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West

Alaska

Senate

Incumbent: Ted Stevens (R)
7th term (78 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Just a few months ago, most political operatives from the “lower 48” had written Stevens off. With an ongoing federal investigation into the activities of the Senator and his associates, it was hard to believe that he could be competitive. What’s more, Democrats recruited their strongest possible candidate, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, to run against him.

Then the other shoe dropped: Stevens was indicted in July on seven charges of lying on his financial disclosure forms. Even Republican operatives were sure his re-election was dead in the water.

No so fast: Though Stevens’ position in the polls initially tanked after the indictments were announced, he rebounded big time in September. Polls showed him trailing Begich by only 2-6 points — quite a feat for a Senator who was on trial thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C.

It’s more than possible that Stevens could win re-election. He is also helped by his home-state governor being on the national ticket, though GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin had declined to endorse Stevens as of press time.

By all accounts, Begich is a strong candidate. Not only does he manage a city that comprises almost half of the state’s population, he also enjoys relatively high approval ratings. He’s also aided by other names on the ticket: the Democrats’ nominee for president and the at-large House seat also play well in the state — though likely not as big of a boost that Stevens will get from Palin.

The big question mark in this race is not in Alaska — it’s in Washington. If Stevens is found guilty at the end of his trial, which is scheduled to finish before Election Day, he might lose his eighth bid for the seat. But never underestimate how much Alaskans are thankful for dear “Uncle Ted.” Even if he’s found guilty, it’s possible voters could still find him worthy of re-election.

House

At-large
Incumbent: Don Young (R)
18th term (57 percent)
Outlook: Leans Democratic

Unlike his Senate counterpart, Young doesn’t inspire the same fond feelings from the public as “Uncle Ted” Stevens. After barely winning a bruising Republican primary against Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and with a federal investigation looming over his candidacy, Young doesn’t find many reasons for voters to like him these days.

What’s more, national Republicans have practically given up on the race. That doesn’t help Young’s fundraising, much of which goes toward helping to pay his legal bills.

Democrats are happy to tout their candidate of choice, former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. A strong campaigner with one statewide bid under his belt, Berkowitz is as good a candidate as Democrats could hope for in the state.

Yet with so much going against him, there are more than a few polls that show Young trailing Berkowitz by only a few points. As he continues to campaign hard to keep his seat, Young will likely continue to spread the message that gave him his primary win: He has the seniority that helps Alaska. And while Berkowitz stays far away from talking about the investigation, he will do his best to keep independent voters in his column.

California

House

4th district
Incumbent: John Doolittle (R) is retiring
Outlook: Likely Republican

State Sen. Tom McClintock (R) is well positioned to beat retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown (D) and should win comfortably when all is said and done in this solidly conservative Northern California district.

But in a volatile election cycle and with an open seat, it’s too early to put the lid on this race.

Brown ran in 2006 and nearly beat Doolittle despite the strong conservative lean of the district. Brown is campaigning largely on his biography as a career military officer, pledging to work with Democrats and Republicans to get things done for the good of the district.

However, it is notable that Brown’s best tactic is to campaign on his biography rather than his position on key issues, like taxes, abortion and Iraq. Brown would have a better chance in this district if he was a conservative Democrat who opposed abortion rights, was more ardently against taxes and had favored the Iraq War surge.

McClintock is a perfect ideological fit for the 4th district. And even though he represents a state Senate district in Southern California and doesn’t live in the district, he is among the most beloved Republicans in the state.

His name identification in the 4th district is high, courtesy of the several times that he has run for statewide office. Even in losing the 2006 race for lieutenant governor, McClintock won the 4th district, and in doing so, he received far more votes than either Brown or Doolittle.

For all of these reasons, Brown’s attempt to diminish McClintock by labeling him as a carpet-bagging political opportunist is likely to fall short of its objective. It also doesn’t help Brown that McClintock isn’t weighed down by ethical issues, as Doolittle was in 2006.

11th district
Incumbent: Jerry McNerney (D)
1st term (53 percent)
Outlook: Leans Democratic

Democrats’ arguments to the contrary, former state Assemblyman Dean Andal is a great Republican candidate for this seat — at least on paper.

In his political career, Andal has shown an ability to win Democratic and independent votes without hemorrhaging the support of his fellow Republicans. He has deep roots in this inland central California district and is ideologically in sync with a majority of 11th district voters.

The 11th district leans Republican. And even though McNerney won the seat in 2006, his victory was credited largely to the millions of dollars that environmental activist groups spent to tear down the incumbent, then-Rep. Richard Pombo (R). McNerney, who the GOP charges is too liberal for this seat, has in fact given Andal plenty of ammunition to credibly make that charge.

But Andal’s campaign tactics have been questionable, while McNerney’s effort has been textbook.

McNerney has raised far more money than Andal so far and is likely to maintain his considerable financial edge over his GOP challenger even after the third-quarter numbers are tallied. McNerney also has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s bank account to rely on for help; Andal can’t say the same about the National Republican Congressional Committee.

McNerney has avoided picking up any major bad press during his first term, and it’s possible that Andal has waited too long to begin tearing him down to have the desired effect on Election Day. There is also a question regarding whether Andal has raised enough money to beat McNerney (Andal’s campaign insists it has).

The Andal campaign argues that its superior grass-roots effort, combined with the district’s GOP leanings, will get the job done on Nov. 4. Democrats argue that they have been able to fatally damage Andal in the eyes of the voters — at least enough to protect McNerney.

50th district
Incumbent: Brian Bilbray (R)
2nd term (54 percent; previously served three terms in a different district)
Outlook: Likely Republican

It’s hard to believe this coastal San Diego-area district was briefly the center of the political universe in early 2006, when Bilbray made his political comeback in a special election. Now the district is almost certain to stay in the Republican column for a while.

But Democrats have an intriguing young candidate in attorney Nick Leibham, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee could throw some money his way if the race appears to be tightening in the end. Still, Bilbray seems to fit the district pretty well, and he’s probably capable of withstanding all but the most intense Democratic surge.

52nd district
Open seat: Duncan Hunter (R) is retiring
Outlook: Safe Republican

Marine Corps Reservist Duncan D. Hunter (R), the Congressman’s son, is set to succeed his father in Congress next year. Retired Navy officer Mike Lumpkin (D) doesn’t stand a chance in this overwhelmingly conservative district — particularly in light of the fact that Congressman Hunter is nearly universally popular in the San Diego County area.

Hawaii

House

2nd district
Incumbent Mazie Hirono (D)
1st term (61 percent)
Outlook: Safe Democratic

Neither House race in Hawaii is competitive this cycle. Hirono will coast to another term. None of her token opponents, who include a no-name Republican, a Libertarian and an Independent, has raised any money.

Nevada

House

2nd district
Incumbent: Dean Heller (R)
1st term (50 percent)
Outlook: Likely Republican

In Nevada’s sprawling, 106,000-square-mile 2nd district, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Jill Derby is in a rematch with Heller after losing to him in an open-seat battle last cycle by 5 points.

But Heller is expected to be in a better position this time around, running from the incumbent’s seat in a district that gave President Bush 57 percent of the vote in the last presidential election.

This cycle, Heller was able to avoid a primary challenge from the former state Assemblywoman whom he narrowly beat in a bitter Republican primary race in 2006. As such, he has been able to store up large amounts of campaign cash. At the end of July, Heller had more than $1 million in cash on hand compared with Derby’s $314,000.

But Derby is receiving support from EMILY’s List, a powerful fundraising organization that supports abortion rights, and she has also been added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program.

Derby has cited high voter turnout in the state’s Democratic presidential nominating caucus earlier this year as one reason why she expects to surpass her performance in 2006.

But a mid-June poll in the 2nd district showed Derby down 14 points to Heller.

3rd district
Incumbent: Jon Porter (R)
3rd term: (48 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

The high voter turnout from Nevada’s Democratic presidential nominating caucus combined with population growth that continues to favor Democrats in the district means that Republicans face a very tough challenge holding this suburban Las Vegas seat in the fall.

Porter has come to be seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbents of the cycle, especially since popular state Sen. Dina Titus (the party’s 2006 gubernatorial nominee) jumped into the race at the last minute. Titus replaced former Clark County prosecutor Robert Daskas, who made an unexpected exit from the race just before the state’s filing deadline.

During her gubernatorial bid, Titus won the 3rd district, and Democrats tried to get her into the 2008 Congressional contest early in the cycle before eventually turning to Daskas. Because the man who defeated her in 2006, now-Gov. Jim Gibbons (R), has had such a rocky term, some voters may be feeling buyer’s remorse, and Titus should be able to take advantage.

After entering the race, Titus was quickly endorsed by EMILY’s List, a group that supports abortion rights, and she was added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program.

Titus is also being boosted by a special DCCC fund for female candidates, and the DCCC has reserved more than $1 million in television advertising time in the district.

Titus’ profile and efforts by the Democratic Party appear to be paying off. A Democratic poll released in late September found Titus ahead of Porter, 46 percent to 37 percent.

Oregon

Senate

Incumbent: Gordon Smith (R)
2nd term (56 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

Smith is in a dogfight against state Speaker Jeff Merkley.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic interest groups are spending millions of dollars to help Merkley outlast Smith, who has been significantly better-funded than Merkley since the race began in earnest earlier this year.

Smith has thus far received considerably less outside help as he seeks to hold onto his job in a state that has become remarkably more Democratic than it was when he won his second term in 2002. The National Republican Senatorial Committee simply doesn’t have the money to compete with the DSCC.

With a month left to go, Smith’s fortunes are tied to his ability to withstand Democratic attacks while maintaining the support of enough Democrats and independents who will be voting for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president. The polling trends show Smith is straddling the line on this front.

Smith has a solid case to make that he is the kind of centrist independent Oregonians have long preferred. His voting record on key issues certainly reflects that. In this race, however, that might not be enough.

For Merkley, the task is simply to appear credible enough to be a Senator while avoiding the kind of major gaffe that could disqualify him from being seen as a preferable alternative to Smith. The Obama tide could be particularly strong in Oregon, and Merkley could be swept to victory by that fact alone.

The wildcard in all of this is Constitution Party candidate Dave Brownlow, a libertarian-style conservative who polls show could be hurting Smith. If this trend continues, the incumbent’s ability to win re-election could be in further peril.

The debate over the $700 billion package to rescue the financial markets could also come into play. Smith voted for the bipartisan legislation, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) voted against it. Merkley immediately came out in support of Wyden’s no vote, while hammering Smith for backing the bill.

House

5th district
Open seat: Darlene Hooley (D) is retiring
Outlook: Likely Democratic

For years, Hooley was a top Republican target. Her decision to retire, along with the entry of wealthy businessman Mike Erickson (R) into the race to succeed her, had the GOP feeling bullish on its chances of flipping this seat.

Erickson had run in 2006 and spent a considerable amount of his own money to put a scare into Hooley. But this time around, things haven’t gone as planned for Republicans.

To begin with, this is no longer a majority Republican district. In all of the voter registration activity by Democrats that accompanied their competitive presidential primary, they overtook the GOP and now hold an edge among enrolled voters in the district.

Second, Erickson’s candidacy began to encounter problems in the GOP primary, when his opponent in that race accused him of lying about whether he had ever paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion. Erickson opposes abortion rights.

Erickson still won his primary, but he has been dogged ever since on several issues relating to his truthfulness.

State Sen. Kurt Schrader is running for the Democrats. He won a primary over viable competition and enjoys wide support among the Democratic establishment.

Schrader should benefit from the slight Democratic tilt of the district and Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign. But most of all, he is likely to benefit from his opponent’s flaws. This must be considered a wasted opportunity for the Republicans.

Washington

House

8th district
Incumbent: Dave Reichert (R)
2nd term (51 percent)
Outlook: Tossup

For a second cycle, this district is one of the most competitive in the country. Reichert defeated Darcy Burner (D) by a few thousand votes in 2006. Burner, a former software executive, is back for a second round with the former King County sheriff made famous for catching the “Green River Killer.”

There’s no question that the national parties will pour funds into this race. But what will likely determine the results of this rematch is the top of the ticket: If enough Democrats turn out for their presidential nominee and vote straight ticket, Burner could defeat Reichert. The district is trending ever more Democratic, but Reichert isn’t seen as a partisan politician. To the extent that Burner and the Democrats can paint him as a typical Republican, they should be able to profit.

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