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Is the House Now in Play for the 2012 Elections?

With key redistricting decisions still pending in a number of large states — including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, New York, Minnesota and Washington — there are plenty of questions yet to be answered about the playing field for next year’s Congressional elections.

Still, we are starting to get more than an inkling about how the fight for the House will shape up in 2012, when Democrats will need a net gain of 24 seats to recapture the majority.

Candidate recruitment, of course, is still very much under way, and it will continue throughout this year and into next year as new Congressional district lines are finalized. But even with these caveats, I want to take a very preliminary crack at seeing where the fight for the House stands less than 16 months before the 2012 elections.

I’ve gone state by state to assess the Democrats’ prospects of reaching 218 seats, making a number of reasonable assumptions about some states that have not yet drawn new districts. Naturally, this methodology is ripe for second-guessing.

Democrats start with 194 seats, a total that includes a vacant Democratic seat in New York. Next, I start adding Democratic gains and subtracting Democratic losses. Because I’m only “counting” Democratic opportunities to see whether the party can reach 218 seats, I don’t need to “count” Republican seats (or gains or losses).

Though House Democrats start at 194 seats, the party is likely to lose at least 11 seats off the top because of redistricting and retirements.

These losses include seats in Indiana (Rep. Joe Donnelly), Massachusetts (undetermined), Michigan (Rep. Gary Peters or Rep. Sander Levin), Missouri (Rep. Russ Carnahan), North Carolina (Reps. Larry Kissell, Brad Miller and Heath Shuler), Oklahoma (Rep. Dan Boren), Pennsylvania (Rep. Mark Critz or Rep. Jason Altmire), Ohio (undetermined) and Texas (Rep. Lloyd Doggett).

That takes Democrats down to 183 seats, meaning they will need at least an additional 35 seats — new districts or those held by Republicans — to reach 218 seats.

By my calculations, there are 36 districts where Democrats should win or can compete very seriously next year. The list includes a large contingent of freshman Republicans — who will face a very different political environment in 2012 — some Republican seats hurt by redistricting and some new competitive and Democratic-leaning districts that are likely to be created because of reapportionment.

Some Democrats will complain that I haven’t listed a number of other Republican incumbents who could receive strong challenges, including Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Larry Bucshon (Ind.), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Lou Barletta (Pa.), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Mike Kelly (Pa.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.). That’s true.

Those and other races might develop, but for now, the Republicans just mentioned seem less vulnerable, either because strong challengers have not announced, district fundamentals argue against the Democrats or redistricting is likely to lessen the Democrats’ chances dramatically.

There are two other categories of races to consider.

First, there are serious Republican challenges that did not make the already-mentioned list of 10 Democratic-held districts that are likely to flip. These GOP opportunities are not sure things and range from tossups to competitive contests.

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