Democrats Hope To Make Gains In House

In addition to the presidential race on Tuesday, there are also many closely contested House and Senate races taking place. Democrats are hoping to increase the congressional majority they won in 2006. Greg Giroux, a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly, talks about some of the House races to watch.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, to some of the most closely contested races for the House of Representatives. Republicans have made no secret of their worries about loses on Capitol Hill tomorrow. And Democrats are optimistic they can increase the majority they won in 2006. Greg Giroux is a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly. I asked him how many House seats the Democrats might pick up.

Mr. GREG GIROUX (Senior Writer, Congressional Quarterly): Well, the Democratic strategists aren't predicting too much. They like to under-promise and over-deliver. But on a good night, they could gain as many as 30 or 35 seats. On a bad night for Democrats, I think they're guaranteed of winning at least 15. So, if you take a range somewhere on the rough middle, I think we're looking at gains in the low to mid 20s, which would put them almost precisely at the numbers they had prior to the 1994 Republican upsurge.

NORRIS: Greg, I'd like you to talk about a few of the races that you're going to be looking at tomorrow night, races that might be seen as sort of the canaries in the coal mine.

Mr. GIROUX: Yeah. Well, we have quite a few - several dozen races are highly competitive. I think the first ones I'm going to be looking at are those in the states that have very early poll closing times because that might give us some sort of indication of which direction the night is going. Is it going to be a night of moderate gains for the Democrats, or is it going to be a night of substantial gains?

And the two states that have the earliest poll closing times are Indiana and Kentucky, where most polls close at six PM Eastern Time. Kentucky's second district in the west central part of the state is a Republican leaning district. It's very highly competitive in the House race. And there's a race in northeastern Indiana's third district where there's also a very close race despite the very Republican leanings of that district generically.

NORRIS: There's actually a case where an incumbent Democrat is in a little bit of trouble for some of the statements that he made. Is this one of the rare cases where Republicans might be able to pick up a seat?

Mr. GIROUX: That's right. John Murtha has become sort of a national figure for his denunciations of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq. In recent weeks, though, he's gotten to hot water by referring to western Pennsylvania as a racist area. He told that to a local newspaper when he was trying to explain why Barack Obama might be struggling in some parts of Pennsylvania.

His constituents didn't take too kindly to that, obviously. And as a result, his Republican opponent is running very, very close to John Murtha in the polls. And by the congressman's own admission, he pretty much took this race for granted until just recently.

NORRIS: So that might be a place where Republicans can pick up a seat?

Mr. GIROUX: There are only a small handful of districts where Republicans could win a Democratic-held seat. That is one of them.

NORRIS: You know, when we talk about the heavy turnout and the effect that this might be having on some of the House races there is one race in particular that comes to mind. It's the race in South Carolina involving a challenger, Linda Ketner, who was not seen as a particularly strong challenger until these latest polls started coming into September and October.

Mr. GIROUX: That's right. We're seeing a number of districts, South Carolina's first being one of them, where you have some challengers who weren't initially seen as highly competitive. But in part because of how the Obama campaign has worked the district and in part because of the campaign money that these challengers have been able to raise, Linda Ketner has raised well north of a million dollars for her contest.

And in a lot of these districts where we didn't really expect highly competitive challenges by Democrats, the Republican incumbents aren't used to it. And so, Henry Brown, who is the Republican incumbent, is really having to fight hard to retain a district that in previous elections he's won rather easily.

NORRIS: A fairly conservative district where you wouldn't expect to elect someone who is Democratic and who identifies as a lesbian.

Mr. GIROUX: That's right. That district has stayed in Republican hands for many, many years. It's certainly not a district in which you'd expect Ketner to be initially highly competitive. But like many districts that the Democrats are challenging very vigorously, it has a larger than average African-American population, and I think Democrats are banking on a very vigorous voter turnout from that demographic group to assist their candidates.

NORRIS: Good to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. GIROUX: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Greg Giroux is a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly, and he joined us here on our studio. And tomorrow on our website, we'll be gathering reporting from some of you if you have problems at the ballot box. When you vote, if you encounter problems such as very long lines or broken machines, you can contact us by text message, voicemail, Twitter, or even iPhone or Google phone. Find out more at npr.org/votereport.

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