WASHINGTON --- The past few elections have been a disaster for House Democrats. Their majority at the beginning of Barack Obama's presidency is a distant memory and, conventional wisdom has it, is unlikely to return this decade. The last time Republicans held a bigger majority in the House, Babe Ruth was playing for the Yankees.
But Democrats are hoping this year will be the year they turn things around. Of the 10 seats most likely to change hands in November, they've got a shot at a minimum of seven. They could even pick up three or four of those without trying too hard, thanks to a handful of gerrymandered districts redrawn in their favor.
Zoom out further and we see that Republicans are defending some 26 districts that voted for President Obama in the last presidential election. Democrats have just five incumbents trying to win reelection in districts that voted for Mitt Romney.
Zoom out even further to the presidential race, and there's more bad news for Republicans. David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently said he thinks the House majority could be in play if Republicans nominate Donald Trump or even Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Republicans say it's too early to be making many projections. Democrats would need to sweep most or all of the 27 Republican-held seats that are currently regarded as competitive and then win even more districts to get the magic number 30 needed for a majority. (The current breakdown is 246 to 188, meaning Democrats need to turn 30 GOP seats blue.)
Republicans are also buoyed by recent congressional primaries that suggest that, while voters may want to send a newbie to the White House, they might be okay with sending a veteran back to Congress to work with him. Plus, it's not like Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is that popular either.
But that doesn't change the fact more Republicans are on defense than Democrats. Clearly, Democrats have a chance to regain lost ground; the question is how much, and what the national environment portends in a completely unpredictable election year.
Enough chatter; let's get to the lineup. With the caveat that things could and often do change quickly, here are the top 10 House races most likely to flip parties, in order of least to most likely. To the line!
10. Nebraska 2nd, Rep. Brad Ashford, D: There are only two Democratic incumbents on this list, and Rep. Brad Ashford, who represents one of the most Republican-leaning seats that House Democrats hold, is one of them. The Omaha freshman lawmaker originally struggled to raise money, making Republicans salivate they'd at least have one easy pick-up. So Republicans recruited retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Bacon, a guy with a great resume but who faces a primary challenger and has also stumbled in fundraising. (Bacon finished 2015 with $135,000 cash on hand compared to Ashford's $680,000.) Republicans are optimistic that GOP donors are holding their cash until Bacon wins his May 10 primary, and they argue this seat is still in play.
Still, Ashford has proven he can hold off a Republican wave; he ousted a GOP incumbent in the midst of Republican's 2014 landslide.
9. Arizona 1st, OPEN, D: This is the first of many open seats to make our list. But unlike the others, Arizona's expansive 1st congressional district is not up for grabs because of redistricting. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D, is challenging Sen. John McCain, R, in what could be a competitive race if the Trump winds blow against McCain. She leaves a district that's voted for the Republican presidential candidate in at least the past four elections. Naturally, the GOP primary is crowded. This race isn't higher on our list because at least two of the GOP's front-runners, Arizona state House Speaker David Gowan and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, are both wading through controversies -- past and present. (Babeu in particular has baggage; he ended his 2012 campaign for Congress after a Mexican immigrant outed the immigration hard-liner as being gay and accused Babeu of threatening him with deportation if he disclosed their relationship.) Democrats are bullish on their leading candidate, former state lawmaker Tom O'Halleran, a moderate
8. Florida 26th, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R: And now we approach the first of the redistricted seats to come into play. A court-ordered redrawing of eight of Florida's 27 well-gerrymandered congressional districts has scrambled the politics in roughly a dozen of them, tilting the overall map slightly toward Democrats. That's true for Curbelo's new Miami area district, which will be Democratic-leaning and majority-Hispanic. That means Curbelo's bid for a second term got tougher but not impossible. Republicans say Curbelo is doing everything he can to keep himself competitive, including being vocal in his opposition to Trump; Curbelo said he'd back a third-party candidate if Trump were the nominee and even declined ruling out voting for Clinton. But the math just might not be in his favor anymore. Republicans are taking comfort there's a competitive primary on the Democratic side. Former congressman Joe Garcia is seeking a rematch with Curbelo, and Annette Taddeo, who was former Florida governor Charlie Crist's, D, running mate in the state's 2014 governor's race, is also vying for the seat.
7. Illinois 10th, Rep. Bob Dold, R: Dold is another Republican who could do everything right but still lose his seat in November. That's because this seat in the northern Chicago suburbs is one of the most Democratic districts Republicans hold this cycle. The seat has flip-flopped between Democrat and Republican in recent elections -- specifically between Dold and his Democratic rival, former congressman Brad Schneider. And you guessed it: This year Schneider wants the seat back. Republicans are pleased with how Dold is performing so far; he's playing up his moderate credentials much like his predecessor, now-Sen. Mark Kirk, R, and he ended February with an impressive $1.6 million cash on hand. Plus, Dold has proven before he can hang on in a Democratic wave; he out-performed Mitt Romney by several points in 2012 as he lost a close election to Schneider.
But he may simply be a victim of presidential politics and the ensuing turnout that tends to benefit Democrats.
6. Nevada 4th, Rep. Cresent Hardy, R: The moment Hardy, a political novice, won a surprise victory in 2014, Democrats started counting down to November 2016 for the chance to kick him out. The vast district is essentially split between rural central Nevada and the diverse northern Las Vegas suburbs. A Democrat has a good chance of winning the seat in a presidential year by simply boosting turnout in the city. Helping Democrats make their case is the fact that Hardy is also arguably much more conservative than his district as a whole; Obama won it by 10 points in 2012. Democrats have three dynamic contenders -- state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, former state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores and philanthropist Susie Lee -- battling it out in the primary. Any one of them would be formidable against Hardy.
5. Iowa 1st, Rep. Rod Blum, R: The district most likely to flip without the interference of redrawn borders is Blum's. Like Hardy, Blum was a somewhat surprising surfer on the GOP's 2014 wave. Obama won the district by a 14-point margin in 2012. Blum hasn't necessarily helped make his case to northeastern Iowa's more moderate voters; he's consistently voted as if he represents a heavily conservative district rather than a swing or even blue-leaning one. (Blum's first vote was to oppose Speaker John Boehner's reelection as speaker.) This week, Blum stirred up a mini-controversy -- and some press back home -- when he tweeted a picture of cranes on D.C.'s Southwest waterfront and said the city "needs a recession." On the bright side for Republicans, Blum does have some $1 million to try to fend off whoever comes out of a Democratic primary, whether that's Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon or former Iowa state House speaker Patrick Murphy.
4. Virginia 4th, OPEN, R: These next three seats follow a familiar pattern: A seat redrawn in a redistricting battle to favor Democrats, a Republican trying his luck elsewhere, and a pick-up opportunity for Democrats. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Virginia's redistricting fight and seems likely to let the new maps be. For Rep. Randy Forbes, that's bad news. His new district has a much high number of African American voters who lean Democratic. So he's hopscotching over to Virginia's 2nd congressional district, which is being vacated by a retiring Rep. Scott Rigell, R. While Republicans do have several candidates vying to replace Forbes, most operatives are writing this off for Democrats in 2016 and possibly for some time to come.
3. Florida 10th, OPEN, R: It's a similar story for the central Florida seat being vacated by Daniel Webster, a mostly low-profile Republican (save for a futile run for speaker) who will hop over to run in the neighboring 11th now that his old district has been split roughly six ways and the new one favors Democrats. (Obama would have won the new district with 61 percent of the vote.) Webster got national attention this year when House conservatives backed him for speaker. The political gravity in his old district has shifted to a four-way Democratic primary for the seat, with Val Demings, the first woman to serve as Orlando's police chief and who challenged Webster in 2012, leading in name recognition.
2. Florida 13th, OPEN, R: After winning this seat in a special election two years ago, Rep. Davis Jolly, R, has decided to bet his political future on the crowded GOP primary for Sen. Marco Rubio's, R, seat. Jolly's district was redrawn to favor Democrats; Obama would have won it with 55 percent in 2012. Democrats consider this a relatively easy pick-up -- especially if the former GOP mayor of St. Petersburg, who has a history of winning over Democratic African American voters, doesn't decide to get into the race. (Rick Baker told the Tampa Bay Times in January he's leaving the door open.) Among the Democrats who sensed the momentum swinging their way in this district is hometown politician Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat who has run two failed statewide races in the past four years and is now running for the newly redrawn seat. He faces a well-financed if less-well-known primary challenger, former Defense Department official Eric Lynn.
1. Florida 2nd, Rep. Gwen Graham, D: If she decides to stay in her reelection race, Graham will almost certainly be one of the most direct victims of Florida's redrawn congressional map. The Tallahassee area district was a hard-fought Democratic pick-up in 2014, but there's near-universal agreement that it will be handed back over to Republicans in 2016 thanks to the new lines, which now have the district leaning Republican by 18 points. Graham has yet to announce whether she'll run for reelection. She's waiting for resolution to a lawsuit brought by her colleague Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., that could affect her district. (A federal judge hears arguments Friday.) Graham has some $2 million ready to go if she decides the lines look favorable for her and she wants to fight for it. If the lines change, it would almost certainly bump this race down from No. 1 on our list.
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