races in Delaware (Mike Castle), North Dakota (John Hoeven), Indiana (Dan Coats), and Arkansas (John Boozman well ahead of Senator Blanche Lincoln). The GOP is also ahead in the open seat race in Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey with a near ten-point edge against Joe Sestak) and narrowly in Colorado (John Buck against appointed Senator Michael Bennett).
A new poll out gives Republican challenger Dino Rossi a seven-point lead in Washington state versus Senator Patty Murray, after a Rasmussen survey gave Murray a four-point lead a day earlier. The GOP candidate is running even with the Democratic candidate in the open seat races in Illinois (Mark Kirk versus Alexi Giannoulias), Wisconsin (Rob Johnson challenging Senator Russ Feingold) and Nevada (Sharron Angle versus Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid).
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer holds a small lead in most polls in California versus challenger Carly Fiorina. In Connecticut, Democrat Richard Blumenthal has a shrinking lead over Republican Linda McMahon in the open seat race. In total, 12 Democratic-held seats are in play. In five, the GOP has solid leads; in five others, the race is essentially even; and in two others , the Democrats have small to modest leads. If the GOP wins all five tossup races, a ten-seat net pickup is within reach.
But for that to happen, the GOP will also need to hold all of its own vulnerable seats. The most critical is Florida, where Republican Governor Charlie Crist is running as an independent against Republican Marco Rubio and a Democratic nominee to be determined in an upcoming primary. Polls are all over the place in this race, but on average Crist is narrowly ahead and seems to be drawing most of his support from Democrats.
If Crist wins, it is widely expected that he will caucus with the Democrats next January, since he has adopted most of their positions in the last few months. If Rubio wins, it may be due to the GOP get-out-the-vote operation, which Crist as an independent will not have. Crist is relying on name recognition and favorable ratings as governor to address any ground game weakness.
The GOP is ahead by five to 10 points in other open seat races: Ohio (Rob Portman versus Lee Fisher), Missouri (Roy Blunt versus Robin Carnahan), New Hampshire (likely GOP candidate Kelly Ayotte versus Democrat Paul Hodes), and Kentucky (Rand Paul versus Jack Conway). Two incumbent GOP senators are ahead by about ten points: Senator David Vitter in Louisiana and Senator Richard Burr in North Carolina. The Missouri race could tighten, but the others look pretty safe.
Overall, I think the GOP winning control of the Senate is possible but unlikely. A safer projection based on current polling is for a pickup of six to eight seats.
If that occurs, the GOP will be in position to win the additional seats needed to take control in 2012, when there will be many vulnerable Democrats running, several of them elected in the 2006 Democratic sweep, and few endangered GOP senators. The GOP targets include Democratic-held seats in Montana, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, and possibly New Jersey, Florida, and Washington state.