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Gubernatorial and House ratings update

While other gubernatorial races may get closer as Election Day nears, right now the top gubernatorial tilts in the country are in two small but politically active states: New Hampshire and Montana.

After winning their respective primaries on Sept. 11, ex-state Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) and lawyer Ovide Lamontagne (R), who narrowly lost the GOP Senate nomination to now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2010, have found themselves engaged in a tight battle — polling seems to show the race within the margin of error. We wonder if Lamontagne might be a little too conservative even for New Hampshire, but this race — just like the Granite State’s presidential and U.S. House contests — is a toss-up.

On the other side of the country in Montana, state Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) and ex-Rep. Rick Hill (R) are locked in another margin-of-error race. While Mitt Romney should win Montana fairly comfortably, this gubernatorial race is quite competitive, along with the contests for Sen. Jon Tester’s (D) Senate seat and, to a lesser extent, the open U.S. House seat. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed Bullock up 44% to 43% over Hill — too close to call, obviously. Our sources in Montana tell us that, of the three Democrats in the three statewide contests (governor, Senate and House), Bullock might be best-positioned to win. Part of that is because he’s a popular statewide official on his own right; another factor is that he’s running to succeed a fellow popular Democrat, term-limited Gov. Brian Schweitzer. In that, Bullock has something in common with New Hampshire’s Hassan, who is running to replace retiring Democratic Gov. John Lynch.

The outcome in these states is a bit hazier than that in a third state that we’ve been calling a toss-up: Washington. It appears that ex-Rep. Jay Inslee (D) has opened up a small but durable lead in his contest against state Attorney General Rob McKenna (R), perhaps allowing Democrats to maintain their ongoing, 28-year hammerlock on the Emerald State’s governor’s office. While we reserve the right to change our minds, and while we believe the outcome will be close, we now believe this race leans Democratic.

In other, less competitive states, we’ve seen little indication to believe that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D-WV) and Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO) are in much trouble, although Tomblin is on slightly shakier footing than his fellow Red state Democrat. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) and ex-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R-NC) appear to be on their way to open seat victories in their respective states: Pence is effectively running for the third term of the term-limited Gov. Mitch Daniels; and North Carolina, which hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1988, seems more susceptible to Democratic fatigue than Washington. The nation’s four remaining gubernatorial races are shaping up as snoozers: Govs. Jack Markell (D-DE), Jack Dalrymple (R-ND), Gary Herbert (R-UT) and Peter Shumlin (D-VT) are all in good position to win.

Our full gubernatorial ratings are here.

House: Shifting marquee races

Our latest House update only has a handful of changes, but among those are rating shifts in two of the more prominent congressional contests in the country.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

There’s been a lot of action in FL-18, where Rep. Allen West (R) is running for a second term against businessman Patrick Murphy (D). Last week, West uncorked one of the truly memorable ads of 2012, hitting Murphy for being arrested when he was 19. But Murphy turned right around and responded to the ad with an attack of his own on West’s military record. There’s been a number of recent partisan polls in this race, including a Democratic survey showing Murphy up by nine and a Republican survey showing West up by 11 (full details here). At this point, FL-18 has to be considered a toss-up.

Meanwhile, national Republicans have to feel good about the prospects of Mia Love, who is challenging Rep. Jim Matheson (D) in dark Red Utah. Matheson had a lead in this race, but an independent Deseret News/KSL survey now shows Love up six. This race was always going to be an uphill climb for Matheson, who despite retaining personal popularity, is running in a district that not only will likely give close to three-fourths of its votes to Mitt Romney, but that also is two-thirds new to him after redistricting. Matheson might yet stage a rally, but he’s an underdog now: UT-4 now leans Republican, and if Love wins, it’s likely that the first black, female Republican elected to the U.S. House will become one of the more prominent members of a lower chamber mostly filled with nationally anonymous faces.

Our other changes largely solidify seats for one party or the other; Rep. Jim Costa (D, CA-16) looks like a safe bet for reelection this cycle, though his district is one of several in the Golden State’s Central Valley that might be competitive at certain points throughout the next decade. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is abandoning Rep. Larry Kissell (D, NC-8), who was a victim of Republican redistricting in the Tar Heel State, and it also appears that Kerry Bentivolio (R) is in decent position to become the next quirky representative from Greater Detroit’s MI-11 (replacing the retiring Republican Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who ran a pitiful presidential campaign and then was forced into retirement after he failed to make Michigan’s ballot earlier this year).

One race coming onto our ratings out of an abundance of caution is VA-5, where freshman Rep. Robert Hurt (R-VA) is being challenged by retired Gen. John Douglass (D). This contest should be closer than your average House race — ex-Rep. Tom Perriello (D) narrowly won the seat in 2008 from current Constitution Party presidential candidate Virgil Goode, and then lost it by four points to Hurt in 2010 — but Hurt is still likely to capture the district that contains Charlottesville, where the Center for Politics resides.

These rating changes mean that 231 seats currently are safe, likely or leaning to the Republicans and 190 seats are safe, likely or leaning to the Democrats, with 14 toss-ups. We’re holding steady this week with our projection of a net Democratic gain of six seats.

Democrats searching for arguments to bolster their fading chances to win the House might point to this finding from Tuesday’s new Quinnipiac presidential poll, which showed President Obama leading 49% to 45% over Mitt Romney:

American likely voters say 60 – 25 percent that the federal government would make progress addressing the nation’s problems if one party controls the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Voters dislike the Democratic Party less than they dislike the Republican Party, giving the Democrats a negative 45 – 49 percent favorability rating, compared to a negative 41 – 52 percent for the Republicans.

Another pollster, Gallup, found an uptick in voter support for one-party rule, with 38% saying it was “better for the country” to have the same party controlling the White House and the Congress, 33% who said it made no difference and 23% who said it was better for the country when power was divided. As of Wednesday evening, Obama was performing far better in the national polls (about three percentage points over Romney according to RealClearPolitics) than Democrats were faring in generic congressional ballot surveys (Republicans and Democrats are roughly tied). Democrats need voters to buy into the idea that not only should they return Obama to the White House, but that they also should give him a friendly Congress.

As we’ve been saying for months, there’s very little indication that Republicans will lose their House majority. But a hardening of opinion against Republicans and a greater willingness for one-party rule in Washington are the sort of things that benefit the Democrats’ House hopes, although we’ve yet to see such sentiments manifest themselves into uniform national movement toward the Democrats in House races. Chance are, they won’t: The last four reelected presidents — Richard Nixon (1972), Ronald Reagan (1984), Bill Clinton (1996) and George W. Bush (2004) — only won an average of 10 extra House seats for their respective parties in their reelection years. That’s only two-fifths of the seats Democrats need to net to win the House, and, even assuming Obama is reelected — which is not a sure thing by any means — it’s possible Democrats won’t even get to that average, let alone dramatically improve upon it.

Our full House ratings are available here.