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The Battle for America 2010: One Week Out, How Big Will the GOP Wave Be in the House?

The 2010 election is just a week away. In many places, early voting has already started. Up for grabs is control of Congress for the last two years of President Obama’s first term. There is a chance Republicans will gain the majority in both the Senate and the House. At this point, that chance is somewhat remote in the Senate, but Election Projection currently projects Republicans will earn a net 58 congressional districts, 19 more than a majority requires in the House.

Over the last six months, that count has more than doubled as more and more House races across the country have become competitive. In fact, just a month ago, the net GOP gain stood at exactly 39 seats. That’s a lot of movement in short order since then. While some erosion of the president’s party numbers on Capitol Hill can be expected, historically speaking, during midterms, it is these late-risers that will determine the size and scope of the Republican wave of 2010.

Yet identifying all the races where the challenger’s prospects have improved rapidly as we’ve entered the homestretch of the campaign is not easy given the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves this year. At no time in recent memory has the GOP enjoyed generic ballot advantages like we’ve seen this fall. Never has a limited-government grassroots movement taken hold the way the Tea Party has this year. And not since FDR have we had a president whose stated agenda would so alter the role and cost of the federal government.

Clearly, there is a Republican wave out there, but how big will it be? Obi-wan, the Jedi master from a galaxy far, far away whose commentary frequently shows up on Jim Geraghty’s blog at National Review Online, said it best:

Nobody has never seen nothing — and I do mean to use the ungrammatical double negative here — like this. So far, this is not a “wave” election, this is a super-wave election.

And gauging which seats will be caught up in this super wave, especially in the House, can be challenging. The way I see it, we can break these races into three distinct categories. Let’s take a look at them and a couple of example races for each.

The Hockey Stick

Global warming proponents like to refer to their view of the Earth’s rising temperatures as a hockey stick. In their minds, the Earth warmed slightly and slowly for two or three centuries before the mid 1900s and then rapidly since. On a graph, the general trend looks like a hockey stick where the earlier, slower rise is the hockey stick’s handle and the more drastic rise is its foot.

While I don’t espouse the alleged global warming phenomenon, at least not the man-made version, the hockey stick illustration is very useful in describing one type of late-rising House race. These races have been on the radar since the beginning of the election cycle, but weren’t seen as likely takeovers until recently.

A perfect example of a hockey stick race can be found in the most unexpected of places, Massachusetts. The open seat of retiring Democrat Bill Delahunt in District 10 was projected as a competitive Weak DEM Hold at Election Projection all year. Lately, however, there has been movement toward Republican Jeff Perry. An average of two recent polls shows a true toss-up now, and pundits have begun to see the race that way as well. Currently, I’m projecting Perry by a fraction of a percent. That certainly could change by next Tuesday, but this race has to be considered even money for the GOP.

Other seats on the radar that have seen recent upticks in the Republican challengers’ prospects include North Carolina CD-8 and New York CD-20, now projected to go to the GOP, and Maryland CD-1, where long-favored Andy Harris has finally opened up an outside the margin of error lead over Democrat incumbent Frank Kratovil. Also in this list would be Allen West’s race against Ron Klein (FL-22) and David Harmer’s race against Jerry McNerney (CD-11). Both projections have flipped to the Republicans in recent days.

The Sudden Appearing

This type of race is different from the hockey stick race in that it doesn’t show up as competitive at all until the last few weeks and, in some cases, the last few days. Then, abruptly, everybody’s talking about it, numbering it among likely takeover possibilities. In 2006, we saw a perfect example of this in Kansas’ second district. It wasn’t until mere days before the election that the competitiveness of the race became apparent to political observers, and by election night, Democrat Nancy Boyda had unseated Republican incumbent Jim Ryun in a stunning upset.

There are many races across the country which fall into this category this year. One of the more interesting is the race in California’s CD-47, where Vietnamese-American Van Tran has benefited from Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez’ racially charged comments made last month. This district has suddenly become very competitive, and while Sanchez still holds a slight advantage in my projection, a recent Republican poll shows the race exactly tied. The momentum clearly favors Tran.

Others in this category are Phil Hare’s seat in Illinois CD-17 (though Jim Geraghty has seen this coming for some time), Lincoln Davis in Tennessee CD-4, Sanford Bishop in GA-2, Mike McIntyre in NC-7, and Charlie Wilson’s OH-6 seat. All these races have become very competitive in the last month. Expect some, if not all, of them to flip to red on November 2.

The Covert Insertion

There’s a recruitment ad for the U.S. Navy that highlights the skilled stealth with which Navy Seals operate. In the ad, the camera is focused on an empty beach at night. Flashes of lightning reveal nothing out of the ordinary. A short period of darkness follows and then another lightning display. This time, footsteps leading from the water cover the sand. Someone has come ashore without detection. Such is the nature of our military’s special forces. It also describes what may be in store for us on election night.

This type of race is on nobody’s radar early. It is on no one’s radar late. But by the time we wake up to the race results, someone has come in and stolen it away. Of course, by their very nature, these races are the hardest to identify beforehand. That said, we can get hints as to which are candidates for this type of surprise result. Consider a poll out of Washington’s 6th District, home to 17-term Democrat Norman Dicks.  Nobody is tracking this race, yet the survey gives Republican Doug Cloud a narrow lead.  Could Cloud come out of nowhere to snatch this one for Republicans? Only time will tell. And that’s the thing about this category. Hardly anyone will even suspect these seats are vulnerable until they have been lost.

The Republican wave is coming; of that we can be sure. But in truth, no one knows what the final damage will be to the Democratic caucus in the House. Can the GOP take their present momentum through the finish line? How many seats currently projected as takeovers will live up to that billing? How many, if any, seats leaning Democrat will succumb to the onrushing tempest? And finally, how many Norm Dicks are out there that no one has yet identified? We are in unfamiliar waters this time around. We’ve not seen the factors present as they are in any election in my lifetime. To sum it all up, I  think another Obi-wan quip is appropriate: “How can you predict something that hasn’t happened before?”

In seven days, we won’t have to.