Sabato's Crystal Ball

Midterm Morsels: House Ratings Changes

Isaac Wood, House Race Editor July 8th, 2010

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While many people spent the July 4th weekend cooling off at the beach, the summer heat is still being felt in a number of marquee House matchups. As a result a few ratings changes are in order, as we explain below. As always you can visit the Crystal Ball website anytime for a complete chart of all competitive House races.

SD-AL (Toss-up, from Leans D): “It’s not you, it’s me.” That is the line Republican nominee Kristi Noem should deliver to Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Herseth Sandlin is still personally popular in the state which sent her back to Congress in 2006 and 2008 with over two-thirds of the vote, but unlike in past years Republicans now have the wind at their backs and a candidate who can blunt many of Herseth Sandlin’s advantages. Democrats have long touted their congresswoman here as a rising star, but Republicans feel they have found one of their own as well. Noem will have the money, the biography, and the national profile to compete in a Republican state in a Republican year. That dynamic takes this race out of the Leans Democratic column and makes it a Toss-up.

NC-2 (Likely D, from Safe D): If there is one thing that keeps campaign managers awake at night, it is YouTube. Case in point: Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge. Etheridge was seen as a safe incumbent, cruising to reelection until he was confronted by two mysterious, video camera-toting youngsters in June. They asked him about “the Obama agenda” and Etheridge tried to wrest the camera away from the questioner (to see the full video for yourself, click here). The video went viral and Etheridge went public with an apology. Also going places was Renee Ellmers, Etheridge’s GOP opponent who had previously toiled in obscurity but was shown to be trailing by just one percent in a hastily-conducted poll immediately following the incident. DC types were in a tizzy, predicting Etheridge’s imminent defeat but, as is often the case in politics, the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Although the district has a slight Republican tilt, Obama won here in 2008 and Etheridge’s roots go deep here. This race is certainly no longer the Safe Democratic race it once was, but now that the dust has settled, the former tobacco farmer Etheridge still holds a clear edge in this Likely Democratic race.

NC-8 (Toss-up, from Leans D): Larry Kissell was one of Democrats’ biggest surprises in 2006, even as he lost his challenge bid. As a millworker-turned-teacher running against a Republican congressman, he held the incumbent to just 54% of the vote. Rahm Emmanuel, then the DCCC chairman, publicly acknowledged it as one of the biggest missed opportunities that year. Two years later, Democrats were ready and Kissell won a 55-45% victory in November 2008. This year Republicans are not counting on two chances and are gearing up for an all-out campaign this November in what is a battleground district. The state GOP successfully maneuvered their favored candidate, former sportscaster Harold Johnson, through an explosive primary against loose cannon Tim D’Annunzio. Now they face Kissell who is a notoriously poor fundraiser, but is a conservative Democrat and a grassroots favorite. Given the mixed bag for each party and the mixed results out of this district in recent years (Democrats lost the presidential race here by 9% in 2004 but won by 5% in 2008), this will be a Toss-up.

NY-20 (Leans D, from Likely D): If you thought a two-year term makes for perpetual congressional campaigns, imagine yourself in Democrat Scott Murphy’s shoes. Elected in a special election on the last day of March 2009, he will be on the ballot again just four months from now. After winning by about 700 votes, he could not afford even a moment to bask in the victory. While Obama carried this Hudson Valley district by 3% in 2008, it is hardly Democratic territory. Bush won here in both 2000 and 2004, a rare Republican feat for New York, and the district’s Republican roots stretch back to the Civil War. Kirsten Gillibrand upset all that with her 2006 victory over Republican John Sweeney, a longtime representative who was damaged by a series of controversies. Gillibrand, of course, was later appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, necessitating a special election. Over that three-month campaign, the NRCC targeted Murphy heavily, but many of their attacks seem to backfire leading to a razor-thin victory for the Democrat. Fast forward to 2010 and the NRCC is committed to making up for last year’s missed opportunity. They are pinning their hopes on retired Army Colonel Chris Gibson who entered the race late and will have a lot of fundraising ground to make up. Still, the Republican history here and significant Republican voter registration advantage, now coupled with a credible candidate, moves this race from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

FL-8 (Toss-up, from Leans D): How do you solve a problem like Alan Grayson? The freshman congressman has successfully fashioned himself as the Democratic version of Michele Bachmann, a controversial mouthpiece who raises gobs of money but gives equal ammunition to the opposition. Problematically for him, his Orlando seat is much more of a battleground and in this Republican year his reelection is anything but certain. Republicans thought they had found their man to challenge Grayson in former state senator Daniel Webster, but Webster announced his decision not to run last October and other Republican candidates jumped in to fill the void. Then in late April of this year Webster reversed course and threw his hat back into the ring. Unfortunately, in the meantime the other Republicans each cultivated their own bases and Webster is no longer the shoo-in nominee he would have been. Businessman Bruce O’Donoghue and state legislator Kurt Kelly have each found openings, with O’Donoghue even gaining the endorsement of former Senator Mel Martinez while Kelly captured the conservative Eagle Forum endorsement. Webster has still managed to grab the endorsements of Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, and appointed Seantor George LeMieux and no matter who emerges from this late August GOP primary, Grayson is in for a Toss-up race.

AL-5 (Likely R, from Safe R): In this seat left open after Rep. Parker Griffith’s party switch led to his defeat in the GOP primary, Democrats once again are hoping to overcome the deep conservative nature of the district. Republican primary voters rejected former Democrat Griffith in favor of Mo Brooks, a county commissioner, who narrowly avoided a runoff by capturing 51% of the vote. Democrats nominated Steve Raby who was chief of staff to late Senator Howell Heflin before becoming a political consultant. Brooks made no secret of his general election strategy, immediately declaring in his primary victory speech, “I know who our general election opponent is: Nancy Pelosi.” Raby will have to dodge connections to national Democrats who are unpopular here while stressing local needs and issues. Griffith’s 2008 victory as a Democrat showed that a path to victory does exist even in this bright Red district, but all the factors now point to a Likely Republican outcome in November.