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How Many House Seats Will Be in Play This Fall?

The ever-worsening political environment and the increasing financial disparity between the two congressional campaign committees have House strategists for both parties wondering how large the playing field could grow between now and November.

There is widespread agreement among Democratic and Republican observers that the GOP is headed for a loss of seats in the fall. But the depth of those losses remains a point of real debate, as more and more Republican districts appear to be vulnerable while the GOP campaign arm continues to struggle to match its Democratic counterparts in fundraising.

Four developments are worth noting:

* Through April, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $45 million left to spend on races, compared with just $6.7 million in the bank for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

* The Cook Political Report, one of the most esteemed handicappers of House races (and The Fix's former employer), moved ten (TEN!) Republican-held seats into more competitive categories last week. (The site is subscriber-only and you SHOULD subscribe.) Seven of the ten -- Colorado's 4th, Connecticut's 4th, Illinois's 10th, New York's 29th, North Carolina's 8th, Ohio's 1st and Washington's 8th -- went from "Lean Republican" to "Toss Up". Writes Cook Report's David Wasserman: "Now that Sen. Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee, several GOP incumbents will have to work harder than ever before to survive. While hitching their stars to GOP nominee Sen. John McCain will provide them some cover with independents, unprecedented base Democratic turnout looms as a huge threat beyond their control."

* A new Democracy Corps survey, conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Democratic strategist James Carville, shows that in 45 of the most competitive Republican-held districts in the country, the Democratic challengers received a combined 50 percent of the vote compared with 43 percent for the Republican incumbent. (Worth noting: The GOP incumbent was referred to by name in the polling question while the Democratic challenger was not, a methodology that could tilt things slightly in favor of the "generic" candidate.) Based on the results, Greenberg and Carville concluded: "The structure of the race as well as Democrats' advantage across the board show that 2008 can be another wave election for Democrats. To take advantage of this opportunity, Democrats will have to expand the playing field further into Republican territory."

* Alan Secrest, a well-regarded Democratic pollster, sent two polls The Fix's way late last week surveying House districts --Indiana's 3rd and Ohio's 7th -- that are on almost no one's radar screen at the moment. In Indiana's 3rd, Secrest's poll conducted for unknown Democrat Mike Montagano put Rep. Mark Souder's (R) job approval rating at a middling 46 percent positive/46 percent negative; and in a district President Bush won with 68 percent in 2004, Bush's job approval ratings now are disastrous -- 34 positive/65 negative. In Ohio's 7th, a district that gave Bush 57 percent of its vote in 2004, Secrest notes that three-in-four voters have a negative view of the current president, and a hypothetical general election matchup puts Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) ahead of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) by a narrow 43 percent to 40 percent margin. (Take these polls with something of a grain of salt; both are designed to help the Democratic challengers raise money and play down the fact that each is trailing their respective GOP opponent. Even so, the numbers are startling.)

The confluence of those four factors suggests the real possibility that the playing field could expand significantly in Democrats' favor between now and November.

The Cook Report currently lists 77 seats on its competitive House race chart (44 Republican-held seats/33 Democratic). Of those 77, 21 Republican districts are rated as "toss-up" while just six Democratic seats carry that label. The Rothenberg Political Report lists 62 total competitive seats -- 37 held by Republicans and 25 controlled by Democrats.

In an informal -- and anonymous -- Fix survey of Democratic and Republican operatives who closely monitor House races, estimates ranged from 43 competitive seats at the low end all the way to 70 on the high end. One thing the operatives, regardless of party affiliation, agreed on, however, was that money is the x-factor in determining how broad (or narrow) the playing field will be in November.

If the current trend holds, the DCCC could have anywhere between a $30-$40 million financial advantage -- a massive edge that has significant practical effects. While the NRCC will be forced to spend its cash on protecting endangered incumbents and vulnerable open seats, the DCCC will be able to not only match the GOP in those seats but also go on offense in two dozen or more other districts held by Republican incumbents who have not seen a real race in quite some time and could well be susceptible to a viable challenge. It's not clear whether the NRCC will be able to fund ads in any of those second- and third-tier districts, meaning that the GOP incumbent will be left to fend for him- or herself against an onslaught of Democratic money.

That assumes little independent spending by outside groups with an eye on influencing House races. If Republicans want to have any chance of limiting their losses, according to several senior party strategists, they have to hope that a group like Freedom's Watch, which advertised in special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this year, decides to play at a serious level in a number of House contests in the fall.

"If [Freedom's Watch] plays in a major way, then the DCCC will be forced to direct resources to protect their incumbents that at this point appear to be in good shape," said one Republican media consultant who closely follows House races. "If there is no Freedom's Watch money, then I would say the field gets dramatically distorted and larger for the DCCC."

National Republicans are seeking to remedy their cash-flow problems; the NRCC and Republican National Committee have formed a joint fundraising committee that will allow the two organizations to share funds and collaborate on strategy -- an approach the GOP adopted in the 2006 election cycle. (The existence of the joint committee was first reported by Fix alma mater Roll Call.)

But will it be enough?

The presidential battle between Barack Obama and John McCain will be all-encompassing over the next five months, but political junkies would do well to keep an eye on the expansion (or contraction) of the House playing field. How the battle for the House plays out will also determine the ground on which either Obama or McCain will have to navigate in an attempt to enact their legislative agendas.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 10, 2008; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  House  
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