Rothenberg’s Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

by Stuart Rothenberg August 10, 2010 · 9:56 AM EDT

Competitive open seats usually follow the direction of the overall cycle, so with House Republicans poised for large gains, it should be no surprise that most of the open seats that flip will be headed their way. The districts at the top of the list are more likely to flip, with at least the first half-dozen looking like no-brainers.

Tennessee’s 6th. Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon’s retirement hands this seat to state Sen. Diane Black, who won Thursday’s GOP primary very narrowly. Even the Congressman has long acknowledged that his party has little chance of retaining it in November.

Louisiana’s 3rd. House Democratic strategists knew that if Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) ran for Senate they would probably lose this seat in the fall, so their game plan rested on keeping Melancon in the House. But the likelihood that redistricting would damage his House prospects in 2012 probably helped persuade him to run for the Senate this year. Former Louisiana Speaker Hunt Downer (R) looks like the obvious successor.

New York’s 29th. Former Rep. Eric Massa’s embarrassing personal behavior and subsequent resignation opens up a district that leans Republican but has also elected Democrats. The GOP nominee, former Corning Mayor Tom Reed, didn’t seem to be blowing the doors off with his campaign, but he’s the big beneficiary of Democrat Massa’s resignation. Unable to get a top-tier candidate, Democrats have had to settle for young Afghanistan War veteran Matt Zeller. On June 30, Reed had $345,000 in the bank to Zeller’s $86,000.

Arkansas’ 2nd. Republicans have been frustrated for years at not being able to unseat Rep. Vic Snyder (D), but the Congressman’s retirement — and the Democrats’ nomination of state Sen. Joyce Elliott — finally means the seat will flip to the GOP. Republican Tim Griffin, a former U.S. attorney, is a solid favorite over the liberal Elliott.

Kansas’ 3rd. Rep. Dennis Moore has held on to this Republican-leaning district since 1998, and Democratic strategists hope that his wife, Stephene, can keep it both in the family and in the party this year. But this is a bad time for an open seat in Kansas (where the two statewide races will be blowouts for the GOP), and Republican state Rep. Kevin Yoder is a clear favorite.

Delaware’s At-Large. Republican Mike Castle’s Senate bid opens up his House seat and gives Democrats a rare opportunity for a takeover. Despite the incredibly trite first line of his website bio (“John Carney will always be on our side because he’s one of us”), former Lt. Gov. Carney (D), who served two terms in this small state where contact with voters is highly valued, looks to be the favorite for the fall. Republicans think businesswoman Michele Rollins will be a formidable candidate, and given her resources, interesting background and the cycle’s dynamics, this race is worth watching.

Indiana’s 8th. Democrats recruited a strong candidate, state Rep. Trent Van Haaften, to try to hold Rep. Brad Ellsworth’s open seat. But any Democrat would have problems holding this conservative district in the current political environment. Republican Larry Bucshon is a surgeon making his first run for office, which brings both pluses and minuses. Van Haaften, who served as a county prosecutor before being elected to the Legislature, is trying to run as another Ellsworth (a former sheriff), but voters may prefer to see the election as a referendum on President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress.

New Hampshire’s 2nd. Democrats were excited when Rep. Paul Hodes decided to run for Senate, but they are now starting to worry about a GOP sweep of the three federal offices up in November. Both parties have primaries in the 2nd district, but most of the attention has been on former Rep. Charles Bass, who lost to Hodes in 2006 and is trying to win back his seat.

Pennsylvania’s 7th. The Philadelphia suburbs have been trending Democratic, but this year could well be different. Former Delaware County District Attorney Pat Meehan (R), a former U.S. attorney, faces state Rep. Bryan Lentz (D) in what looks to be a tossup. If the national political environment deteriorates any further for Democrats, Lentz could well be a victim. The seat has been held by Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democratic Senate nominee, for two terms.

Michigan’s 1st. For Democrats, Rep. Bart Stupak’s retirement couldn’t have come at a worse time. State Rep. Gary McDowell hopes to hold the seat for his party, and it isn’t clear whether he’ll face state Sen. Jason Allen or physician Dan Benishek, who finished in a virtual tie in the GOP primary. But the district is socially conservative, so McDowell must localize the race if Democrats are going to retain the district in November.

Tennessee’s 8th. Democrats hope that state Sen. Roy Herron can retain retiring Rep. John Tanner’s seat. Herron does seem like a perfect fit for the district in all aspects but one: his party. If the midterms turn into a flat-out statement about Obama, health care reform, government spending and cap-and-trade, even the moderate Herron is in deep trouble. The Republican nominee is Stephen Fincher, a farmer and gospel singer who should have strong appeal in rural areas.

Wisconsin’s 7th. Democratic Rep. David Obey is calling it quits, and Democrats hope state Rep. Julie Lassa can keep the seat in the party. But Republicans argue her record is too liberal for the district, and they think that their energetic nominee, prosecutor Sean Duffy, can win this seat in the current environment. They may be right.