A Primer for Tuesday’s Congressional Races

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For the first time in three election cycles, 2012 doesn’t look to be a wave year for either party. Democrats are likely to retain control of the Senate while Republicans hang on to the House. It’s the size of the margin of control–now 3 seats in the Senate and 22 in the House–that’s worth watching on election night. But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

The congressional map has shifted considerably because of the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, a process that has mostly favored Republicans. And 2012 has seen a crop of interesting fresh faces from an openly gay Republican candidate in Massachusetts and a conservative black Mormon woman running in Utah to a new generation of Latino candidates reflecting the growing power of that voting bloc. As they did in 2010, Tea Party candidates have played a big role in shaping the contest, winning more than a dozen GOP House primaries and four Senate primaries–potentially robbing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of a majority for the second cycle in a row in the process.

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The Senate

2012 was supposed to be a bad year for Senate Democrats. They have to defend 23 of the 33 seats up this cycle. But a combination of Tea Party victories, GOP gaffes and Republican retirements helped Democrats turn their fortunes around.

Five-term Senator Dick Lugar lost a bruising primary to Tea Party darling Richard Mourdock. Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, another self-avowed Tea Partier, won a long-shot primary victory in Texas. State Senator Deb Fischer won another surprise Tea Party primary in Nebraska. And, with a little help from Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, Rep. Todd Akin, the most conservative candidate in the race, edged out a victory in Missouri’s GOP Senate primary. Both Cruz and Fischer look likely to win their seats, but Mourdock and Akin have stumbled in the general election.

Locked in a tight race with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly, Mourdock ran afoul of women voters in a debate last month when he defended his opposition to abortion without exception by saying that even pregnancies resulting from rape are “something that God intended to happen.” Akin angered women voters over the summer when he asserted in a television interview that women have a biological mechanism that prevents pregnancy resulting from “legitimate rape.”

Another Republican who’s hurt his chances with women voters is former Health and Human Service Secretary Tommy Thompson running for Senate in Wisconsin. Last week he said he became a lobbyist after leaving the Bush Administration so he could pay for his wife’s expensive shopping habits.

New England is home to three of the tightest races in the country. Senator Scott Brown, the Republican serving out Teddy Kennedy’s term after winning a special election in 2010, is battling former Harvard University professor and liberal darling Elizabeth Warren in the most expensive Senate contest this cycle. Another expensive race is the one to replace retiring Senator Joe Lieberman, in which Rep. Chris Murphy is facing off with former wrestling CEO Linda McMahon. And in Maine, where three-term Republican Senator Olympia Snowe is retiring, independent former governor Angus King is leading. If elected, he’s expected to caucus with the Democrats.

In Nevada, the race between Republican Dean Heller, who was elected last year to finish out Jon Ensign’s term after Ensign resigned under an ethical cloud, and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is headed for a photo finish. In North Dakota, Virginia and Arizona, retirements have opened up Senate seats to toss up races. Virginia, a battle ground state, is likely to swing on the coattails of the top of the ticket. Both North Dakota and Arizona are redder states where Democrats are still in the fight thanks to good candidate recruitment.

And, finally, Democrat Jon Tester in Montana is fighting for a second term against Rep. Denny Rehberg. Rehberg has benefited from conservatives migrating across the borders from the Dakotas. But, if Tester loses, it’ll be the first time in modern state history that Montana has swung against the Indian reservation vote.

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The House

Redistricting played a big role in this year’s House races. With the exception of California, the redrawing of the map largely favored Republicans and forced out well known Democratic incumbents like anti-war icon Dennis Kucinich in Ohio, Pennsylvania’s Jason Altmire and Silvestre Reyes of Texas. Meanwhile, conservative firebrands like Michele Bachmann and Allen West are likely to survive. The GOP has also made an effort to recruit a more diverse class of candidates, a nod to the electoral challenges they face as the U.S. changes demographically. It remains to be seen, though, if a new generation of moderate Republicans can survive in today’s hyper-partisan House.

Thanks to redistricting in Utah, six-term Democratic incumbent Jim Matheson finds himself vulnerable in Utah’s Fourth District. Add to that a charismatic and unique challenger and he’s in real trouble. If she wins, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love would become the first black Republican woman elected to the House. To boot, she’s also a Mormon in a heavily Mormon district.

GOP freshman Joe Walsh is looking for a 2010 repeat in Illinois’ heavily Democratic Eighth District. It’s not looking too likely. He’s running against Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee Iraq vet popular with Democrats statewide. Walsh got help in the form of millions in advertising from outside groups, but it’s done little to budge the polls. This seat is looking likely to snap back to the Democrats.

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Every cycle since he was elected in 1996, Democrat Leonard Boswell has been one of the most targeted and vulnerable congressman and yet the 78-year-old has always survived. (I remember traveling to Iowa to profile him in 2005 and predicting, wrongly, an imminent loss). But this is his toughest race yet. Redistricting has pitted him against his former neighbor, GOP Rep. Tom Latham, in Iowa’s Third District. Latham has had a decade of easy races and a bloated war chest to prove it. The new district is truly a toss up, with both parties claiming an edge.

In another member-on-member skirmish, Ohio’s newly redrawn 16th district pits Republican Rep. Jim Renacci against Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton. Outside groups have poured more than $10 million into this classic union v. business  interests race.

California redistricting threw Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Howard Berman against fellow senior committee member, and longtime rival, Brad Sherman. Sherman’s got a lot of money and won the primary – California’s new primary system pits the top two vote getters in a general election run off irrespective of party – with 42% of the vote to Berman’s 32%. But Berman’s swept the endorsements race, with much of the establishment in DC and California backing him. The race in CA-30 is one of the nastiest in the country, including a debate that nearly came to blows.

Mike McIntyre is a rare and endangered species: a Southern Democrat. Given redistricting, North Carolina’s Seventh District seat should be an easy pick up for Republicans, but State Senator David Rouzer has proven a lackluster candidate. McIntyre has not only outraised Rouzer, but he’s succeeded in defining him as a fat cat lobbyist who supports outsourcing. Still, the district’s new demographics aren’t in McIntyre’s favor and his lead is slim.

Another endangered species is the New England Republican. New Hampshire Rep. Charlie Bass was once the head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of moderate Republicans. He was reborn in 2010 as a more Tea Party-type candidate and won a comeback over lawyer Ann McLane Kuster. But that was a tight race in a wave GOP year. This time around Kuster is leading in most polls of the Second District.

Eight-term Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney has had ethic woes to deal with – his wife took a plea deal for filing false tax returns in an attempt to cover up her brother’s illegal offshore gambling operation. That has given former State Senator Richard Tisei, a pro-choice, openly gay Republican, an opportunity in the Sixth District. The race remains a toss up.

The election of hyper-partisan bomb throwers isn’t just a Republican phenomenon.  Alan Grayson was one of his party’s loudest voices before he lost his seat in Florida’s 8th district in 2010. But the newly created 9th district represented the perfect comeback opportunity for Grayson, who looks likely to beat  Republican Todd Long.

Redistricting has not been kind to California Rep. Mary Bono Mack. Having bounced from California’s 44th district to the 45th, she’s now running in the 36th. The district’s large Hispanic population has proven a boon for her Democratic challenger, physician Raul Ruiz, and Bono Mack didn’t realize how endangered she was until it was almost too late.  Double bad luck for Bono Mack, whose husband, Florida Rep. Connie Mack, is losing his bid to unseat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

MORE: Sherman vs. Berman: California’s Doppleganger Democrats Go to War