Must-Watch Congressional Races, 2014 Edition

Conventional wisdom says that Democrats are facing a very challenging election this year.  The sixth-year midterms are historically bad for the party of the White House.  But will that pattern hold true this year?  Let’s look at some competitive House elections for clues.

I have chosen these four races because each one features circumstances that have put the incumbent, or incumbent party, in a precarious reelection situation. All four are tossups and either party can win all of them – or none of them.  These races, taken together, should provide us with an accurate indicator of which party has the wind at its back and how hard that wind is blowing as we approach Election Day.

Iowa CD-3 – Republican (open seat)

There are just 17 districts across the nation which elected a Republican congressman while giving the majority of their votes to President Obama in 2012.  Tom Latham, who is serving his tenth term from this southwest Iowa district, is one of those Republicans.  However, on December 17th last year, Latham announced he would not seek reelection in 2014.  His decision has produced a very winnable race for Democrats.

Iowa CD-3 is one of the most ideologically balanced districts you’ll find with a Cook Political PVI rating of exactly EVEN.  (Charlie Cook, a well-known political handicapper, has evaluated all 435 House districts and calculated a partisan voter index (PVI) to reflect each district’s partisan lean.) Latham used his popularity here to win election after election. Now that he is gone, this open seat race is shaping up to be as competitive as the district it represents.

Democrats are poised to perform well here at least partly because they have already settled on a candidate, former state Senator Staci Appel.  By contrast, six Republicans are in the running for the GOP nomination.  Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz is the most-credentialed of the lot, but I have seen no polls testing the Republican primary field.

In addition to enjoying open water on her way to the general election campaign, Appel also can boast a solid fundraising advantage.  Her 1st quarter FEC report showed her with just over $400,000 on hand.  That’s more than double the cash of any Republican in the race.

Current Election Projection:  Weak DEM Gain

New Jersey CD-3 – Republican (open seat)

The Garden State is no paradise for Republicans.  But the lines encompassing this south central New Jersey district have drawn enough Republicans together to make it competitive.  Former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Jon Runyan took advantage of the district’s razor thin Republican lean (Cook PVI R+1) to defeat an incumbent Democrat, the late John Adler, in the red wave election of 2010.

After surviving a challenge from Adler’s widow in 2012, Runyan surprised political onlookers by opting out of the 2014 election.  Like Iowa CD-3, a Republican retirement leaves a competitive open seat race in a district won by President Obama two years ago.  Unlike Iowa CD-3, there are more than one Democrat seeking to claim the nomination, but that may not hinder them because of the dilemma facing Republicans here.

Four-time losing statewide candidate Steve Lonegan, former mayor of Bogota, is running for Runyan’s seat.  The problem is, he lives an hour away from the district, and Republicans, those outside his Tea Party fan base at least, fear his previous electoral failures – and his controversial statements about Hurricane Sandy relief – have left him damaged.  However, the candidate Lonegan’s detractors are trying to push through to the nomination, Tom MacArthur, another former mayor, also makes his home outside the district.

If MacArthur wins the nomination, he probably stands a better than even money chance of winning in November.  On the other hand, a Lonegan nomination would more likely lead to a Democratic takeover here unless the GOP winds are strong.  Those possible outcomes aren’t lost on outgoing Congressman Runyan.  He recently endorsed MacArthur for the nomination.

Current Election Projection:  Weak DEM Gain

New York CD-21 – Democrat (open seat)

For Republicans, this purple upstate congressional district represents a tale of opportunity lost – again and again and again.  When Republican John McHugh resigned this seat in 2009 to become sec. of the Army, the special election to succeed him should have kept it in conservative hands.  But it didn’t.

After the GOP nominated moderate Dede Scozzafava, the man she defeated in the GOP primary, Sarah Palin-backed Doug Hoffman, soldiered on as the nominee of New York’s Conservative Party.  The three-way race that ensued split the conservative vote and allowed Democrat Bill Owens, an Air Force vet and political first timer, to steal away the seat with just 48% of the vote.  Scozzafava actually dropped out and privately endorsed the Democrat days before the election.

The same convoluted scenario played itself out again in 2010 when Matt Doheny handed Hoffman another GOP primary defeat. Hoffman was once again the Conservative Party nominee. His 6% portion of the vote enabled Owens to earn reelection by just 2% over Doheny despite the tsunami-sized Republican wave that swept over the rest of the country.

Hoffman wasn’t in the picture two years ago which allowed repeat GOP nominee Doheny a clear shot at Congressman Owens. However, 2012 wasn’t nearly as friendly to Republicans as the previous election, and the Democrat prevailed for a third time.  Owens ensured himself an undefeated record against the GOP by deciding earlier this year to retire at the end of this term.

The open seat he leaves behind and the prospect of another GOP-friendly wave have Republicans salivating at the chance to finally regain this seat.  They feel Democratic nominee apparent Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker from the city (New York City, that is), is a weak opponent.  But history may repeat itself… again.  There is a distinct possibility Doheny, running for a third time, will take the GOP nomination while another Republican, 29-year-old Harvard grad Elise Stefanik, will appear on the Conservative Party ballot line.

Current Election Projection:  Weak DEM Hold

West Virginia CD-3 – Democrat Nick Rahall, incumbent

Since winning a seat on Capitol Hill back in 1976, Nick Rahall has earned less than 60% of the vote only three times.  But West Virginia’s political lean has shifted as dramatically as any state in the country over the last generation.  Voters here gave Democratic President Bill Clinton landslide double-digit victories in 1992 and 1996. But by 2012, Obama’s successful reelection year, Republican Mitt Romney took West Virginia’s 5 electoral votes by a jaw-dropping 26.6 points.

That changing climate has moved Rahall's once secure seat squarely into competitive territory.  In fact, a Cook PVI of R+14 makes this district the 70th most Republican in the nation -- not friendly ground for a Democrat.  And that’s what lands the Democratic stalwart Rahall on this list.  His bid for a 20th term against a settled, formidable GOP opponent in state Sen. Evan Jenkins provides a perfect test tube for evaluating the direction and strength of the 2014 political winds.

If he can hold on, chances are Democrats will weather well Obama’s six-year itch.  If not, Republicans could be in store for another raucous celebration night come the evening of November 4th.

Current Election Projection:  Weak GOP Gain