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Earlier this week, we explored the state of play in the presidential race. But now we turn back to what may be the real action on Nov. 6 -- the battle for control of Congress.

Candidly, not much has changed from the previous update. But what few shifts there have been appear to have boosted the fortunes of the party that holds the majority in the respective chambers.

House

I am going to do something a bit different than last time and offer two projections here, and I am going to start with the more conservative prediction. I believe Democrats are clear favorites to win 182 seats, and Republicans are clear favorites to win 211 seats -- 215, if the four representatives from Kansas are included. (Kansas still has not completed its redistricting process, making it hard to offer a firm prediction there, though it is likely all four seats will favor the Republicans to some extent.)

That leaves 38 districts, for now, as major battlegrounds. Twelve of them are true Tossups, which I will list below:

FL-09 -- no incumbent
FL-18 -- Rep. Allen West (R)
FL-26 -- Rep. David Rivera (R)
GA-12 -- Rep. John Barrow (D)
IL-13 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Timothy Johnson (R)
IN-02 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Joe Donnelly (D)
MI-01 -- Rep. Dan Benishek (R)
MN-08 -- Rep. Chip Cravaack (R)
NY-11 -- Rep. Michael Grimm (R)
OH-16 -- Reps. Betty Sutton (D) and Jim Renacci (R)
RI-01 -- Rep. David Cicilline (D)
UT-04 -- Rep. Jim Matheson (D)

A couple of these districts have become more competitive due to unexpected changes in the field of candidates.

Democratic lawyer Joe Garcia, who narrowly lost congressional races in 2008 and 2010 in what was then FL-25, rode to the rescue against Rep. David Rivera after a series of Democratic potentials flopped. Garcia will still need to contend with real estate agent Gloria Romero Roses, who was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee despite living well outside the district and having a fraught relationship with local unions, but he enjoys considerably more name recognition in the area and should be considered the favorite to win his party's nomination.

Joe Garcia will certainly make for a stronger candidate than Luis Garcia (no relation), who dropped out of the race amidst a feud with the DCCC and Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, or Romero Roses, who lacks political experience and local connections that are invaluable for taking on an incumbent in any district. Expect Democrats to quietly back away from Romero Roses, who consolidated support before Joe Garcia's unexpected entry to the race, and just let the primary play out.

Across the country, it looked like Rep. Jim Matheson would get to face off against yet another bland, unremarkable, utterly conventional Republican in his dark-red district. Thanks to Matheson's impressive constituent service, his frequent departures from the party line and his status as the scion of one of Utah's numerous famous political families, he has managed to win reelection year after year, and it is important to never count him out. Republicans have targeted him before, they have been optimistic about their candidates to take him on before and Matheson has won every time.

But something funny happened at the Utah Republican Party convention. Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love unexpectedly won the nomination, despite trailing in fundraising and polls -- and that would be utterly insignificant were Love not a fairly young, good-looking black Mormon woman of Haitian descent with a bang-up life story and a beautiful family.

For a party that seems constantly scrambling for people of color to help foster the image of a "big tent" organization, Love is a dream come true, and she is going to get a lot more national money and attention than the likes of Carl Wimmer or Stephen Sandstrom would have, or that Morgan Philpot did in 2010. Matheson and the DCCC cannot take this race for granted, because what Republicans see here is a potential rising star in a district that, by rights, a conservative Republican should hold anyway. Expect a full-court press to take down Matheson this year.

One potential weakness for the Republicans this cycle is that most of the battleground districts, including a plurality of the broadly defined Tossups, look favorable for them right now, yet remain in play. There are 14 Tossup/Tilt R districts, and both parties are likely to play hard in all of them.

CA-10 -- Rep. Jeff Denham (R)
CA-21 -- no incumbent
CA-52 -- Rep. Brian Bilbray (R)
CO-06 -- Rep. Mike Coffman (R)
IA-03 -- Reps. Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)
IA-04 -- Rep. Steve King (R)
MT-AL -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Denny Rehberg (R)
ND-AL -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Rick Berg (R)
NJ-03 -- Rep. Jon Runyan (R)
OH-06 -- Rep. Bill Johnson (R)
PA-08 -- Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R)
PA-12 -- Rep. Mark Critz (D)
WI-07 -- Rep. Sean Duffy (R)

I was feeling more bullish on Democrats' chances in the three California districts in this category, but the decided Republican bent of CA-10, vocal Republican optimism in CA-21 and lackluster Democratic fundraising in CA-52 prompted me to reevaluate those race ratings over the past month. That being said, Democrats still have some remarkable candidates here, especially ex-astronaut Jose Hernandez in CA-10.

The options in CA-21, often cited as a "recruiting fail" by pessimistic Democrats, are a bit less appealing -- Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong, who lives outside the district, and Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO John Hernandez, who has raised practically no money and has barely campaigned -- but there is cause for some optimism in Xiong's strong fundraising, though there is a significant caveat: much of it has come from Hmong American communities outside of the district.

In CA-52, a quintessential swing district, ex-Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña leads San Diego Port Commissioner Scott Peters in opinion polls. But Saldaña's fundraising has trailed Peters's, and both Democrats badly lag incumbent Rep. Brian Bilbray in cash on hand. The DCCC will almost certainly need to step in here to prop up the Saldaña campaign -- or the Peters campaign, if the port commissioner defies expectations by advancing to the general election -- as while money can't buy Saldaña love, it sure does come in handy.

Other changes here are in IA-03, again moved because the Republican, Rep. Tom Latham, significantly outraised Democratic opponent Rep. Leonard Boswell; MT-AL, where polls show likely Democratic nominee state Sen. Kim Gillan locked in a close race with unsuccessful 2008 lieutenant gubernatorial nominee Steve Daines, the likely Republican standard-bearer in this at-large district; ND-AL, where ex-state representative and former Senate staffer Pam Gulleson nearly lapped the field in fundraising and the Democratic-NPL Party seems remarkably enthusiastic; PA-12, where Rep. Mark Critz upset Rep. Jason Altmire in the Democratic primary, leaving Democrats with a candidate more in tune with powerful unions but less experienced at holding down a very Republican district; and WI-07, where former state senator and likely Democratic nominee Pat Kreitlow turned in decent enough fundraising numbers to put his race against Rep. Sean Duffy, a former reality television star, on the map.

The remainder of the races in the Tossup column are rated Tossup/Tilt D, and there are 12 of them. These races remain highly competitive as well, and Republicans will work just as hard to negate the slight Democratic advantages here as Democrats will to win the Tossup/Tilt R races listed above.

AZ-01 -- no incumbent
CA-07 -- Rep. Dan Lungren (R)
CA-26 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R)
CA-31 -- Rep. Gary Miller (R)
IL-12 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Jerry Costello (D)
IL-17 -- Rep. Bobby Schilling (R)
MA-06 -- Rep. John Tierney (D)
NH-02 -- Rep. Charlie Bass (R)
NV-03 -- Rep. Joe Heck (R)
NY-18 -- Rep. Nan Hayworth (R)
TX-23 -- Rep. Francisco Canseco (R)
WA-01 -- no incumbent, resignation of ex-Rep. Jay Inslee (D)

Not a lot of changes to this list. Last month, I listed IL-17 as a pure Tossup race between Republican Rep. Bobby Schilling and Democratic businesswoman Cheri Bustos. But in an inverse situation to CA-10, I reevaluated the rating after taking into account just how Democratic the district is. Republicans really dropped the hammer on Democrats in redistricting in some states, like North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but the Democratic gerrymander of Illinois is just wicked. Schilling can still win, but Bustos is a solid recruit and both parties seem to be telegraphing greater interest in races like IL-13.

I also had NH-02 as a Lean D district last month. But the conventional wisdom has shifted somewhat regarding this expected rematch between Rep. Charlie Bass and 2010 Democratic nominee Ann McLane Kuster, and the race is now predicted to be more competitive. Polls show it very close, but I give the edge to Kuster because of Bass's apparent lack of "fire in the belly." He barely won in 2010, the district has not changed much and on balance, I think it tilts Kuster's direction this year, even if Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire in the Electoral College.

By forcing the Tilt R districts into the Republican column and the Tilt D districts into the Democratic column, as I did last time, we get a result of 194-225, or 194-229 if the Kansas districts are assumed to go Republican again. That means that if Democrats want to capture the House, they will need to sweep the Tossups, including Tossup/Tilt R races, while holding onto every district in which they currently hold an edge.

I will not go into too much detail about the other battleground races, but I have identified 41 more, 26 of which are Lean R:

CA-45 -- Rep. John Campbell (R)
CO-03 -- Rep. Scott Tipton (R)
CO-04 -- Rep. Cory Gardner (R)
FL-02 -- Rep. Steve Southerland (R)
FL-10 -- Rep. Daniel Webster (R)
FL-13 -- Rep. Bill Young (R)
FL-16 -- Rep. Vern Buchanan (R)
IN-08 -- Rep. Larry Bucshon (R)
MI-03 -- Rep. Justin Amash (R)
MI-07 -- Rep. Tim Walberg (R)
MO-04 -- Rep. Vicki Hartzler (R)
NC-07 -- Rep. Mike McIntyre (D)
NC-08 -- Rep. Larry Kissell (D)
NE-02 -- Rep. Lee Terry (R)
NY-19 -- Rep. Chris Gibson (R)
NY-23 -- Rep. Tom Reed (R)
NY-27 -- Rep. Kathy Hochul (D)
OH-07 -- Rep. Bob Gibbs (R)
OK-02 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Dan Boren (D)
PA-06 -- Rep. Jim Gerlach (R)
PA-07 -- Rep. Pat Meehan (R)
SC-07 -- no incumbent
TX-14 -- no incumbent, retirement of Rep. Ron Paul (R)
VA-02 -- Rep. Scott Rigell (R)
WI-01 -- Rep. Paul Ryan (R)

Most of the races in this column look fairly competitive because of the massive Republican overperformance in 2010. With the red tide now washing back out to sea, some of these Republican freshmen might be left high and dry. Strong Democratic recruits in districts like CA-45, CO-03, CO-04, MO-04, NC-08, NY-27, OK-02, SC-07 and TX-14 make some of these races look a lot closer than they ordinarily would.

The races on this list that are held by a Democrat running for reelection, including the aforementioned NC-08 and NY-27, are the product of redistricting that was less than kind to Democratic incumbents. North Carolina adopted a Republican gerrymander, while New York used a court-drawn map after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared to sabotage his own party's efforts to work with Republicans on a bipartisan congressional map.

If Kansas adopts a congressional map similar to the current one and Democrats find a decent recruit to take on freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder in KS-03, a district that was based in Kansas City and Overland Park throughout the previous decade, that race will likely also start out as Lean R. A particularly strong challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo in KS-04, assuming redistricting does not shore him up significantly, could also receive an initial rating of Lean R. However, for this time, neither race is projected beyond being assumed to favor their Republican incumbents.

That leaves 15 Lean D districts, rounding out the battlegrounds of the 2012 House elections:

AZ-02 -- no incumbent, resignation of ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D)
AZ-09 -- no incumbent
CA-09 -- Rep. Jerry McNerney (D)
CA-24 -- Rep. Lois Capps (D)
CA-41 -- no incumbent
CA-47 -- no incumbent
IL-10 -- Rep. Bob Dold (R)
IL-11 -- Rep. Judy Biggert (R)
KY-06 -- Rep. Ben Chandler (D)
MD-06 -- Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R)
NH-01 - Rep. Frank Guinta (R)
NJ-06 -- Rep. Frank Pallone (D)
NY-01 -- Rep. Timothy Bishop (D)
NY-21 -- Rep. Bill Owens (D)
NY-24 -- Rep. Ann-Marie Buerkle (R)
NY-25 -- Rep. Louise Slaughter (D)

Virtually all of these races appear competitive because of redistricting, which created four open districts between Arizona and California that look to favor Democrats. One of those districts, AZ-02, will have an incumbent in either Democratic former House staffer Ron Barber or Republican 2010 candidate Jesse Kelly by the time November rolls around, and the race rating will likely change if Kelly wins. Right now, I consider that special election to be Tossup/Tilt D due to Barber's more centrist profile and association with former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who resigned her seat early this year to focus on her recovery from an assassination attempt last January.

Rep. Bill Owens's race would be a Tossup, but his likely opponent, Republican Matt Doheny, has faced some serious heat over photographs showing him kissing and groping women who are not his wife. Since that scandal broke, this race has fallen a bit down the ladder, and despite a recent mini-scandal in which Owens was forced to reimburse the cost of a lobbyist-arranged junket to the Republic of China (Taiwan), I think he is favored enough to merit the rating.

Reps. Ann-Marie Buerkle and Louise Slaughter occupy districts that should be uncompetitive for the Democrats, but Buerkle has polled surprisingly well -- albeit in a Republican poll -- in her Syracuse-based district that she barely won in 2010 over then-Rep. Dan Maffei, who is poised to face Buerkle again in yet another rematch; and Slaughter, an octogenarian struggling with a recent leg injury, has drawn a strong opponent in Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, a Republican who is quite popular in the blue county and has great district-wide name recognition heading into the race. Maffei and Slaughter should win their races on Nov. 6, but they will not do so without a fight. Both races were Likely D last month, but no longer.

Senate

While the House picture has improved somewhat for Republicans, their odds of winning back the Senate have dimmed at the same time. I regret being unable to create a color-coded map of House races, but here is a nice map of the 2012 Senate races with states shaded by color.

As the map suggests, Republicans still have a road to winning back the Senate, just as Democrats do the House. But inside the margins, fully half of the eight yellow Tossup states are rated Tossup/Tilt D and Democrats are narrowly favored to win their Senate seats this year.

The remaining four are as follows:

Indiana -- no incumbent, nomination denied to Sen. Richard Lugar (R)
Missouri -- Sen. Claire McCaskill (D)
Montana -- Sen. Jon Tester (D)
Nevada -- Sen. Dean Heller (R)

A political shocker in Indiana this past week vaulted the seat held by 36-year incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar from being a Likely R hold to being near the top of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's target list. Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the Republican nominee, is well to Lugar's right and has staunchly refused to embrace the concept of bipartisanship for which Lugar has long been respected. Indiana voted for then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but it is leaning Mitt Romney's direction this year, and although it has some solid recruits this year, the Indiana Democratic Party is not renowned for its organization. But Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Blue Dog Democrat with a lot of political savvy, is probably closer to Indiana's ideological median than is Mourdock, and the few polls that have been made public from this robopoll-banning state show a very competitive contest.

In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill would probably look in a bit worse shape if not for the weak slate of candidates the Republicans have fielded. Right now, Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Rep. Todd Akin look like the frontrunners to take on McCaskill in November, and although a credible poll has not been conducted on the race since Public Policy Polling took its temperature in January, just about everyone agrees this race will be very close. That PPP poll early this year actually found McCaskill tied with Steelman, Akin and Republican third-wheel businessman John Brunner. You cannot get much closer than that.

PPP found good numbers for Sen. Jon Tester in Montana last week, but both parties are treating this matchup between Tester and longtime Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg as a marquee matchup, and with no other recent polls of this race by any firm other than unreliable Republican narrative pollster Rasmussen Reports, I am reluctant to describe the race as Tilt D. Obama almost won Montana in 2008, but it is a generally red state, and while Democrats have a strong brand locally, the freshman Tester certainly could not have drawn a stronger Republican challenger and this race is likely to remain very close through Election Day.

Most polls have actually given Sen. Dean Heller a small lead over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley in Nevada, but as I explained in the presidential update earlier this week, I feel Democrats have an edge in the Silver State because of their tendency to outperform public polls there. That leaves us with something looking more akin to a tied race, and from the efforts of the respective parties on the ground here, it's not hard to believe it.

The other four races in yellow-shaded states are rated Tossup/Tilt D for one reason or another.

Massachusetts -- Sen. Scott Brown (R)
North Dakota -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Kent Conrad (D)
Virginia -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Jim Webb (D)
Wisconsin -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Herb Kohl (D)

A slew of Democratic retirements this cycle has resulted in a few more competitive races than the DSCC must feel comfortable defending. But in Massachusetts, where Republican Sen. Scott Brown is fighting for election to a full term against Democratic consumer protection advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, the DSCC has a strong candidate with gangbusters fundraising. Polls show a tight race, but Warren has energized her liberal base and shows a natural talent for campaigning. Some issues have recently nagged at Warren, including what appears to be a largely manufactured "scandal" over her occasional identification as a "minority" at Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania due to a claimed but unconfirmed Cherokee ancestor, as well as Boston Mayor Tom Menino's public reticence to endorse his fellow Democrat in the race. But recent polls have not shown much damage to Warren, who looks like the slight favorite to take this seat back for the Democratic Party.

A few months ago, the seat of retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., looked like a lost cause for the Democratic-NPLers. But former state Atty. Gen. Heidi Heitkamp has demonstrated some unexpected strength against freshman Rep. Rick Berg, the likely Republican nominee. Like Indiana, North Dakota prohibits robopolling, but some rare recent polls (including an unanswered Democratic internal) have given Heitkamp a single-digit but significant lead. Heitkamp now appears to be marginally favored to keep this seat blue.

While most polls show a tight race between ex-Gov. Tim Kaine and ex-Sen. George Allen in Virginia, the Republican Allen has seen hardly any leads outside of Republican polls. Kaine is not as personally popular as his predecessor and would-be Senate colleague, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., but he is better liked than Allen, according to most surveys. With Obama looking favored to win Virginia's 11 electoral votes once again in November, Kaine should look forward to the president's coattails easing him to victory -- because ultimately, it is not easy to imagine many Obama/Allen voters exist in Virginia.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic candidate in Wisconsin, must be watching the Republican food fight for the Senate nomination with great interest and more than a little trepidation. Polls consistently show ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, who served four terms at the helm of the Badger State and ran a long-shot bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, matching or even topping Baldwin in a head-to-head contest. But despite facing a fractured conservative opposition, Thompson has yet to break away from the pack in primary polling. His latest archrival for the nomination appears to be Eric Hovde, a millionaire businessman who is spending some of his personal fortune on the race. If Thompson is the nominee, this race could move to pure Tossup or even Tossup/Tilt R, depending on the polling. But if Hovde or ex-Rep. Mark Neumann is the Republican nominee, Baldwin might even pull out to a Lean D advantage.

There are five other Senate races that are expected to be competitive, albeit less so than the above eight. Of them, only one is Lean R:

Arizona -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl (R)

This race is borderline Tossup/Tilt R, as Democrat Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general, has actually run ahead of Obama in some polls. But unlike Obama, Carmona has yet to lead in any publicly released survey, and while Obama for America has remained tight-lipped about its Arizona internals, the Carmona campaign recently released an internal showing the Democrat down by just four points -- a result corroborated by Republican pollster Magellan Strategies just days later. Another poll like that and I will probably move this race, but for now, I think Republican Rep. Jeff Flake has enough of an advantage for it to be a second-tier pickup opportunity for the Democrats.

There are four Lean D races, as follows:

Florida -- Sen. Bill Nelson (D)
Maine* -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R)
New Mexico -- no incumbent, retirement of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D)
Ohio -- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D)

In Florida, Republicans were overjoyed when their dream candidate, Rep. Connie Mack IV, changed his mind after previously declining to run and jumped into the race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. But since his entry, much of the sheen has come off of Mack -- or should I say, Mack has come to resemble troubled actor Charlie Sheen in some respects. Mack's foibles, including a history of getting into fistfights, have provided fodder for ex-Sen. George LeMieux, who has desperately tried to scrub his past personal connection to Republican-turned-independent ex-Gov. Charlie Crist in an effort to rehabilitate himself as a conservative steady hand on the wheel. But the choice between Mack and LeMieux now appears unpalatable enough to Republicans that they are publicly fishing around for a new candidate to salvage this ever-dimming potential pickup opportunity.

Maine has a big fat asterisk next to it, because ex-Gov. Angus King is very likely to win the race. What is less clear is whether a King victory will count as a Democratic pickup. Although King's personal politics are much closer to the Democratic mainstream than any contemporary Republican ideology, and Republican strategists are openly pessimistic about the prospects of getting King to caucus with them, King has in fact said he may not caucus with either party at all. With King refusing to commit, I have to leave it to my personal assessment that he will probably suck it up and caucus with Senate Democrats, but I am less confident about him doing so than I am about him winning this Senate seat.

Ex-Rep. Heather Wilson has proven a better candidate for the Republicans than I originally believed she would be. While I still expect Rep. Martin Heinrich, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, to win this seat, Wilson's polling and fundraising indicates she cannot be counted out. I expect Heinrich to pull away in horse-race polling as more New Mexican voters make up their minds, but for now, Wilson's competitiveness here merits the rating.

Like Wilson, Treasurer Josh Mandel has proven to be a formidable recruit for the Republicans. But in Mandel's case, it comes down less to any sort of personal charm or political acumen, and more of his deep ties to major Republican bundlers that have pumped millions of dollars so far into the effort to unseat Sen. Sherrod Brown, the labor-friendly Democratic incumbent who is ideologically well to the left of the swing state of Ohio's political median. Brown is nonetheless fairly popular, if not a brand name, in his state. And like Carmona in Arizona, Mandel has yet to see a lead in any credible poll conducted recently. But like Carmona, Mandel keeps inching closer, and this race could move into the Tossup/Tilt D column with time.

But if we assume Democrats and Republicans win every race in which they currently hold an advantage, and if we assume a hypothetical Sen. Angus King agrees to support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., we get a chamber controlled by Democrats even before the pure Tossups are decided.

Due to the length of this update and constraints on my time, I have decided to hold off on gubernatorial race ratings for a few days. Expect to see a (much shorter) post on that early next week.

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