The race for the U.S. presidency has dominated most of the 2012 election cycle’s political coverage. But if there’s anything the perpetual partisan gridlock that characterized President Barack Obama’s four-year term in the White House taught the nation, it’s this: Congressional elections also really, really matter.
Democrats are not expected to pick up the 25 seats necessary to regain control of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, and, as a result, few races have received national media coverage. Still, these local elections offer the best depiction of the nation’s political fluctuation -- think the 2010 midterm elections, as recalled by Wikipedia -- particularly in critical swing states both presidential candidates are unabashedly courting.
A collection of key bellwether districts will also offer the best signal of which party is picking up the most voters on Election Day, when congressional contests are called long before the presidential race. Here are seven swing races worth watching:
Minnesota’s 6th District, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R)
Ultraconservative Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann -- the definition of a Republican Democrats love to hate -- is up for re-election in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district. And there’s a decent chance the onetime GOP presidential candidate could lose.
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Bachmann’s lead over her first-time Democratic challenger Jim Graves is slight at best. A September poll by the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner showed only a three-point lead for the congresswoman in her Republican-learning district, a dip from the five-point lead the same firm reported for Bachmann in June.
And while Bachmann has an overwhelming cash advantage -- her campaign has raised more than $12 million, compared with the $2 million collected by Graves’ campaign -- the congresswoman’s reputation is incendiary to the point that even people outside Minnesota are working to boot her from office.
Case in point: Last month, Bachmann paid a visit to a Chicago synagogue, where members of the congregation were so offended by the congresswoman's presence that they ultimately wired donations to her Democratic opponent. The Graves campaign reported a 400 percent increase in donations from Chicago that week, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Illinois' 8th District, Rep. Joe Walsh (R)
The freshman Joe Walsh is less known for his lawmaking, and more known for refusing to pay child support, as noted by Politico, and for saying stupid things, as pointed out by ABC News and the Huffington Post.
As a result, his formidable opponent, war veteran Tammy Duckworth, is favored to unseat him in what is traditionally a swing district.
Several recent polls show Duckworth leading Walsh, a Tea Party darling, by anywhere from 10 to 15 points, according to Election Projection.
Florida’s 18th District, Rep. Allen West (R)
Allen West is another nationally known freshman, a former U.S. Army officer and Iraq veteran who became one of the few black Republicans elected to the House since 1876 with his victory at the polls in 2010. But West is famous for offending members of the Congressional Black Caucus, insisting President Obama is a Muslim, and allegedly improperly interrogating at least one Iraqi detainee.
Polling in the race between West and his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy, is all over the map. But the fight for Florida’s 18th district has featured some of the nastiest attack ads of the entire 2012 election cycle, as reported by CBS News, and Democrats are hungry to see West fail.
Thanks to redistricting, West now represents a district populated with moderate Republicans who may be turned off by his combative rhetoric and deeply conservative beliefs.
Massachusetts' 6th District, Rep. John F. Tierney (D)
John F. Tierney, an eight-term Democrat in a solidly blue district, is facing an unexpected challenge -- from an openly gay Republican.
Recent polling shows former state Sen. Richard Tisei -- who, in another break from GOP orthodoxy, also supports abortion rights -- with a strong lead in the last month of campaigning. It doesn’t help that the liberal Tierney is currently under scrutiny after his wife was connected to an illegal offshore gambling enterprise, according to the Boston Globe.
Ohio's 16th District, Reps. Jim Renacci (R) and Betty Sutton (D)
To get an idea of the working-class voters both Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are so desperately attempting to court in the last days of their campaigns, look no further than Ohio’s 16th congressional district.
As yet another result of redistricting, the race is pitting two congressional incumbents against each other: Republican Jim Renacci and Democrat Betty Sutton. Renacci has a slightly stronger hold in the district, which was carried by U.S. Sen. John McCain with 52 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election.
Georgia’s 12th District, Reps. John Barrow (D) and Lee Anderson (R)
This race hasn’t received much national attention, but is unusual in the fact that it stars the Deep South’s last white Democratic congressman.
John Barrow is a Blue Dog Democrat who has managed to hang on to his Republican-leaning district for four terms. This year, his district has been redrawn to cut out Savannah -- Barrow’s home and a substantial segment of his Democratic base -- giving an edge to his Republican challenger Lee Anderson. The Augusta Chronicle reported Barrow, who is framing himself as an independent, has attempted to court GOP voters in a last-ditch effort to keep his seat.
Iowa’s 3rd District, Rep. Leonard L. Boswell (D)
Even though the state went for Obama in 2008 and has experienced relatively low unemployment, Democrats are facing an unexpected challenge in the Hawkeye State.
In another example of the impact of redistricting, incumbents Leonard L. Boswell, a Democrat, and Tom Latham, a Republican, are facing off in what is the definition of a battleground district. Iowa’s 3rd congressional district is reportedly made up of equal proportions of Republican, Democratic, and independent voters.
While Boswell is running in a merged district that Obama carried with 52 percent of the vote in 2008, Latham’s close ties with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, has made the race a priority for the Republican leadership. Latham’s campaign is awash in cash: The Republican has raised a total of $3.2 million, compared with the Democrat’s $1.5 million.