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House playing field largest in more than a decade

1. With less than three weeks left before the November midterms, the ever-widening House playing field of competitive races is now nearly double what it has been in other recent elections, according to independent political handicappers.

Charlie Cook, who edits the Cook Political Report, a campaign tipsheet, pegs the number of competitive races at 92. Eighty five of those are Democratic-held seats while just seven are controlled by Republicans. Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, puts the number of competitive races slightly higher -- 97 -- with 88 Democratic seats and nine GOP districts making the cut.

Those numbers are far in excess of the number of serious House races in past elections -- including in 2006 when Democrats retook control of the chamber.

Looking back at Cook's ratings for more than a decade -- thank you Internet! -- the highest number of competitive seats he had was 58 in 1998. In 2006 he carried 54 (nine Democratic, 45 Republican) races on his most competitive list and in 2008 that number was 53 (13 Democratic, 40 Republican).

In fact, Cook's 92 competitive races is nearly triple the number he rated that way in both 2002 (32 district) and 2004 (33 seats).

The vast expansion of the playing field is, largely, due to two factors, The first is a volatile electorate tired of politics as usual and ready and willing to make drastic changes. The second is that Democrats lost almost none of their own members over the last four years while making wide gains into very tough territory, With both of those trends likely to reverse in 20 days time the party faces widespread vulnerability.

What the widened playing field means is that Republicans, who need a 39 seat gain to win the majority, now have a larger margin for error. While they still need to win a clear majority of the contests Cook and Rothenberg rate as competitive, they no longer need a sweep in those districts to win the majority.

Whatever happens on election night, the size of the playing field ensures that it will be nirvana for political junkies.

2. Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak has pulled into a statistical tie with former GOP Rep. Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania Senate race, according to a new poll conducted for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The DSCC poll, conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang and obtained by The Fix, shows Sestak at 44 and Toomey at 42 -- a marked shift from other recent public polls that have shown Toomey leading by between three and 12 points.

The poll surveyed 604 likely voters from Oct. 8-10. If voters who lean slightly toward one candidate are included, Sestak is at 47 and Toomey is at 44.

The DSCC and Sestak have both been using TV ads to hit Toomey on a trade deal with China that they say cost the United States -- and Pennsylvania -- jobs.

Democrats say these attacks are having a major effect on the race as is an awakening of the party's base in the Keystone State.

3. A new independent poll released shows Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in danger of losing his bid for a fourth term.

The Reuters/Ipsos survey shows Feingold trailing businessman Ron Johnson (R) 51 percent to 44 percent among likely voters.

Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said Johnson is "the best person to help generate jobs in Wisconsin" while only 36 percent said the same of Feingold. And, in more bad news for Feingold, 42 percent of likely voters viewed him as "part of the problem with politics right now," compared with 28 percent who described Johnson that way.

The survey comes as Feingold's camp has released internal polls showing a much narrower gap in the race. But as we noted yesterday, the fact that Feingold is still mired in the low 40s poses a persistent problem for him; as last year's New Jersey governor's race showed, undecided voters typically swing away from the incumbent in the final vote.

The Reuters/Ipsos survey also held bad news for Democrats in the race to succeed retiring Gov. Jim Doyle (D). In that contest, Republican Scott Walker leads his Democratic rival, Tom Barrett, 52 percent to 42 percent.

4. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's (R) political action committee raised $1.2 million in the third quarter -- her best fundraising quarter to date.

Sarah PAC spent $1 million and had $1.3 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30, according to her report, which was filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.

The PAC contributed $3,500 to South Carolina GOP governor candidate Nikki Haley, $5,000 to Ohio GOP governor candidate John Kasich, $5,000 to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and $5,000 each to a pair of Iowa GOP causes: the state Republican Party and Iowa GOP attorney general candidate Brenna Findley.

She also gave $4,000 to Maryland GOP governor candidate Brian Murphy, who badly lost a primary to former Gov. Bob Ehrlich last month.

Palin's fundraising total via her PAC exceeds the $866,000 she raised in the second quarter and far outpaces the $400,000 she raised in the first quarter of the year.

There is no word yet on PAC fundraising by two other potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Romney, whose Free and Strong America PAC files monthly, raised more than $800,000 through the first two months of the quarter. No numbers are available for September, though.

Pawlenty's Freedom First PAC raised $728,000 in the second quarter.

5. The Republican Governors Association is up with a new TV ad in Connecticut, its first foray on the airwaves in the race to succeed retiring Gov. Jodi Rell (R).

The 30-second spot charges that former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy (D) had a "record of tax increases and fiscal irresponsibility" over his "14 years in office".

Malloy "pushed a property tax increase so steep, an oversight board had to step in to protect homeowners," the ad's narrator says. "Pay raises for himself and cronies, even while he increased the city's debt $263 million. He used a city employee to work on his home, triggering a state investigation."

"Mayor Dan Malloy: More taxes. More spending. More debt. More of the same," the spot concludes.

A Fox News poll released Tuesday showed Malloy leading former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley (R) 45 percent to 41 percent among likely voters -- the latest survey to show some narrowing in the Democrat's margin.

The new RGA spot comes as the Democratic Governors Association is launching its second ad in the race charging that Foley laid off nearly a thousand workers at a Georgia textile mill and drove the company into bankruptcy.

The two gubernatorial hopefuls are slated to debate tonight at 7:00 p.m.; you can watch live on WTNH-TV here.

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | October 13, 2010; 7:53 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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