20 Races that Can Change the Course of Congress
Policy + Politics

20 Races that Can Change the Course of Congress

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times



Linda McMahon (R) v. Rep. Christopher Murphy (D)
Say what you will about the former chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, McMahon puts her money where her mouth is. In her second bid for office, she has poured millions of dollars of her personal wealth into the race to succeed retiring Sen. Joseph Lieberman. But many Connecticut voters say they fear the flamboyant McMahon would favor the wealthy if elected, which helps to explain why Murphy is suddenly surging in the final weeks of the campaign.


Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) v. Sen. Jon Tester (D)
Tester is arguably the most endangered incumbent Democrat in the Senate and has been locked in a marathon battle with veteran House member Rehberg for more than a year. The two conservatives come from farming and ranching backgrounds and both relate well to rural voters in the sparsely populated state. However, Rehberg may have the upper hand because of his success in tying Tester to President Obama’s unpopular health care and financial reform laws.


Rep. Rick Berg (R ) v. Heidi Heitkamp (D)
The race to succeed retiring Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad has come down to a personality contest, pitting Berg, a solid conservative Republican House member against the feisty and personable Heitkamp. Mitt Romney is expected to easily beat Obama in the state, which has favored Republican presidential candidates going back to 1964. But Heitkamp, a former state attorney general and self-styled independent, has kept the Senate race extremely close, and ticket splitters may determine the final outcome.


Former Gov. George Allen (R ) v. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D)
This race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jim Webb is getting a lot of national attention and may be a bellwether for the outcome of the presidential election in this key battleground state. Kaine has pulled ahead by a hair in recent polls, but Allen – the son of a legendary Washington Redskins coach – has won statewide twice before, for governor in 1993 and Senate in 2000. Turnout for Obama and Romney could make the difference here.


Former Gov. Tommy Thompson v. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D)
The last time Thompson appeared on the ballot was 1998, when he easily won his fourth term as governor before going on to become secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration. But times have changed, and now the affable 70-year old Thompson is finding campaigning much tougher sledding in a close contest with Baldwin, one of the most liberal members of Congress. Thompson’s campaign is steeped in nostalgia as he taps into a reservoir of good will from his years of service to the state. But Baldwin is hammering him for making millions as a senior partner at a Beltway lobbying power, Aikn Gump.


Rep. Jeff Flake (R ) v. Richard Carmona (D)
In conservative Arizona, Flake and Carmona, are locked in a close contest to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl. Carmona, the former Bush administration surgeon general, is a late entrant in the campaign but a formidable fundraiser, taking in $1.8 million between early August and the end of September compared to $1.3 million for Flake. Flake's campaign recently began airing ads that featured Carmona's former boss at HHS accusing Carmona of having "issues with anger, with ethics and with women."  Carmona returned the favor with an ad attacking Flake as a lawmaker who helps himself and not veterans.


State Treasurer Richard Mourdock v. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D)
Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite, bumped off veteran Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary and vowed to help force Democrats to bow to the will of his party. But his bluster and hard edged partisanship turned off some voters who had grown accustomed to Lugar’s bipartisanship, which created an opening for Donnelly who is stressing the importance of working across the aisle. By asserting last week that “life is a gift from God,” even when conceived in that “horrible situation of rape, it's something God intended," Mourdock ignited a controversy that could alienate women voters and cost him the election.


Former Gov. Angus King (Ind.) v. Sec. of State Charlie Summers (R ) v. State Sen. Cynthia Dill (D)
These three politicians are battling to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. King, a fixture of Maine politics, held a solid lead in the polls heading into the final weeks of the campaign, but some campaign experts caution that he may be losing ground as Republican super PACS have begun hammering him with negative ads. The plain spoken King has given few clues as to which party he would caucus with if he wins, but it’s a good bet he would side with the Democrats.


Sen. Scott Brown v. Elizabeth Warren (D)
Brown defied political logic by winning the seat of Edward M. Kennedy, the late liberal lion, in a 2010 special election. He has proved to be skillful in straddling the divide between the state’s Republicans and blue collar Democrats and independents. But Warren, the liberal Harvard Law professor and founder of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Commission, has pulled ahead of Brown in the polls thanks to a strong speech at the Democratic national convention and a well-financed ad campaign emphasizing the importance of the Democrats retaining control of the Senate .


Sen. Dean Heller (R) v. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D)
Heller was appointed to fill out the term of disgraced former Republican Sen. John Ensign, who was forced to resign for ethics violations, and is facing a tough challenge from Berkley, who enjoys the political backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. But Berkley has problems of her own:  the House Ethics Committee announced in July that it would investigate whether she used her position to benefit a Las Vegas medical practice connected with her husband, a physician and kidney expert. For now, Heller is leading in the polls by four percentage points.


  • 218 needed for majority
    Current make-up: Republican Seats, 241; Democratic Seats, 191
  • Solid and leaning seats for Democrats 183
  • Solid and leaning seats for Republicans  228
  • Toss-up 24


Republican Dan Lungren (i) v. Democrat Ami Bera
This suburban Sacramento district pits a four-term Republican incumbent against a local physician making his second bid for this House seat. Though Lungren won by seven points in the 2010 Republican rout, redistricting benefited the challenger by including more moderate voters in the district. Lungren responded by distancing himself from his Tea Party backers on budget issues. Bera has outraised the incumbent, while fending off charges that he’s a Nancy Pelosi clone. With outside money pouring in for both sides, this race has become one of the most closely watched in the nation and a must-win if the Democrats are to have any chance of unseating House Speaker John Boehner.


Republican Keith Rothfus v. Democrat Mark Critz (i)
In an upset, organized labor helped Critz of Johnstown defeat Rep. Jason Altmire in the Democratic Party primary after the two were thrown together through redistricting. That moved the district to the right and provided an opening for Tea Party-backed Rothfus, a lawyer who lost to Altimire in 2010 by two percentage points. While labor is mounting a major effort to hold onto the seat, outside political action committees have poured more than $5.3 million into anti-Critz ads, more than twice the amount supporting the incumbent.


Republican Dan Benishek (i) v. Democrat Gary McDowell
This is another rematch pitting a Tea Party-backed incumbent seeking his second term against a well-known local Democratic farmer. They’re contesting a seat long held by former state trooper Bart Stupak, who retired in 2010 and whose economic populism and social conservatism played well in the rural district. With the furor over health care playing a smaller role in this year’s race, McDowell has sought to tie Benishek to vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget and his vote to end traditional Medicare, which is a key issue for the Upper Peninsula’s many elderly voters. Recent polls indicate the race is neck-and-neck or McDowell with a small lead.


Republican Jonathan Paton v. Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick lost this seat in the 2010 Republican wave but got a second chance when incumbent Republican Paul Gosar decided to run in a neighboring district. Her challenge is former state senator Jonathan Paton, an Iraq war veteran and Tea Party-aligned conservative. The evenly divided district, which stretches from Flagstaff in the north to Tucson in the south and passes through several Indian reservations, has historically leaned Democratic and could do so again if the president does better-than-expected in the state.


Republican Allen West (i) v. Democrat Patrick Murphy
Tea Party champion Allen West, 51, has taken his talents to West Palm Beach, running a stunningly well-funded campaign to remain one of only two African-American Republicans in Congress. Patrick Murphy, the 29-year-old challenger, is running neck-and-neck with a negative campaign that paints West’s extreme views as out of touch with his middle-of-the-road constituents. Earlier this year, West called the 81 Democratic members of the progressive caucus “actual members of the Community Party.” West is using his $15 million war chest to run adds highlighting Murphy’s arrest outside a bar when he was 19 – just as West was heading off to Iraq. Polls show the two running about even in what has to be considered the muddiest race of the 2012 Congressional election cycle.


Republican Mia Love v. Democrat Jim Matheson
Will one of the whitest states in the nation be the first to send a black woman Republican to Congress? Challenger Mia Love, mayor of Saratoga Springs, is mounting a well-funded challenge against a a blue dog Democrat who voted against Obamacare when the Democrats controlled Congress and for its repeal after the Republican took over. Still recent polls show Love pulling into a small lead after blasting Matheson for his pro-stimulus, pro-cash-for-clunkers votes. A Mormon at the top of the ticket may be the final straw for the Democratic incumbent.


Republican Mark Meadows v. Democrat Hayden Rogers 
Retiring Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler represented a dying breed – white, southern Democrats with a populist streak. Rogers, his former chief of staff, faces a stiff challenge from restauranteur Meadows who received backing during primary season from presidential candidate Rick Santorum. During the campaign, Rogers has refused to endorse President Obama, while Meadows disavowed Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” even though the district votes overwhelmingly Republican in presidential races. Meadows’ mix of social conservatism and down-home identification with the blue-collar voters should turn this blue district red.


Republican Joe Walsh (i) v. Democrat Tammy Duckworth
It’s already being called the ugliest race in the nation: a shoot-from-the-hip Tea Party conservative against the double amputee Iraq war veteran who served as assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs. Already weakened by redistricting, Walsh hurt his chances further by attacking Duckworth as not a “true hero,” a comment he later walked back by saying she focused too much attention on her war record. Meanwhile, women’s groups are pouring millions into defeating Walsh after he said law student Sandra Fluke, after being attacked by Rush Limbaugh, should “get a job.” Chicago’s suburbs in “the land beyond O’Hare” remain conservative and Walsh appears to be making up ground in the waning days of the campaign.


Republican Sean P. Duffy (i) v. Democrat Pat Kreitlow
This safe Democratic seat flipped into the Republican column in the 2010 wave election after long-time Congressman David Obey retired. Television personality Duffy, an ex-reality show participant, has proved more durable than his appearances on MTV’s “Real World.” He has kept a laser-like focus on the economy’s poor performance under Obama, which plays well in Wisconsin’s north woods. The challenger Kreitlow, a former state senator and television journalist, has sought to shift attention to the “do nothing” Congress. He’s kept the race close but will probably have a hard time closing the deal.


Republican Ann Marie Buerkle (i) v. Democrat Dan Maffei
This Syracuse-area race is another rematch after Maffei lost his seat in 2010 to the Tea Party-backed incumbent. Buerkle is considered among the most vulnerable members of Congress after winning her race two years ago by a scant 700 votes. Maffei, a long-time House staffer, is a savvy campaigner who has been helped by redistricting that made the district lean slightly Democratic. Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum could be the wild card, however. She drew 7 percent of the vote in a mid-September poll, almost all of whom would otherwise vote for Maffei.