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Is This a House Race, or Just a Rumor?

House Democrats recently spent $100,000 on radio ads for Capps. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In what is already a strange cycle, operatives on both sides are bracing for surprises on election night.  

Rumors flew last week about a surprise poll or errant television reservation that could spell doom for an incumbent considered a safe bet for re-election a week ago.  

Some of these suggestions were just that — rumor. But many operatives are convinced Tuesday night will feature at least one upset.  

Here are the under-the-radar races keeping strategists excited and worried Tuesday night:  

Seats held by Democrats California's 17th District (Rep. Michael M. Honda)

Honda.

Attorney Ro Khanna raised millions from Silicon Valley tech leaders to challenge to Honda, another Democrat, in the Golden State's top-two primary system. It appeared Honda's future in Congress was imperiled.  

But Khanna took a dismal 27 percent  in the June primary, earning a spot in general election but under-performing expectations — especially considering the $2 million he spent.  

That took Honda off the radar of national elections forecasters.  

Less than a month before Election Day, both internal and independent  polling surfaced showing Khanna back in the hunt, with Honda receiving 37 percent to his 35 percent. A massive 28 percent remained undecided in that survey.  

Khanna's campaign circulated the news, arguing they had a real chance to oust Honda. But the campaign had blown through almost all of its cash reserves  in the home stretch, complicating the upstart's path.  

Rating: Safe Democratic California's 24th District (Rep. Lois Capps)

Capps.

The eight-term Democrat's Santa Barbara-based district was redrawn in the decennial redistricting process, making it less favorable for her party. Capps defeated former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado by a 10-point margin in 2012 — a good year for Democrats in the state.  

But this cycle, House races are orphans in the Golden State because no competitive contest tops the ticket, and operatives anticipated an exacerbated Democratic voter drop off. Capps faces actor Chris Mitchum, the son of legendary Hollywood heavyweight Robert Mitchum.  

Mitchum released internal polling that showed him within striking distance, leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to dump in $100,000 on Santa Barbara radio to defend the seat.  

It's the kind of seat Democrats could lose in a wave election.  

Rating: Favored Democratic Iowa's 2nd District (Rep. Dave Loebsack)

Loebsack.

Sensing a potential pick-up opportunity, Speaker John A. Boehner recently stumped in this southeastern Iowa district for Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the Republican waging her third battle against Loebsack. GOP outside groups also made a late-October cash injection on the airwaves to boost Miller-Meeks' candidacy.  

Obama carried the district by a 13-point margin in 2012. But Republicans say the seat is in play thanks to a competitive Senate race  topping the ticket. The Republican nominee for Senate, Joni Ernst, has a slim lead over Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in the open-seat contest going into Election Day, according to public polling.  

Other polling from the 2nd District dumped cold water on that notion. Loebsack led Miller-Meeks, 51 percent to 38 percent, according to a late October survey from Loras College .  

But Republicans still contend this seat is in play.  

Rating: Leans Democratic

Horsford

Nevada's 4th District (Rep. Steven Horsford) Horsford's name hardly surfaced as a vulnerable incumbent until late October, when Crossroads GPS dumped six figures in ad spending against him.  

The money came when early voting data in Nevada showed signs of depressed Democratic turnout.  

Most national operatives say this race is merely a headache, costing the DCCC $360,000 in the final week of the race.  

In the end, Democrats express confidence that they will hold the seat.  

Rating: Favored Democratic    

Love.

Utah's 4th District (race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Matheson) Democrats all over Washington whispered about a new Brigham Young University poll  showing GOP rising star Mia Love behind Democrat Doug Owens.  

After Matheson announced his retirement late last year, Love became the heavy favorite to succeed him. Love — who lost to Matheson last cycle by just 768 votes — would be the first African American Republican woman elected to the House if she wins.  

But even Democrats conceded that the poll's margin of error was large and the sample was too small.  

"Nah. Mia will be fine," a House GOP operative who is closely watching the race emailed. "These things always tighten up at the end."  

Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call race rating: Safe Republican Seats held by Republicans  Arkansas' 4th District (open-seat race to replace Rep. Tom Cotton)

Witt.

House Democrats are making a play for two open seats in Arkansas this cycle, contending the state's voters have Democratic roots  dating back to the days conservative southern Democrats reigned.  

Democrats have a top recruit in James Lee Witt, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under home-state President Bill Clinton.  

Romney won this district in 2012 by a massive 26-point margin. But polling shows a close race , and Democrats say Witt could pull off an upset.  

Rating: Favored Republican    

California's 21st District (Rep. David Valadao)

Renteria.

Democrats should be competitive in a district like this Central Valley-based seat, which Obama carried by an 11-point margin in 2012. But polling for much of the race showed Valadao with a stubborn, double-digit lead, leading national Democrats to pull ad spending for the race.  

Yet as Election Day neared, polling showed Democrat Amanda Renteria closing on Valadao. She trailed by a 5-point margin  with a few weeks to go.  

And early voting numbers show an increase in early Democratic turnout from 2012. It's a promising sign, as the district's largely Hispanic electorate was projected to stay home in an off-year election like this one.  

It led the DCCC to inject nearly $90,000 in television spending  with a week to go — a large sum in this district's media market.  

Rating: Favored Republican

Jenkins.

Kansas' 2nd District (Rep. Lynn Jenkins) Jenkins carried this seat by an 18-point margin in 2012. But the top-of-the-ticket turmoil in the Sunflower State's gubernatorial and Senate contests created enough concern for Jenkins that national Republicans rushed to bolster her campaign financially.  

By Oct. 22, her campaign released an internal poll that showed she had a comfortable 12-point lead  over Democrat Margie Wakefield.  

Her team cited campaign advertising for its reversal of fortunes.  

Rating: Safe Republican Michigan's 6th District (Rep. Fred Upton)

Upton.

Upton carried the seat by 12 points in 2012. But in recent weeks, Mayday PAC , a group that aims to end super PACs, spent at least $2.1 million against Upton, according to the Federal Election Commission .  

There are some signs of competitiveness in this seat: Michigan's native son, Mitt Romney, only carried Michigan's 6th District by 1 point. And an Upton upset would set off a scramble to replace him as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  

It led Upton to amp up his own spending. American Future Fund, a Koch-aligned group, and Main Street Advoacy, a group that supports business-friendly Republicans, recently dropped a combined $450,000 in defense of Upton, too.  

Rating: Safe Republican New Jersey's 5th District (Rep. Scott Garrett):

Garrett.

Early in October, a Monmouth University Poll showed Garrett with a relatively slim 5-point lead over Democrat Roy Cho. But by the close of the election, a new Monmouth poll showed an expanded, 11-point spread.  

Some New Jersey Democrats lobbied for more national interest in the 5th District, but North Jersey is not a place where the DCCC or outside groups will loosely experiment with ad dollars — the New York City television market is just too expensive.  

Some Democrats who are watching the race hope the margin will be narrow enough to merit top status by the DCCC next cycle.  

Rating: Safe Republican Related:

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