No Wave, but Sleeper Races Could Surprise

Posted October 19, 2012 at 3:06pm

For the first time in six years, there will be no wave benefiting one party on Election Day. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some surprise races that emerge during the next 17 days.

Control of the House does not appear to be up for grabs Nov. 6. Democrats are expected to make modest seat gains but not anywhere near the net 25 needed to remove Republicans from the majority. Still, some races previously thought not to be in play are moving quickly onto the radars of party operatives and political prognosticators. A few might even deliver a shock come Nov. 7.

There are different tiers of surprise races.

Some races have appeared heavily lopsided but have swung toward coin-flip contests. The underdog has the potential to win in a number of heavily reconfigured seats in California. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R) could well be upset by physician Raul Ruiz (D) in a contest that national Democrats have helped push into play with TV ads. Golden State Democratic Reps. Jerry McNerney and Lois Capps both could certainly find themselves in tighter contests a week before Election Day.

Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) has had his share of ups and downs in politics, but could be poised to be an upset winner in Texas’ open 14th district. It’s a comfortably Republican seat, but he outraised his GOP opponent, state Rep. Randy Weber, in the third quarter. And, as Roll Call reported this week, Lone Star State Republicans now have agita about a race that should be safe.

Sometimes late-breaking news can swing a race. After reports surfaced this month about Tennessee Rep. Scott Desjarlais (R) appearing to pressure a patient and mistress to have an abortion more than a decade ago, Democrat Eric Stewart looks to have at least a shot of unseating the anti-abortion rights Congressman. It’s a heavily Republican district, but a big scandal can move a race in ways that surprise.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how few surprises there look to be in the House this cycle.

Surprise is, of course, relative. With the proliferation of powerful outside groups and two fine-tuned national committees — the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — potentially competitive districts are monitored by polling throughout the cycle. Potential opportunities, even long ones, are noted early, candidates are recruited and strategies are plotted. In the late summer, committees carefully check their flanks and are usually keenly cognizant of any potential upsets in the works by Labor Day.

“In today’s world of sophisticated House committees and many super PACs, [it’s] hard for a sleeper to slide this far,” emailed Brad Todd, an influential GOP consultant, deeply familiar with the House landscape.

Still, the potential for an unexpected electoral jolt is omnipresent.

Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner is a conservative Republican running in a very Democratic district, Florida’s 22nd. He shouldn’t have a shot in a district that would have voted 57 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, but a recent poll showed him within striking distance of Democrat Lois Frankel, the former mayor of West Palm Beach. He’s still got a hill to climb, but there could be a surprise here.

Another tier of surprise races, especially in a redistricting year: freshman Members whose chances of winning re-election have been written off but might manage to squeak out a victory.

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) ranks high on the written-off list. If the normal political rules of gravity apply, he should lose his Democratic leaning seat, but recent movement in the race portends a slim chance that he could be more than a one-term wonder.

By every normal political metric, embattled Florida Rep. David Rivera is poised to be forcibly retired by his constituents Nov. 6. He is reportedly under federal investigation, had an anemic fundraising quarter and is persona non grata with national Republicans. Polls have him down by double digits and the DCCC is so confident in his impending loss that it has canceled its planned advertising against him.

But Miami is a difficult city to poll, the district is ever-so-slightly Republican leaning and insiders who have watched Rivera master South Florida politics over the years caution to never count him out.

Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) is a conservative representing a newly configured district that is not. She faces a rematch with the man she unseated, former Rep. Dan Maffei (D). For months, she has been seen as a politically dead woman walking. But she raised a comfortable $531,000 in the third quarter, and third-party groups are coming to her defense, leaving open the possibility that she could return.

With a strong Republican wave at the their backs, the GOP ran the board last cycle, picking up seats that looked like tough gets even with the partisan wind. That means their stretch seats are more limited in 2012: The best opportunities missed two years ago were targeted by the NRCC from the very beginning of the 112th Congress.

In the minority, Democrats have a broader array of big reaches, and most of them have been moving off the competitive playing field instead of onto it. Among the exceptions might be the race against Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who seems to be in a more competitive contest than most originally anticipated.