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House Race Ratings: Changes in Michigan and Washington

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said the party couldn't be more pleased with the contrast created by Rep. Paul Ryan's elevation to vice presidential nominee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel said the party couldn't be more pleased with the contrast created by Rep. Paul Ryan's elevation to vice presidential nominee. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

House Democrats had a productive primary night Tuesday. But how good was it, really?

In Michigan, Democrats nominated their strongest possible general election candidate, a self-funding former state lawmaker, to challenge freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R) in the 3rd district. Another potential opportunity was solidified in the vacant 11th district, where Republicans nominated a libertarian reindeer rancher who is untested and unvetted as a candidate. Finally, on the West Coast, Democrats nominated the best possible candidate, former Microsoft executive Suzan DelBene, in Washington’s vacant 1st district.

“We were presented with some good opportunities last night,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) boasted to reporters Wednesday. “Make no mistake about it: Michigan was a huge loss for Republicans and a real opportunity for Democrats.”

Out of the three, DelBene’s victory brings the best news for House Democrats. Even in the state’s most competitive House district, it will be difficult for Snohomish County Councilman John Koster (R) to paint DelBene as too liberal for the district. DelBene’s ability to self-fund — she donated $1.9 million to her campaign for the primary — in a presidential election cycle makes this an uphill climb for Koster.

Accordingly, Roll Call is changing its race rating for Washington’s 1st district from Tossup to Leans Democratic.

In Michigan, the DCCC’s best pickup opportunity remains in freshman Rep. Dan Benishek’s (R) 1st district. In light of recent polling and fundraising numbers, Roll Call is moving this race to a Tossup. But a closer look at the other two Michigan districts shows a complex and unlikely road to picking up those seats:

The redrawn 3rd district is the more competitive race for Democrats, and Roll Call has changed its rating to Leans Republican. Amash can blame his fellow Republicans for this; they moved the battleground area of Battle Creek into his district when they redrew lines. Former state Rep. Steve Pestka (D) is a decent nominee bolstered by his deep pockets. Democrats argue President Barack Obama won the 3rd district in 2008, but that’s a high-water mark for any candidate. Pestka will have to run ahead of the president to have a chance here.

Just by the numbers, the 11th district is less competitive for Democrats. But it would be an understatement to say Kerry Bentivolio is an unpredictable nominee. His libertarian views are out of line with more moderate Republicans in the suburban Detroit district. But the Democratic nominee, internist Syed Taj, complicates the party’s chances there. He’s not well-known, and he’s not a great fundraiser. Accordingly, Roll Call is keeping its Leans Republican rating of this race.

If Democrats want to compete in the 3rd or the 11th, two things must happen:

1. Democrats must aggressively define Amash and Bentivolio early.

There’s a small opening in both of these races, but Democrats would have to attack the Republicans hard now. One veteran Republican consultant said the 11th district is “competitive” but cautioned: “If Dems are smart, they make a play there. They should go in early and bury him.”

But there’s no indication yet Democrats will do that in either race. Pestka made the “Emerging Races” list on the DCCC’s Red to Blue program Wednesday. There are more than 50 races in the program’s first tier — all of which the committee sees as more competitive than Pestka’s campaign. Meanwhile, Taj didn’t make any of the Red to Blue program tiers.

“We’re going to make those decisions on a real-time basis, depending on the situation on the ground,” Israel explained to reporters Wednesday.

2. Conservative and libertarian groups must not spend much money here.

That’s probably not going to happen. Amash is a darling of Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-Texas) movement — not exactly a political faction that’s hurting for cash. Bentivolio, who received the backing of Amash, Paul and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the primary, falls under the same category.

For example, Liberty for All, a super PAC run by a 22-year-old college student, poured $650,000 into the 11th district race to boost Bentivolio over his write-in opponent. Spokeswoman Kate Schackai said her group has no budget, adding “we’re certainly open” to spending more on a Michigan House race if necessary.

The Club for Growth did not get involved in either Michigan House primary, but spokesman Barney Keller said “we’re looking at the race” this fall. The cash-flush conservative group is a big fan of Amash: The club backed him in his 2010 primary, and he’s received a 100 percent rating from it. Club officials met with Bentivolio already before the primary, Keller confirmed.

Kyle Trygstad contributed to this report.