House Ratings Changes: Mixed Optimism for Both Parties

October 19, 2012 · 2:47 PM EDT

With less than three weeks until Election Day, our outlook for the House of Representatives remains little changed. We are making a dozen ratings changes this week -- seven toward Republicans and five toward Democrats as we take four races off our list of competitive contests.

The House majority still remains out of grasp for Democrats, especially as they have largely ceded Philadelphia-area races and several Ohio contests. In even some races that should be competitive for Democrats in New York, for example, several vulnerable GOP incumbents and challengers are holding their own in difficult terrain or in difficult districts.

Democratic polling still gives party strategists cause for optimism, and GOP surveys paint an even rosier picture about potential Republican gains. It’s becoming clear that both parties see turnout in 2012 very differently -- with Democrats basing some of their polling on 2008 models rather than on 2004, the last time there was an absence of a national wave. Additionally, in the closing days, Democrats have turned to messages about social issues to try to close the gap and sway independent voters -- a possibly risky bet given the outsized importance that the economy remains in voters’ minds.

For now, we’re keeping our range of pickups between four and ten seats for Democrats, but even that may be a bit optimistic and privately Republicans, once again, believe even a small gain for them isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Arizona 1. Move to Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat. Republicans in the state are singing a more optimistic tone about this race, both because of GOP nominee Jonathan Paton’s better campaign and Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s missteps, including a possibly damaging editorial board meeting with the Arizona Republic. Republicans now believe they have a lot of ammunition against the former congresswoman, which will remind voters why they fired her two years ago. GOP polling has been encouraging, and while Democrats aren’t hitting the panic button just yet, this isn’t as much in their column as it once was and is attracting renewed outside interest from both sides -- something Paton desperately needs given his considerable cash disparity with Kirkpatrick.

California 3. Move to Safe Democrat. Early Democratic worry about Rep. John Garamendi has dissipated and Republicans aren’t as enthusiastic about Republican Kim Vann as they once were. Both Democrats and Republicans have better opportunities, and concerns, in the Golden State, and we’re taking this race off our list of competitive contests.

Florida 26. Move to Lean Democrat. Sometimes conventional wisdom in Washington doesn’t always line up the dynamics in the district, but in this case, there is growing consensus that Rep. David Rivera (R) is in his final months as a Member of Congress. The headlines have been horrible for weeks, surrounding his alleged meddling in the Democratic primary, and GOP strategists in Washington continue to show no interest in bailing him out. But even local Republicans and one-time allies are distancing themselves from the congressman and don’t see a path to victory for him. Joe Garcia (D) is increasingly viewed as the favorite in the race, but he should expect a strong challenge in 2014.

Kentucky 6. Move to Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat. Polling on both sides of the aisle show a tightening race, and Republicans believe coal has become Rep. Ben Chandler’s (D) Achilles heel after the ad flap in the district. Republican repeat challenger Andy Barr harnessed that into a good fundraising quarter, besting Chandler. For much of the cycle, Republicans were optimistic but it looked like Chandler was going to survive. Now there is specific evidence that his re-election is in doubt, and the trendline is not good at all for the congressman.

Minnesota 6. Move to Lean Republican. Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann is often a Democratic target, but she has always prevailed. This time around, she appears to be suffering collateral damage from her ill-fated presidential run. While she had a typically monster fundraising quarter, bringing in a whopping $4.5 million, her challenge from wealthy hotel executive Jim Graves (D) is real, and becoming closer in both Democratic and private GOP polling. We’re not saying Bachmann is going to lose, and the district’s dynamics certainly still favor a Republican. But Graves is the most serious opponent she’s had for some time, and we can no longer rule out the possibility of an upset.

New York 18. Move to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican. A few weeks ago, even many Republicans worried that freshman GOP Rep. Nan Hayworth was increasingly in trouble. But she’s had effective, memorable ads in a market that’s hard to communicate in because of its proximity to New York City, and a new Siena poll shows the Republican leading by seven points. Both public and private polls are showing the same movement here, and time is running out for Sean Patrick Maloney (D).

New York 27. Move to Toss-Up/Tilt Republican. Rep. Kathy Hochul may still be the best candidate Democrats have in the Empire State, but the dynamics of the most GOP district in the state appear to be moving against her in a solid way. Republican Chris Collins has improved his standing among the GOP, especially in critical Erie County, and some Democrats privately admit this may be moving away from them as well. The self-funding Collins now has a narrow edge, though with outside groups on both sides still spending big here, this race is far from over.

Ohio 7. Move to Safe Republican. Democrats aren’t spending for Joyce Healy-Abrams, and there is little or no evidence that Rep. Bob Gibbs is in any danger now. Both Democrats and Republicans seem to have concluded that this race is over.

Pennsylvania 6. Move to Safe Republican. This was always a long shot for Democrats, and after the DCCC cancelled its remaining Philadelphia buy, which probably wouldn’t have gone to hit Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) anyway, Democrat Manan Trivedi was left to fend for himself. Without a seismic shift in the entire election, Gerlach looks to be in solid shape.

Tennessee 4. Move to Republican Favored. Anytime a sex scandal becomes an issue in a race, it gets our attention. Freshman GOP Rep. Scott DesJarlais’s indiscretion with a former patient may not have actually resulted in a pregnancy and subsequent abortion, but pointing out she wasn’t pregnant as a technicality isn’t helping his cause. Republicans aren’t worried yet, since Romney will win this district by at least 20 points and voters are likely to pull the lever for a Republican, even one who allegedly pushed his mistress to get an abortion. House Majority PAC just went in with a $100,00 buy, the first Democratic group to signal an interest in helping state Sen. Eric Stewart (D). DesJarlais has his own money to defend himself, but outside groups likely aren’t going to get his back on this one. Worth watching to see how bad the fallout is for the incumbent.

Texas 14. Move to Republican Favored. GOP nominee Randy Weber raised $363,000 in the third quarter and finished September with just $55,000 in cash on hand, compared to the $421,000 former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) has in the bank. This is GOP turf (McCain and Bush won it with 57 percent in the last two elections), but some Republican strategists are concerned that Weber isn’t even running the minimum campaign necessary to win. The always-affable Lampson is well-known and well-liked and can’t be counted out, but Republicans aren’t as confident in this one as they once were. Keep an eye on this district.

Wisconsin 8. Move to Safe Republican. Democrats’ best chance in the Badger state is in the 7th against Rep. Sean Duffy (R), and even that is still a long-shot. Freshman Rep. Reid Ribble (R) no longer seems at much risk, as the Republican vote has firmed up for him in a district that tilts Republican. Obama won the district with 54 percent, but this election is shaping up to be closer to 2004, when Bush received 55 percent.