Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

February 2, 2010 · 8:00 AM EST

A little more than 10 years ago (Jan. 17, 2000, to be exact), I began writing my “Dangerous Dozen” columns about open House seats, and the recent flurry of retirements means there finally are enough to fill a list for the 2010 cycle.

The fact that so many of the districts on this list are currently held by Democrats reflects how strongly the political landscape is tilting toward the GOP. As always, races toward the top of the list are the most likely to change party control, but every race on this list is a serious possibility to flip.

Tennessee’s 6th. With few Democratic officeholders downballot in this Middle Tennessee district that went 62 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 and 60 percent for President George W. Bush in 2004, you can already put retiring Rep. Bart Gordon’s (D) seat into the Republican column. The GOP primary will select the district’s next Member of Congress.

Louisiana’s 3rd. The field hasn’t really started to develop in the race to succeed Rep. Charlie Melancon (D), but the fundamentals look terrible for Democrats in a midterm election year with President Barack Obama in the White House. Bush carried the district in 2004 with 58 percent, and McCain won it with 61 percent four years later. Only a Republican screw-up could keep this district blue.

Delaware’s At-Large. Rep. Mike Castle’s Senate run is a double-edged sword for Republicans, since the party will have a hard time holding his House seat. It isn’t impossible, of course, but they’ll need an unusually strong nominee (and a strong political wave) to beat the likely Democratic nominee, former Lt. Gov. John Carney.

Kansas’ 3rd. For Democrats, this looks like a bad cycle for Rep. Dennis Moore to retire and this seat to come open. The party is not competitive in the two big statewide contests this year, so both national and state dynamics favor the GOP. Both primary fields are wide open, though the early favorite on the Republican side may be the party’s 2008 nominee, former state Sen. Nick Jordan. Of course, another ideological split within the local GOP could get Democrats back into the picture.

Tennessee’s 8th. Rep. John Tanner (D) is retiring, and Democrats got a solid candidate in state Sen. Roy Herron, a strong fundraiser and veteran officeholder. But Tennessee could be a giant headache for Democrats, and being a longtime Democratic state legislator may be more of a liability than an asset in 2010.

Hawaii’s 1st. The yet-to-be-scheduled special election to fill Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s expected open seat could be another rude surprise for Democrats. Without a runoff, Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou (R) could sneak past multiple Democratic hopefuls to give Republicans another seat — and a major public relations victory before the midterms. Democrats need to figure out a way to keep the number of their candidates to a minimum.

Arkansas’ 1st. Bush carried this conservative northeast Arkansas district with 52 percent, but McCain drew a solid 59 percent four years later. Plenty of Democratic officeholders are looking to succeed retiring Rep. Marion Berry (D), while Republican options appear fewer. The key question mark is the size of the GOP wave and how disastrous the cycle is for Democrats in Arkansas.

Illinois’ 10th. If the seat held by Rep. Mark Kirk (R) had come open in 2006 or 2008, it would have been a slam-dunk for Democrats. But the environment is very different. The outlook for November depends somewhat on Tuesday’s primaries, but there is no doubt that Democrats see this as a rare takeover opportunity this cycle.

Arkansas’ 2nd. Retiring Rep. Vic Snyder’s (D) central Arkansas district went narrowly for Bush in 2004 and voted 54 percent for McCain in 2008. Former U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin gives the GOP a solid nominee, but a number of serious Democrats are looking at the race.

New Hampshire’s 2nd. Oh how different things looked in New Hampshire a year ago. Democrats finished up their near sweep of the Granite State, and the GOP’s fortunes there suddenly looked like any other New England state. But the national mood has changed, and GOP optimism has soared. Former Rep. Charles Bass leads a large GOP field, while Democrats have a primary of their own to succeed Rep. Paul Hodes (D).

Pennsylvania’s 7th. The ranking of the last two races depends on whether you are making a selection based on where the race is now or where it may be in the fall. Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan gives the GOP a serious likely nominee. The district no longer leans Republican — Bush won 47 percent in 2004 and McCain only 43 percent in 2008 — and Democrats have a top-tier candidate of their own in state Rep. Bryan Lentz. Still, in a strong Republican year, Democrats have to be nervous about losing Rep. Joe Sestak’s district.

Washington’s 3rd. Retiring Rep. Brian Baird’s (D) open seat performed slightly better for McCain than for Bush in 2004 (and better than Pennsylvania’s 7th did for the same Republicans). But the nomination won’t be decided until the fall, and Democrats have a slew of bigger names looking at the contest. Still, if the GOP gets the right candidate and a partisan wave builds, this district could move up the list as a takeover opportunity.