If the Ground Is Shifting, the House Will Feel It

By Chris Cillizza
Monday, September 28, 2009

In the battle for control of the House, environment isn't everything, but it's darn close to being the only thing.

House races -- with less-well-known candidates and less money flowing through them than Senate contests -- tend to be heavily influenced by which way the national winds are blowing.

Heading into the summer, the political environment had been neutral to slightly positive for Democrats. But it turned in a meaningful way as Labor Day approached and anger over the growth of government under President Obama emboldened Republicans.

The signs of this environmental change were everywhere.

The generic ballot edge that Democrats had maintained for the better part of the last two election cycles disappeared; in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 43 percent of respondents said they preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress while 40 percent said they would like to see Republicans running things on Capitol Hill. (As recently as April, Democrats had a nine-point lead on that question.)

Recruitment also began to pick up for Republicans, with top-tier candidates who might have taken a pass in years past stepping up to run -- for example, state Sen. Bob Gibbs in Ohio's 18th District and former U.S. attorney Tim Griffin in Arkansas's 2nd.

Those developments led some of the nation's leading political prognosticators, such as Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato, to predict that Democrats were headed for a world of hurt in 2010, with the loss of 20 or more House seats not out of the question. (A third respected political analyst -- Stu Rothenberg -- was slightly more circumspect about just how bad the environment is for House Democrats.)

Here's a look at the five seats most likely to change hands after next year's elections:

5. Illinois' 10th District (Republican-controlled): This North Shore district has been held relatively easily by Rep. Mark Kirk (R) for much of the past decade, but those election results belie the strong Democratic underpinnings of an electorate that gave Obama 61 percent of the vote in 2008. With Kirk now running for the Senate, this is a major target for Democrats. Dan Seals, who ran against Kirk in 2006 and 2008, is hoping the third time's the charm, while state Rep. Julie Hamos (D) is also a serious contender. State Rep. Elizabeth Coulson and businessman Dick Green are the leading candidates on the Republican side.

4. New Mexico's 2nd (Democratic-controlled): Not only did Rep. Harry Teague (D) inexplicably vote in favor of the Obama administration's cap-and-trade energy bill earlier this year (his southern New Mexico district is filled with oil and gas companies), but he has also drawn his toughest possible opponent -- former congressman Steve Pearce (R) -- as he prepares to seek a second term in 2010. Not good.

3. New York's 23rd (R): While Republicans outnumber Democrats by registration in this North Country seat, the GOP is in the midst of tearing itself apart as Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman (with a major assist from the Club for Growth) savages state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) as insufficiently conservative. Meanwhile, businessman Bill Owens (D) is up with ads touting his military background and r?sum? as a job creator in an area that is in desperate economic straits.

2. Louisiana's 3rd (D): Senate Democrats' gain is House Democrats' loss when it comes to Rep. Charlie Melancon (D). Melancon's decision to take on Sen. David Vitter (R) in 2010 leaves open his seat in a southeastern Louisiana district where Obama won just 37 percent of the vote last November. Natural Resources Secretary Scott Angelle is seen as the 800-pound gorilla in the race, and if Democrats can get him to run under their banner, they could have a shot at holding the seat. (Angelle is considering the race but hasn't announced whether he would run as a Democrat or a Republican.) No matter what happens, this is a very tough hold for Democrats.

1. Louisiana's 2nd (R): Rep. Joseph Cao (R) isn't coming back to Congress in a New Orleans area district that gave Obama 74 percent of the vote last year. The real fight is for the Democratic nomination.

No Votes

Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman's spotty record as a voter -- she was never registered before 2002, according to the Sacramento Bee -- has become a major issue as she seeks the Republican nomination for governor of California in 2010.

Whitman, who told the Bee that she had been registered before 2002 and challenged reporters to "go find it," has exacerbated the situation.

A few of the more recent -- and well-known -- examples of politicians running for elected office with spotty (or nonexistent) private voting records:

John Edwards: When Edwards, a successful trial lawyer, decided to challenge Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in the 1998 election cycle, the Democrat had voted in only half of the elections over the previous seven years -- missing the chance to cast a ballot in the 1994 Republican tidal-wave election among others. North Carolina voters didn't seem to mind, electing Edwards and then watching as he ran twice -- unsuccessfully -- for president in 2004 and 2008.

Jon Corzine: Corzine, who is in a battle for a second term as governor of New Jersey, had to battle through the fact that he hadn't voted in a Democratic primary since 1988 and had missed three general elections in that time when he first ran for the Senate in 2000.

Bill Frist: The former Senate majority leader had never voted before 1988, despite being able to do so since 1971. Now-Sen. Bob Corker, who unsuccessfully challenged Frist in the 1994 GOP primary, ran ads slamming Frist for his inconsistent voting record. "Bill Frist didn't vote for 18 years, and he's never voted in a Republican primary," said the ad's narrator. "Now he wants to be our Republican nominee for the United States Senate. You've got to be kidding." Voters didn't buy it -- handing Frist victories in the GOP primary and over appointed Sen. Jim Sasser (D) in the general election.

3 DAYS: Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) travels to Iowa to deliver a speech as part of the American Future Fund's conservative lecture series. And, in case you forgot, no politician goes to the Hawkeye State by accident.

11 DAYS: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney headlines a fundraiser for the Nebraska Republican Party.

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