Sabato's Crystal Ball

2004 House

November 1, 2004 Update:

Not much change one way or the other. Republicans could add a few seats (+3), as we predict, or drop a few seats, but they are going to be in charge unless turnout is enormous, producing upsets from coast to the coast in the few available competitive races.

Complete House Breakdown (PDF)

State (District) Outlook Current Party
Arizona (1) Republican Republican
Colorado (3) Democratic Republican
Colorado (7) Republican Republican
Georgia (3) Democratic Democratic
Georgia (12) Democratic Republican
Illinois (8) Democratic Republican
Indiana (8) Republican Republican
Indiana (9) Democratic Democratic
Kansas (3) Democratic Democratic
Kentucky (3) Republican Republican
Kentucky (4) Republican Democratic
Louisiana (3) Republican Republican
Louisiana (7) Republican Democratic
Nebraska (1) Republican Republican
New York (1) Democratic Democratic
New York (27) Democratic Republican
Oregon (1) Democratic Democratic
Pennsylvania (6) Republican Republican
Pennsylvania (13) Democratic Democratic
Pennsylvania (15) Republican Republican
Pennsylvania (17) Democratic Democratic
South Dakota (At-large) Democratic Democratic
Texas (1) Republican Democratic
Texas (2) Republican
Texas (17) Democratic
Texas (19) Republican Republican
Texas (32) Republican
Utah (2) Democratic Democratic
Washington (5) Republican Republican
Washington (8) Republican Republican
Democrats: 203 (including Independents) / Republicans: 232

October 22, 2004 Update: We’ve updated some races in the Dirty 30 list to reflect changing circumstances and conditions in congressional districts around the country. Click on the map above to view House races by state, or click view all to see the entire list. Next week we’ll make the final call on all of these races, but in the meantime our final prediction for control of the House will be somewhere near 232-235 R to 200-203 D.

October 15, 2004 Update: After hearing repeated calls for additions to the Dirty 30 list, the Crystal Ball has decided to supplement it with another list of races that we see as “getting dirtier.”

  • CA (20) – It’s hard to believe there’s only one competitive House
    race out of the 53 seats in California, and it’s equally
    hard to believe two candidates are vying to represent
    fewer people than they currently represent as state
    legislators! Nonetheless, state Sen. Jim Costa is the
    favorite to win this open seat.
  • FL (2) – State legislator Bev Kilmer has been touted as Congressman
    Allen Boyd’s toughest challenger yet, but Boyd remains a
    popular figure in this Blue Dog, Tallahassee-based
  • IA (3) – The Crystal Ball bets the outcome of this rehashed “duel
    in Des Moines” will mirror the 2002 result, with the
    four-term incumbent Boswell edging Thompson by a few
  • MN (6) – Children’s advocate Patty Wetterling has attracted plenty
    of attention for running an aggressive, grassroots
    campaign against GOP incumbent Mark Kennedy, but Kennedy
    has compiled a moderate record and remains the favorite.
  • NE (1) –
    This year, the stars are as aligned as they’ll ever be for Democrats in the first district. State Senator Matt Connealy has all the characteristics of his party’s ideal candidate for east-central Nebraska: a proven vote-getter with a farming background and a conservative record. Add to the race a very conservative Republican nominee chosen from a fractured field, and all of a sudden a somewhat competitive race takes shape. Indeed, had the GOP nominated unicameral legislature Speaker Curt Bromm, the race would have likely been over before it even began. Instead, social conservative Jeff Fortenberry, a Lincoln Councilman, emerged victorious and will square off against Connealy in November. Excited Democrats talk of Nebraska’s tradition of playing down party labels as an asset for Connealy (parties technically don’t exist in the “Unicam”), but Republicans note that Fortenberry hails from the population center of the district, the university city of Lincoln, and has the campaign warchest to ride President Bush’s coattails to victory. Seeing as Cornhuskers’ loyalty to Republicans here runs almost as high as loyalty to their football team, Fortenberry has a clear edge, but this is still one to watch.
  • NV (3) – Casino executive Tom Gallagher won praise from national
    Democrats for his strong fundraising start, but he hasn’t
    gained much traction in recent polls and his best hope
    here would be a strong Kerry win in the Silver State.
  • ND (AL) – Pomeroy’s reputation as a fierce prairie populist has kept
    him politically afloat for years, and though he’s had some
    near misses as North Dakota has gotten a point more
    Republican every year, he faces a lesser challenge this
    time around against Navy veteran Duane Sand.
  • TN (4) – Conservate Democrat Lincoln Davis’s first term has left
    GOP challenger Janice Bowling with little ammunition for
    criticism in this marginal territory, and though Bush is
    likely to sweep this district, ticket-splitters are likely
    to send Davis back for two more years.
  • PA (8) – The late departure of veteran GOP Rep. Jim Greenwood from
    the race here catapulted one-time longshot Democrat Ginny
    Schrader into real contention for this Bucks County-based
    district, but replacement Republican Mike Fitzpatrick
    still looks likely to hold the seat for his party.
  • VA (2) – GOP Congressman Ed Schrock first won election to the House in 2000 when he defeated Democrat Jody Wagner by several thousand votes, and he cruised to reelection in a reconfigured district two years later. But the recent revelation that Schrock may have tried to solicit a gay affair has not only thrown the national media into frenzy and led to his announcement of an early retirement, it has created a bit of an opening for Democrats to put this district, well-known as evangelist Pat Robertson’s backyard, into play. Republicans hastily nominated conservative State Delegate Thelma Drake to carry their banner in Schrock’s stead, and she will square off against attorney and Marine Corps veteran David Ashe in the general election. And although this area of Tidewater was proud of Schrock’s co-sponsorship of the House version of the Federal Marriage Amendment and is not likely to send the socially liberal Ashe to Washington, national Democrats are optimistic about their nominee’s military background and the endorsement he has received from popular former Democratic Rep. Owen Pickett. Now that this race has taken shape, it is clear Drake is the clear favorite for an unexpected promotion.

The current lineup of the House is 227 Republicans, 207 Democrats (including leftist Independent Bernie Sanders), and one GOP vacancy in Florida. Overall, the House is far less likely than the Senate to change hands in November. Given the nearly-automatic pick-up of 4-5 seats in redistricted Texas for the GOP, the odds are the Republican majority will expand rather than contract. Still, presidential coattails can matter, and if John Kerry wins the general election handily, the Republican margin could become very thin. Should George Bush manage a popular vote victory, the Republicans would nearly be guaranteed an enhanced House majority.

Now that the national House picture has begun to crystallize, it is clear that 2004 promises to continue the trend of a shrinking playing field of competitive districts and competitive races. As predicted, the chief side effect of now-completed redistricting for the decade has emerged as a striking decline in the number of truly “swing” districts across the nation, as many seats that were perennial targets of both parties in the 1990s have given way to incumbent-friendly, strongly partisan districts where party primaries are often tantamount to election. Majorities in state legislatures and even on bipartisan redistricting commissions, loath to place congressional party allies in tight races, have significantly altered the nature of the battle for the House for years to come.

Under these new circumstances, the Crystal Ball recognizes that large shifts in party makeup of the House are much less likely than they would have been in past decades, and that the radar screen of congressional races is simply unlikely to show the quantity of competitive contests it once produced consistently every two years. In 2004, the number of “toss up” House races may even be similar to the number of too-close-to-call Senate contests! For Democrats, currently facing a deficit of 22 seats in the House following a miserable 2002 midterm performance, this bodes poorly: party leaders privately acknowledge that the task of reclaiming the lower chamber in 2004 will prove a near-impossible feat barring a major top-of-the-ticket GOP disaster. In the eyes of Republicans, still glowing following the recent passage of controversial Texas re-redistricting in time for the 2004 contests, the dearth of swing seats is a welcome stabilizing factor and a key to long-term GOP success.

Still, in a year when Republican-friendly Lone Star State maneuvering has intensified national party animosities and many in the news media have (fairly or unfairly) portrayed special election contests as bellwethers in the context of the presidential race, national attention to the battle for the House won’t fall to the wayside. More so than ever before, national money is sure to flood a contracted playing field, with millions of dollars showering the handful of districts retaining close party balances. Once again, small to medium-size states like Colorado and Louisiana, which host a disproportionate share of this year’s competitive House races, will attract particular attention. The result of more money concentrated on fewer districts in a national political climate characterized by relative party parity and a polarized electorate will likely be a set of more contentious, down-and-dirty battles for House seats.

The Crystal Ball, though sad to put on hold its tradition of a Nifty Fifty set of exciting congressional races, is proud to unveil this year’s look at the races most worthy of our consideration: a group of the thirty truly competitive races across the country we’ve dubbed the Dirty Thirty.

In selecting these races, the Crystal Ball has been careful to consider several key factors. First, we’ve kept a close eye on the less than 30 open seats being vacated by incumbents in 2004, keeping in mind that these contents are especially sensitive to quality of candidate recruitment and national political winds. Second, we’ve taken a look at the reelection prospects of incumbents, especially freshman legislators, who have faced close races in the recent past, ever-mindful of the fact that the quality of both their challengers and their challengers’ fundraising holds the key to whether these races will truly be in play. Third, we’ve looked at how the presidential politics of 2004 has the potential to impact each of these contests, taking into account important states Bush and Kerry will target to get out base voters. Without further ado, here are the Crystal Ball’s picks for the “dirty thirty” races guaranteed to see the lion’s share of money and mudslinging.