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.
Six districts held by Democratic incumbents are moving from the Leans Democratic category to Tossup. One of those Members, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), was elected in 2008, and four were elected in 2006. McCain carried four of the districts in 2008, and Bush easily carried all of them in 2004.
Kirkpatrick won her seat in the conservative eastern Arizona district in the wake of the retirement of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, who had ethics problems. She faces dentist Paul Gosar in what appears to be an increasingly uphill battle for her. In the races against Kirkpatrick and Rep. Harry E. Mitchell (D-Ariz.), Republicans are boosted by the fact that McCain is up for re-election and will again be at the top of the ticket in November.
Mitchell faces David Schweikert, the 2008 Republican nominee, under very different circumstances this November. Republicans are targeting the Blue Dog with criticism of his votes for health care reform and for Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker.
Farther down the line, three more Democratic incumbents inch closer to the Tossup category. Reps. John Salazar (Colo.) and Rick Larsen (Wash.) move from Likely Democratic to the more volatile Leans Democratic category, and Rep. Phil Hare (Ill.) moves from Safe Democratic to Leans Democratic. Each change is a reflection of the national mood and a Republican nominee who is surging in polls. The Hare race is especially one to watch, as this race has developed more quickly than most in recent weeks.
There are two ratings moving in favor of Democrats. In Delaware, Democrats were already projected to win the seat being vacated by Rep. Michael N. Castle (R), but after last week's primary the party is all but guaranteed to pick it up. Republican hopes of making this race more competitive lay in the prospect that wealthy businesswoman Michele Rollins would help self-fund her bid. But Rollins was upset in the GOP primary by tea party candidate Glen Urquhart, who is not viewed as a viable general election nominee.
Finally, we are moving one Republican incumbent into the Tossup category: California Rep. Dan Lungren.
Aside from GOP Reps. Anh "Joseph" Cao (La.) and Charles K. Djou (Hawaii) -- both of whom represent heavily Democratic districts -- there are three Republican Members whom Democrats believe they have a chance of defeating in November. They are Lungren and Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.) and Charlie Dent (Pa.). Of the three, Lungren appears to be the easiest target for Democrats to paint as a politician who has been in office too long, a message that is certainly resonating with voters this cycle. Lungren's Democratic opponent, physician Ami Bera, has the resources to get that message out to voters, and his first TV ad was a direct salvo at Lungren, who is in his second stint in Congress.
There appears to be little doubt that Lungren will have to fight to hold his seat. We're monitoring the Reichert and Dent races, too, but we can't see justification for moving them at this point given the overall climate that favors the GOP.
Moved from Tossup to Leans Republican:
Colorado's 4th -- Rep. Betsy Markey (D)
Florida's 24th -- Rep. Suzanne M. Kosmas (D)
Illinois' 11th -- Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D)
Indiana's 8th -- open seat
Maryland's 1st -- Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. (D)
New Hampshire's 2nd -- open seat
Ohio's 1st -- Rep. Steve Driehaus (D)
Ohio's 15th -- Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D)
Tennessee's 8th -- open seat
Texas' 17th -- Rep. Chet Edwards (D)
Moved from Leans Democratic to Tossup:
Arizona's 1st -- Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D)
Arizona's 5th -- Rep. Harry E. Mitchell (D)
Georgia's 8th -- Rep. Jim Marshall (D)
New York's 19th -- Rep. John Hall (D)
Pennsylvania's 10th -- Rep. Christopher Carney (D)
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.