House races 101: Is the Republican Party primed for a takeover?

Many more Democratic House seats than Republican ones are vulnerable this year. Republicans are targeting the Democrats' freshman class, plus some veteran lawmakers.

Keith Srakocic/AP/FILE
Mark Critz (D) of Pennsylvania won a special election May 18. Now he has to run for the House again – and against the same GOP challenger.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Chart: House seats in play
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Chart: The incumbent advantage

As campaigns move into full gear after Labor Day, Republicans have moved well within striking distance of taking over the House of Representatives, especially if the economic recovery continues to fizzle.

If Republicans prevail on Nov. 2, they'll be in charge of the House for only the second time in 56 years. Their last takeover came in 1994 in an election outcome that stunned Democrats.

This year, the Democrats see them coming. Even before the disappointments of a jobless recovery, Democratic leaders expected a tough fight – and they have taken care to rack up an early fundraising advantage, especially for their newest members.

Democrats have much to overcome, however.

Polls show that Republican voters are more likely to turn out for this midterm election than are Democrats. And many independent voters – citing alarm about ballooning federal deficits and what they see as expansion of government – are swinging to Republican candidates. Moreover, Democrats have at least six times as many House seats in play as Republicans do, according to the Rothenberg Political Report. Here's a primer on the 2010 House races.

How many seats are up for election this year?

All 435 House seats are up for election every two years. Democrats currently hold 255 of those seats; Republicans hold 178. There are two vacancies.

How many seats must Republicans win to take control of the House?

A majority in the House is 218 seats. Republicans need a net gain of 39 seats to get there.

How many seats are open?

There is no incumbent in 41 seats. Twenty-two of those are now held by Republicans, and 19 by Democrats.

But 15 of the open GOP seats are in heavily Republican districts, and three others are likely to remain Republican seats, according to the Cook Political Report. By contrast, in only two of the 19 open Democratic seats is the Democratic candidate clearly leading the race.

How many seats are competitive?

Typically, no more than 35 House seats are in play (chalk that up to the science of redistricting, which produces many districts that all but ensure one party's dominance). This year, 88 seats are seriously in play – 12 Republican and 76 Democratic, according to the Rothenberg Political Report.

On Sept. 2, the Cook Political Report downgraded 10 Democratic races, leaving 73 Democratic seats ranked as competitive compared with eight Republican seats. "This is an environment in which any Democratic laxity or misstep can prove fatal and even underfunded or flawed Republicans can be highly competitive,” the report concluded.

But the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood threatens incumbents in both parties, especially to the degree that national issues drive local races.

Where do Republicans have their best shot at picking up seats?

House Republicans are likely to pick up 28 to 33 seats, predicts a report by independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg. But the gains could be much higher, perhaps topping 39, if conditions are ripe for a full-fledged "change" election, the report says.

"In some ways, this is a replay of 2006 in reverse, when Republicans were confident in their financial standing [and] that they had plenty of ammunition against individual Democratic challengers. But the voters tuned out the messages and were ready for change, and we have to wait and see if that happens to Democrats this year," says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

The GOP is aiming its fire in two places: at 42 seats that, until the 2006 and 2008 elections, had been held by Republicans (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls these Democratic freshmen and sophomores her "majority-makers"), and, more surprising, at several senior House Democrats and powerful committee chairs.

The latter, some of whom have not faced a serious challenge in 10 to 20 years, include nine-term Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, and 14-term Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina. Twenty-one term Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin resigned in advance of what was expected to be a tough reelection bid.

"We're targeting at least 80 congressional seats at this point. We only need 39 to pick up a majority, so we have a margin for error," says Ande Seré, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I think everyone understands that a lot can change in politics even in the course of a couple of months."

Where do Democrats have their best shot at defending their majority?

Democratic officials will concentrate on defending their 42 majority-makers. They call it their "front-line program."

"Our [front-line] members have been able to build high firewalls, if you look at cash-in-hand advantages over Republicans," says Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The average front-line candidate has $1.1 million on hand heading into the fall, compared with $400,000 for his or her GOP challenger, he adds.

Democrats want voters to perceive the election as a choice between a local Republican and a local Democrat – not as a referendum on President Obama.

"Republicans are protecting corporations that want to outsource jobs. Democrats are talking about fighting against unfair trade agreements. That's a very potent attack we will be making," adds Mr. Rudominer.

Here are some Democratic seats that could flip to the GOP

New Hampshire: Christopher Shays of Connecticut was the last House Republican in New England; he lost in 2008. Republicans now have a good chance to regain a foothold via two New Hampshire races. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D), a liberal in a relatively conservative district, will face a tough contest no matter who emerges from the Sept. 14 primary. And former Rep. Charles Bass (R) has a strong shot at reclaiming his seat in the Second District, as incumbent Rep. Paul Hodes (D) vacates it to run for the US Senate.

Ohio: Democrats could lose four seats – two of them involving first-term “majority maker” Democrats. Freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy will have to defend the Democratic Congress along with her own voting record in a 15th District rematch with former state Sen. Steve Stivers, currently favored to win. In the 16th District, Rep. John Boccieri (D) faces businessman Jim Renacci, who is challenging Mr. Boccieri’s record of support for stimulus, energy, and health-care legislation.

Pennsylvania: Republicans are making credible runs in eight Democrat-held districts here. One is a rematch between two-term Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) and former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R) in the Eighth District.

In western Pennsylvania, freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) and sophomore Rep. Jason Altmire (D) voted against a cap-and-trade carbon emissions bill that is unpopular there, but they may still have to defend Democratic priorities that don’t sit well with voters in this region.

In the late Rep. John Murtha’s district, the congressman’s former aide, Mark Critz, won a special election less than four months ago. His win and its eight-point margin of victory were a pleasant surprise to Democrats, who see his campaign as a template for other races in old industrial districts where voters are disappointed with the Obama record on job creation. The fall brings a rematch between Mr. Critz and GOP businessman Tim Burns.

South Carolina: Rep. John Spratt Jr., House budget chairman, has faced tough races before in his Republican-leaning Fifth District, but his votes for health-care reform and energy legislation could give him special problems in 2010. Mr. Spratt is among the senior House Democrats that national Republican groups are targeting.

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