With the primary period concluded and independent expenditure spending now fully under way, party strategists face the difficult task of figuring out which races to fund, which incumbents to cut lose and how much debt to incur to try to secure a majority in the House.
It also means that it is time for CQ Politics to do a sweeping assessment of the current House playing field and update our race ratings to reflect a battleground that is still tilted heavily toward Republicans but coming into clearer focus by the day. Will Republicans pick up the 39 seats needed to take back the House and install Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker? We just don't know yet. But Republicans are clearly well-positioned to make significant gains.
This round of race rating changes is major in that it marks the first time this cycle that we are moving Democratic incumbents into the Leans Republican category -- meaning the odds are greater that they will be defeated, rather than re-elected, in November. With two notable exceptions, the bulk of changes to our ratings are positive for Republicans.
The re-election races of seven Democratic incumbents have been moved to the Leans Republican category. Six of the incumbents were first elected in 2008. Three were elected in districts that supported President Barack Obama in 2008 but President George W. Bush in 2004: Reps. Debbie Halvorson in eastern Illinois, Steve Driehaus in southwestern Ohio and Mary Jo Kilroy in central Ohio.
Without a doubt, the most difficult rating change to make was our decision to move veteran Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, a Blue Dog first elected in 1990, into the Leans Republican category. Edwards is a tough, smart and seasoned campaigner who has been targeted by the GOP cycle after cycle, but who always held on to win another term. There is no other Democratic-held district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried by a larger margin in 2008, a testament to his campaigning skills in previous cycles. While we find it hard to bet against Edwards, the mood of the electorate in his staunchly conservative district, combined with the strength of his Republican opponent, businessman Bill Flores, make him more likely to lose than to win. Polling in the contest -- both public and private -- backs that up.
Also moving from Tossup to Leans Republican are three Democratic-held open seats -- two of which are being vacated by House Members running for Senate. It's getting harder by the day to see how Democrats could hold Indiana's 8th district, which Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D) is vacating to run for the Senate. Surgeon Larry Bucshon (R) has clearly gained momentum over state Rep. Trent Van Haaften (D) in the race, and it doesn't help Van Haaften's efforts that Ellsworth isn't gaining any traction in the Senate contest.
Republicans also clearly have momentum in Tennessee's 8th district, where Rep. John Tanner (D) is retiring, and in New Hampshire's 2nd district, which Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D) is leaving behind to run for the Senate. The demographics of the New Hampshire district favor Democrats a lot more than those of the Tennessee seat. However, New Hampshire is a more expensive state, and Republicans got the strongest possible nominee in former Rep. Charlie Bass, who was ousted in the Democratic wave in 2006. Democrats have made significant gains over the past two cycles in New Hampshire, and this is likely to be a cycle where we see some political realignment in the state.
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