Mid-Summer Midterm Madness

A fresh look at 2006's House 'bubble battles'


Yes, we know college basketball is a distant memory by now from the perspective of these hot summer months, but looking at the list of potentially competitive races beyond those listed in our Dirty Thirty, we can’t help but be reminded of the perennial spectacle of bracket selection. Much as slightly above-average college basketball squads covet at-large berths to the Big Dance given out on Selection Sunday in early March, the underdog candidates in borderline-competitive House races are scrambling for their share of the spotlight in this difficult-to-read midterm election cycle.

Of course, the distinction between barnburners and forgettable match-ups is never all that bright a line in the realm of congressional elections, and it isn’t announced by a selection committee after a hasty closed-door meeting. But as of mid-July, we’re starting to acquire a better sense of how “bubble races”–those floating between real turnover possibility and true long-shot status–are shaking out. Although summertime is typically the quiet before the storm of the full-blown, post-Labor Day election season, it’s a critical time for national parties to finalize their lists of targeted races by evaluating whether their candidates, especially challengers, are making the grade both in fundraising and in auditions before voters.

The near-inevitability of Democratic gains in the House this year makes it easy to see why 80 percent of our Watch List’s “bubble races” this year will take place in GOP-held seats. For congressional Republicans, the name of the game this cycle has always been keeping the bracket of truly competitive contests as small as possible in order to minimize potential for Democrats to take advantage of any “macro-wave” and claim the 15 seats necessary to flip control of the House. But across the aisle, Democrats have been striving so stubbornly to expand the fight for the House into new theaters that it seems the party has almost willed several districts into play.

To the extent that a mammoth, late-breaking October wave for Democrats could put even the congressional careers well-established Republican incumbents in jeopardy, all clues point to GOP efforts to buy as much “flood insurance” as possible. Vice President Dick Cheney was dispatched this week to western Kentucky to boost the campaign coffers of six-term GOP Rep. Ron Lewis, and Seattle-area GOP Rep. Dave Reichert was the recent beneficiary of a fundraising stop by President Bush. Such events are indicative of the strong desire on the part of Republicans to brace for a major wave by moving potentially vulnerable incumbents to higher and safer ground before the fall.

Back in February, the Crystal Ball followed up the 2006 Dirty Thirty by introducing a “Watch List” of 20 potentially competitive races around the country. Now that we’ve updated the Dirty Thirty for July, we’re eager to roll out an updated watch list of races on the “bubble.” As we predicted in February, several of the races originally placed on the watch list–such as the races in Virginia’s 2nd and Pennsylvania’s 7th–have become so central to the battle for the House that they’ve earned a place in the Dirty Thirty. And of course, ebbs and flows in other races have compensated for such movements. All in all, GOP-held seats still comprise 80 percent of our watch list, and we’ve indicated our gut feeling about these races’ tendencies toward competitiveness with our rankings: roughly half are listed as “leaning” towards one party or the other, and we consider the other half “likely” to remain within the grasp of the district’s incumbent party.

As a side note, it is entirely possible that the 2006 congressional elections could break two historical rules. First, it is remarkable at this point in the game that Republicans cannot claim to have a better than even shot of taking over a single Democratic district. Usually, even in wave elections, the party suffering net losses picks up a seat here or there. But from our perspective in July, the Crystal Ball rates only one Democratic seat as a toss-up, and if you put a gun to our head, we’d still bet that freshman Democratic Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois’s 8th District will prevail in November. Second, the prospect that not a single incumbent member of Congress will lose re-nomination in 2006 is noteworthy, and its occurrence would break a considerable historical streak. With a majority of contentious congressional primaries over, not a single representative on our February “Fratricide Watch” list has suffered defeat. While we would still be cautious about the odds of either of these trends overcoming historical unlikelihood, the Crystal Ball believes each is more plausible than ever.

So what’s the best way to treat a case of mid-summer midterm madness, you ask? The same way you cure World Cup craziness: just keep watching the match-ups. Here’s how we currently break down our “Watch List” of 20 potentially competitive races, complete with numerical rankings for most potential for competition to least:

(Note: Our list starts at 31 because these are the “next” 20 most competitive races after our Dirty Thirty)

The July 2006 “Watch List” of Potentially Competitive House Races

Rank State District Current Party Current Outlook Link to State Page
31 Washington 08 Republican Leans Republican Read more
32 Connecticut 05 Republican Leans Republican Read more
33 New York 20 Republican Leans Republican Read more
34 Ohio 01 Republican Leans Republican Read more
35 Wisconsin 08 Republican (OPEN) Leans Republican Read more
36 California 11 Republican Leans Republican Read more
37 Colorado 03 Democratic Leans Democratic Read more
38 Pennsylvania 10 Republican Leans Republican Read more
39 Florida 13 Republican (OPEN) Leans Republican Read more
40 South Carolina 05 Democratic Likely Democratic Read more
41 Colorado 04 Republican Likely Republican Read more
42 Nevada 02 Republican (OPEN) Likely Republican Read more
43 Vermont AL Independent (OPEN) Likely Democratic Read more
44 New York 29 Republican Likely Republican Read more
45 Indiana 02 Republican Likely Republican Read more
46 New Jersey 07 Republican Likely Republican Read more
47 Nevada 03 Republican Likely Republican Read more
48 New York 25 Republican Likely Republican Read more
49 Illinois 17 Democratic (OPEN) Likely Democratic Read more
50 Kentucky 03 Republican Likely Republican Read more