Five sleeper races to watch in the House
© Greg Nash

The House battlefield might be smaller than ever, but don’t be surprised if there are still some sleeper races that develop before Election Day. 

Both parties are grappling with a handful of contests they didn’t expect to be worrying about this late in the year. Some races are tightening in the polls and others are still at risk of doing so before November. 

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National Republicans have the breeze at their backs in terms of the national climate, raising their chances at having unexpected races come online. But the GOP is at a cash disadvantage and could struggle to find extra money to dump into long shot races.

Still, nearly every cycle an incumbent no one expected to lose early on gets caught up in a wave or trips over their own feet. 

Here are five districts where there’s some chance that will happen this year.

Rep. Julia BrownleyJulia BrownleyHouse caucus to focus on business in Latin America House votes to restrict IRS hires and funding EMILY's List names incumbent Dems it will fundraise for MORE (D-Calif.)

Brownley won her seat in 2012 by just 6 points in a great year for California Democrats, running behind President Obama in her suburban Los Angeles district.

The freshman isn’t well known in the district, and Democrats privately concede she’s not their strongest incumbent.

Republicans are bullish about California Assemblyman Jeff Gorell’s (R) chances, believing he has the right profile to give her a tough challenge in the campaign’s final six weeks. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went up earlier than planned with ads hitting Gorell, a sign it’s concerned about the race, and upped its investment there to $1.1 million. 

National GOP groups concede that Gorell’s lack of cash is a problem, and ultimately they might not be willing to spend in Los Angeles’s expensive media market to boost him. But Brownley’s race could become a barn burner in the closing weeks if the money materializes.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)

Terry is in a GOP-leaning Omaha district but got himself in trouble during the government shutdown when he said he could “not handle” giving up his paycheck while the government was shuttered.

The comments nearly cost him his seat already — he barely won his primary challenge against an underfunded Tea Party challenger.

Democrats haven’t started spending against him but believe he’s vulnerable heading into the campaign’s homestretch. Nebraska state legislator Brad Ashford (D) has released polling showing a coin-flip race, and Republicans privately agree it’s a close competition.

“He’s in trouble — not deep trouble, but he’s getting there,” said one national GOP strategist. “The district is great. It’s just him, he’s terrible.”

Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.)

Democrats think Maffei learned his lesson when he was caught unprepared for the 2010 GOP wave and was swept out of office after just one term. 

He won again in 2012 in a friendlier, redrawn seat, and Republicans have said for months that he’d be hard to beat in his Democratic-leaning district — National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) even told The Wall Street Journal it would be “an upper reach’’ to defeat Maffei.

But in recent days the NRCC signaled it sees an opening, launching an ad campaign against him and increasing its reservation in the district from $1.2 million to $1.5 million through Election Day. Democrats responded with ads hitting his opponent, former federal prosecutor John Katko (R), on abortion and contraception and tying him to Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World 'Ready for Michelle' PACs urge 2020 run MORE (R-Ohio).

Michigan-11 (Open)

National Democrats insisted for months that they thought businessman Dave Trott (R) would be vulnerable if he beat quixotic Rep. Kerry BentivolioKerry BentivolioIndiana Republican: Leaders duped me Reindeer farmer saves 'cromnibus' with yes vote High drama as .1T spending package advances by one vote MORE (R-Mich.) in a primary because of his background as a foreclosure specialist, but few took them seriously.

After Trott did just that that, a poll from the Democratic nominee, former State Department official Bobby McKenzie, showed the race within the margin of error. Democrats also have more than $1 million reserved in the Detroit media market that could be used to make a late charge.

Bentivolio also seems ready to kamikaze into Trott’s campaign as vengeance for his primary drubbing, telling The Hill last week that he’s “seriously considering” a write-in bid for the seat that would steal votes from Trott and could make the difference in a close contest. 

“I doubt we’d win, of course, but it sure would help in keeping [Trott] from getting elected and elect a Democrat,” Bentivolio said. 

MAINE-2 (Open)

With Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) running for governor, neither party was that worried anymore about the open seat when conservative former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin (R) defeated the GOP establishment’s favored candidate. 

But now a third-party candidate is adding a dose of uncertainty in the slightly Democratic-leaning rural district. 

Democrats believe state Sen. Emily Cain (D) is still up after a two-way June poll showed her leading Poliquin by 5 points. But they concede that libertarian-leaning Navy veteran Blaine Richardson (I) could pull some real support, and admit they’ll likely have to spend in the district to ensure it stays in the Democratic column.