At the same time, a handful of influential, senior Democrats — including Missouri's Ike Skelton, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, and South Carolinian John Spratt, the Budget chairman — are facing formidable re-election battles in a year when voter dislike of elected officials, excessive government spending and the political establishment is on the rise.
Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota — both in the House more than a decade — and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and Chet Edwards of Texas — veterans of 20 years or more — also face tough fights.
And Democrats are facing tight races to hang on to most of the 20 seats where the incumbent retired, left or is pursuing another office — typically the most difficult for a party to defend. Those include two each in Arkansas and Tennessee, and long-shots in Louisiana, Kansas and upstate New York, where Rep. Eric Massa resigned in March amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed male staffers.
Most of the 23 open Republican seats are not regarded as seriously in play, although Democrats have good chances of claiming two being vacated by GOP lawmakers running for the Senate, including one in Delaware now held by Mike Castle and one in the Chicago suburbs held by Mark Kirk.
Only a few Republican incumbents are at serious risk in otherwise Democratic districts, including Joseph Cao in New Orleans and Charles Djou in Hawaii. Democrats also believe they have shots at ousting Republican Reps. Dave Reichert in Washington and Lee Terry in Nebraska.
As bad as things are for Democrats, they do lead in the money race. However, with their list of endangered incumbents expanding, they face painful choices about which races to abandon in the interest of spending where they realistically can win.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's House campaign arm, had $36 million in cash at the end of July compared to the National Republican Congressional Committee's $22 million. But the gap has been closing steadily as Election Day nears, and a handful of GOP-backed outside groups have plans to pour tens of millions into House races in the coming weeks. Unions are also planning to funnel large sums into the contests on behalf of Democrats. [See who is giving to your member of Congress.]
Democrats have booked $49 million worth of TV advertising time in 60 congressional districts, the vast majority of it to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbents, while Republicans have reserved $22 million for advertising in 41 districts, all but one now held by Democrats.
"The opportunity is there," to wrest the House, said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We just have to execute."