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Putting The Hastert Seat Loss in Context

Republicans' defeat in last Saturday's special election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was stunning on its face but the implications of the contest are potentially far-reaching and critical in understanding the coming November elections.

As much as Republican strategists sought to downplay the national importance of the race -- mostly accomplished through bad-mouthing of their candidate -- it's clear that the race was fought on national, not local, issues.

The winner, Democrat Bill Foster, focused heavily on the troubled state of the economy and hit his Republican opponent -- dairy magnate Jim Oberweis -- as a willing advocate for the President Bush and the administration's policies on Iraq. Oberweis and national Republicans, on the other had, cast Foster as a tax-and-spend Democrat willing to throw money at any problem to make it better.

The fact that voters in an exurban district that went for Bush by double digits in 2000 and 2004 opted for the Democratic national message is telling. It suggests that the national political landscape is decidedly tilted in Democrats' favor -- that the uneven playing field of the 2006 election is still alive and well.

As the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted in a memo released in the aftermath of their win in Illinois' 14th, the Hastert seat is far more reliably Republican than most of the districts House Democrats are targeting this fall.

"[Eighty] percent of the Republican open and Republican incumbent seats the DCCC is targeting this cycle have better democratic performances than Illinois 14," wrote committee communications director Jen Crider in the memo. "Forty out of the 50 seats the DCCC is targeting have Democratic performances of 45 percent or higher."

Those statistics got us to thinking about just how wide the Democratic target list could grow if the special election in Illinois was taken as a test case for the fall.

Looking for a way to compare apples to apples when it comes to congressional districts, we turned to our old friends at the Cook Political Report and their Partisan Voting Index (PVI). The PVI was developed by the folks at Cook in the summer of 1997 as a way of looking at measuring every district in the country against the nation as a whole. Each district was given a score -- R+6, D+19 -- that indicated how it performed on the presidential level when compared to the country. A score of R+6 means that the district performed six points more Republican than the country as a whole; conversely, a score of D+19 means the seat performed 19 points more Democratic than the nation. (A further explanation of PVI is behind the Cook Report's subscription wall so get one today!)

Illinois' 14th district has a PVI score of R+5. A quick look at Cook's PVI ratings reveals that 53 Republican-held seats have a score more Democratic than that. Of that group, the largest number (33) carry PVI scores between R+2.0-R+4.9 while 18 districts have PVI ratings of D+1.9-R+1.9 and two seats have PVI of D+5.0-D+9.9.

We wanted to go even further inside those numbers, however, so we did a quick scan of all the Republican held districts that had a PVI score of no lower than R+1 and no higher than R+5 -- the same rating as the Hastert seat.

(Before we get into the numbers, it's worth noting that IL-14 was a special election race held on a Saturday, so turnout and other factors are not directly comparable to a general election in a presidential year.)

That search turned up 51 districts -- the VAST majority of which would not be considered competitive in a typical cycle by most observers. (The full list of these seats can be found after the jump.)

The list suggests a few states that are likely to be serious battlegrounds in House Republicans' attempts to limit their losses at the ballot box this fall.

Florida boasts nine districts currently held by GOPers with PVI ratings between R+1 and R+5. Those nine districts are a mix of the once competitive (Florida's 8th and 12th), the occasionally competitive (Florida's 13th and 24th) and the never competitive (Florida's 5th, 7th, 15th, 18th and 25th.) Democrats have spent considerable time recruiting in Florida and are expected to put a number of these seats -- including the 24th and 25th -- in play this November.

The next largest potential battleground are in Ohio and Michigan -- each of which has six Republican seats that have a PVI of between R+1 and R+5.

In Ohio, a number of these districts are likely to be seriously contested by Democrats including the 1st, 15th and 16th. Several, however, including the 3rd, 12th and 14th are farther-flung targets.

Michigan offers six seats of its own, a total that does not even include Rep. Joe Knollenberg's (R) 9th district and its R+0 PVI. Democrats are going after Rep. Tim Wahlberg (R) in the 7th district but traditionally have had far less luck in Michigan's 8th (R+2), 10th (R+4) and 11th (R+1) districts.

The numbers of Republican-leaning but not Republican-lock districts located in Florida, Michigan and Ohio ensure that the trio of states will be a major focus of not just the presidential race but the battle for control of Congress as well.

Given the retirements in their ranks and the NRCC's current cash shortage, it's hard to see how Republicans can regain their majority in the House this November. The question -- at the moment -- seems to be how many seats they will lose and whether Democrats will be able to claim a true governing majority in January 2009.

The numbers above -- when coupled with the loss in the Hastert seat over the weekend -- suggest that real peril could well exist for a number of Republican incumbents who haven't seen real races in quite some time.

GOP-Held Seats With PVI Rating Between R+1 and R+5

Alabama's 3rd (R+4)

Arizona's 1st (R+2)

California's 24th (R+5)
California's 26th (R+4)
California's 45th (R+3)
California's 50th (R+5)

Florida's 5th (R+5)
Florida's 7th (R+4)
Florida's 8th (R+3)
Florida's 12th (R+5)
Florida's 13th (R+4)
Florida's 15th (R+4)
Florida's 18th (R+4)
Florida's 24th (R+3)
Florida's 25th (R+4)

Illinois' 6th (R+3)
Illinois' 11th (R+1)
Illinois' 13th (R+5)
Illinois' 16th (R+4)
Illinois' 8th (R+5)

Michigan's 4th (R+4)
Michigan's 6th (R+2)
Michigan's 7th (R+2)
Michigan's 8th (R+2)
Michigan's 10th (R+4)
Michigan's 11th (R+1)

Minnesota's 2nd (R+3)
Minnesota's 3rd (R+1)
Minnesota's 6th (R+5)

Missouri's 6th (R+5)

New Jersey's 4th (R+1)
New Jersey's 5th (R+4)
New Jersey's 7th (R+1)

New York's 26th (R+3)
New York's 29th (R+5)

North Carolina's 8th (R+3)

Ohio's 1st (R+1)
Ohio's 3rd (R+3)
Ohio's 12th (R+1)
Ohio's 14th (R+2)
Ohio's 15th (R+1)
Ohio's 16th (R+4)

Pennsylvania's 3rd (R+2)
Pennsylvania's 18th (R+2)

Virginia's 4th (R+5)
Virginia's 10th (R+5)
Virginia's 11th (R+1)

West Virginia's 2nd (R+5)

Wisconsin's 1st (R+2)
Wisconsin's 6th (R+5)

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 10, 2008; 12:55 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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