Lots of attention has been paid to the competitive US Senate races in the South, since the outcomes will determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years. But also important are the competitive US House races, which can strengthen or weaken the GOP’s 234-to-201 hold on the lower chamber.
Due to partisan redistricting and the power of incumbency, only eleven of the South’s 149 congressional districts are hosting competitive contests this year. The rest – barring major upsets – are likely to stay with the incumbents or their party. SPR’s best estimate at this point is that the GOP will make a net gain of two or three seats in Dixie. Note, however, the Democratic candidates are consistently raising more money than the Republicans, which may affect the races in the closing weeks.
The Democrats have six opportunities to pick up congressional seats in the South: Arkansas’s 2nd & 4th Districts, Florida’s 2nd District, North Carolina’s 2nd District, and Virginia’s 2nd and 10th Districts.
Republicans have five Democratic districts deemed vulnerable to a GOP takeover; Florida’s 18th and 26th Districts, Georgia’s 12th District, North Carolina’s 7th, and Texas’s 23rd.
The Democrats have two opportunities in Arkansas, where Republican incumbents are stepping down to seek other offices. In Arkansas’s 2nd District (Little Rock, etc.), long-time GOP activist and fundraiser French Hill, who was an official in the administrations of President George H. W. Bush and Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), is locked in a tough race with Patrick Henry Hays (D), former mayor of North Little Rock. French, a banker, has raised more money, but spent much of it in a contested primary. Romney got 55% here. Leans Republican.
In the Razorback State’s 4th District (Hot Springs, etc.), state House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman (R) faces former FEMA chief James Lee Witt (D). Both have name ID and some political muscle. Witt had raised substantially more money than Witt at midyear, but the district’s 61% for Romney helps Westerman. Likely Republican
Florida’s 2nd District (Tallahassee, etc.) offers the Democrats their best shot at defeating a Republican congressman, due in large part to the strength of their nominee, attorney Gwen Graham, daughter of former governor and US Senator Bob Graham (D). She is challenging sophomore Steve Southerland (R), has raised more money than he has, and has built-in name ID. Southerland is hitting her on her ties with national Democrats, and especially with Obamacare. US Sen. Marco Rubio (R) is campaigning with him. Toss-up.
North Carolina’s 2nd District (Sanford, etc.) features an unexpectedly strong Democratic nominee in Clay Aiken, who gained national fame singing on America’s Got Talent. His celebrity status brought him a hard-fought and slim victory in the primary over a seasoned politician. Sophomore Renee Ellmers (R) may not be the strongest Republican incumbent, but she has good ties with House Speaker John Boehner and represents a solidly Red district (Romney 57%). US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) is running better than expected, which should help Aiken. Nevertheless, likely Republican.
Virginia also hosts two potentially competitive races in districts currently held by Republicans. In the 2nd District (Virginia Beach, etc.), Democrats recruited a candidate with a top-drawer resume for this military-laden district: Retired US Navy Reserve Commander and former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Suzanne Patrick. But she’s facing second-term US Rep. Scott Rigell (R), a skilled politico who doesn’t always toe the party line. He’s also bringing in more dough than she is. Likely Republican.
And in Virginia’s 10th District (Manassas, etc.), where US Rep. Frank Wolf (R) is retiring after 34 years in Congress, Democrat John Foust, a former Fairfax County supervisor, is mounting a strong campaign against the GOP’s Barbara Comstock, a Delegate in the state assembly. In the money chase, at mid-year Foust had $1,126,000 on hand to Comstock’s $576,000. Comstock, however, is a strong candidate in her own right, and the race leans, but only leans, Republican.
The GOP has five opportunities for gains, one – North Carolina 7 – already a slam-dunk.
Two of the possible Republican gains are in Florida. In the 18th District (Palm Beach, etc.), where freshman Patrick Murphy (D) holds the seat after edging out (50.3% to 49.7%) hard-right conservative Allen West (R) in 2012 while Romney was winning the district with 52%. The Republican challenger is state Rep. Carl Domino. He’s campaigning as an ideological successor to West, which may not be a winning strategy here. Murphy’s TV ad says “I’m independent” and he’s done a good job of “threading the needle,” as one insider (R) put it. As of August 6, Murphy had $1,239,000 on hand to Domino’s $190,000. Likely Democratic.
In Florida’s 26th District (Miami-Dade, etc.), however, the GOP has a strong shot at defeating freshman Joe Garcia (D) in this mostly Hispanic (67%) district. The Republican candidate is Carlos Curbelo, a member of the Miami-Dade School Board. Garcia has been dogged by allegations of election irregularities, but is doing much better fundraising, with $1,853,000 on hand as of August 6, to $638,000 for Curbelo. A poll taken by McLaughlin and Associates (R) showed Curbelo leading 44% to 40%. Obama carried this district by 53% to 46%. Although national Democrats have been very supportive of Garcia – Veep Joe Biden made a stop here recently – this race leans Republican.
In Georgia’s 12th District (Augusta, etc.), Republicans are making their biennial effort to defeat the Deep South’s last white Democratic congressman, John Barrow. In 2012, Republican Romney carried the district with 55% while Democrat Barrow was reelected with 54% over a weak Republican opponent. The GOP nominee is Augusta businessman Rick Allen. Barrow is better funded than Allen and the top of the Democratic ticket this year has a Carter (Jason) and a Nunn (Michelle), which should help Barrow. Allen is a stronger-than-usual Republican nominee and he could pull it off. But on balance, Leans Democratic.
North Carolina’s 7th District (Wilmington, etc.) became a safe Republican pickup when incumbent US Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), a conservative Democratic who barely managed to hold his seat (50.1%) in 2012, announced his retirement. State Sen. John Rouzer (R), who mounted the strong challenge to McIntyre last time, is the GOP nominee and a lead- pipe cinch over the Democratic nominee, Jonathan Barfield, Jr., a New Hanover County Commissioner. Safe Republican.
The fifth Republican opportunity lies in Texas’s 23rd District (San Antonio, etc.), where freshman US Rep. Pete Gallego (D is getting a serious challenge from former CIA operative Will Hurd, an African-American. Hurd won a competitive Republican primary and is getting strong backing from the national party, including a recent TV buy. Gallego is raising more money, but outside spending by conservative groups could even up the money chase. Romney had 51% here to Obama’s 48%, but this is Latino territory, and while a hard-fought race is underway, the race leans Democratic.