Five 'Must-Watch' Congressional Races for 2012

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.

California CD-52

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.