GOP chances of winning House are rising as midterm election nears

The playing field of competitive House races has expanded substantially over the past two months, increasing the chances that Republicans will control the lower chamber next year.

The news is good for Republicans, as many open seats are trending to the GOP while dozens of Democratic incumbents are scrambling to keep their jobs.

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Democratic leaders are on the defensive, making the case they can still retain the majority in November while playing defense in districts they weren't expecting to be concerned about earlier in the cycle.

As the election environment has worsened for Democrats amid troubling new economic and polling data, Republicans have become increasingly bullish in their projections of major House gains.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) vice chairman, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), predicted Wednesday that as many as 80 seats will be in play this fall.

Over the past two weeks, Republican campaigns have gleefully blasted out internal numbers claiming leads for their challengers in districts that were considered safe bets for Democrats to retain.

The mood in Democratic and Republican circles is strikingly different from more than three months ago, when Mark Critz (D) easily won the special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). That GOP loss stifled talk of Republicans winning control of the House in November. But the chatter is back, and it’s backed up by nonpartisan analysts.

A review of election handicapper Charlie Cook's race ratings shows a demonstrable change from June to August. Over that two-month span, an additional 12 Democratic-held congressional seats have moved into "toss-up" territory from previous “likely Democrat” or “lean Democrat” categories.

Furthermore, Democrats now have to worry about the open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.). Other Democrats who have shown up on Cook’s competitive race chart since June include Reps. Sanford Bishop Jr. (Ga.) and Loretta Sanchez (Calif.).

"Will people be disappointed if we don't take the majority in the House?" said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Yeah. But it's still going to be close."

Bolger's firm, Public Opinion Strategies, is the source for many of those internals suggesting Democrats are now staring down challenges even in districts where they have built-in advantages.

Bolger said the number of seats actually winnable for the GOP in November is close to 50. That's not a projection even the most optimistic of Republican strategists would have made at the beginning of the year.

"It’s become no different than what Republicans faced in '06 and '08," Bolger said. "We're seeing races where the Republican has next to no name ID and is either leading or tied. That means the incumbent loses."

On the flip side, only three Republican-held districts are considered toss-ups — those of Reps. Charles Djou (Hawaii) and Joseph Cao (La.), as well as the open-seat race in Rep. Mark Kirk's (Ill.) district.

"It's been clear for a while now that no one can be complacent," said Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz.

Reps. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), John Boccieri (D-Ohio) and Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) were three of the new additions to Cook’s toss-up list. Boyd barely survived a primary challenge last Tuesday in a race that turned out to be much closer than most were predicting. Boccieri and Pomeroy both won easily in 2008, but now find themselves looking over their shoulders ahead of November.

Another round of Democrats who made Cook's August list but weren't on the list at all in June includes Reps. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), Mike McIntyre (N.C) and Phil Hare (Ill.). All of those districts are now in Cook's "likely Democratic" column.

An e-mail from earlier this week touting the prospects of the NRCC's "Young Gun" candidates cited an internal poll from the campaign of Hare's Republican opponent, Bobby Schilling, that showed him down just two points to the incumbent. That's a district Obama won with 57 percent of the vote in 2008.

One Democratic strategist who admitted he's increasingly pessimistic on the party's fall prospects said, "If someone like Hare is in trouble, that could obviously mean bad things for us."

Much like the surprising loss of Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) in 2006, a district like Hare's could be the tipping point between solid Republican gains in 2010 and a crushing GOP wave that wipes out the Democratic majority.

"If you're a Democrat in a district [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] won, or a Democrat in a district [President] Obama didn't win by a large margin, you've got some problems," said Bolger.

Thirty-two of the 37 congressional districts held by Democrats that are rated as toss-ups by Cook this November fit that description.

"I see the momentum building and building," McCarthy said Wednesday. The NRCC's vice chairman of recruiting said Democrats are in "panic mode" over their prospects for the fall. Of Democratic incumbents, McCarthy said, "The members themselves see it. They feel it back home and they're lashing out."

The expanding playing field of competitive House races also brings tough choices over resource allocation into play for both party committees. If numbers continue to plummet for some Democratic incumbents in heavily Republican districts, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will be forced to decide which districts it should pull resources and national party support from in order to protect incumbents who can more easily be saved.

"At the end of the day, we will look at races that we can win," DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said Friday, suggesting that the committee will take a hard look at which races truly deserve the lion's share of the party's attention in the run-up to November.

"The DCCC can't create a campaign from scratch," he said. "But we can be the booster rocket."

On the Republican side, NRCC operatives face similar questions. Even with internals suggesting Democrats like Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Hare can be beaten in November, tough decisions loom — especially because the DCCC enjoys a major cash advantage over the NRCC.

Democrats see a silver lining in the speculation that the GOP could reclaim the majority it lost four years ago.

"The bigger danger for Republicans is now that they're talking in terms of winning the House, voters will start thinking about what that means," said Brodnitz.

That's at least what the Democratic leadership is hoping. Van Hollen accused Republicans of prematurely celebrating victory Friday and reiterated his confidence that Democrats would retain the majority in the House this fall.

He said that "reports of the House Democrats' demise are greatly exaggerated."

The Maryland legislator argued that Republican confidence about how many seats they’ll gain this fall is based on false assumptions about the level of Democratic turnout.

"The energy level is rapidly rising on the Democratic side," Van Hollen said. "Most of the activity in these campaigns will take place in the next nine and a half weeks."

The DCCC is kicking off its get-out-the-vote effort over the weekend, promising to knock on some 200,000 doors across the country Saturday.