John King is going to get dizzy before he’s done swiping that big 2012 Election Map at CNN.
The red and blue and purple states will be lighting up, for sure, but there will be fireworks in several congressional districts, as well. Take a quick little road trip across the political geography with me, and I’ll point out a few places to watch. Here are the 6 most important congressional races in 2012:
1) California – Republican Dan Lungren and Democrat Ami Bera have squared off for a seat serving the Sacramento area, just as they did in 2010. But this time they’re in a new district. California’s congressional map was significantly redrawn in 2011, moving 18-term Democratic incumbent George Miller out of the 7th district, and relocating Lungren and Bera from the old 3rd district. There should be no wonder if voters are confused about district boundaries, but the distinction between the two candidates is clear. Lungren is a long-time California politician who was closely aligned with Newt Gingrich in the early 1980s and endorsed him during the Republican primary this year. Bera is a first generation American of Indian heritage who was formerly chief medical officer of Sacramento County and served as a dean at UC Davis School of Medicine. The Republican enjoyed a sizeable margin of victory in 2010, but the race is a toss-up in the new district.
2) Utah – Six-term Democrat Jim Matheson, a leading member of the Blue Dog Democrat Congressional Caucus, is fighting off a real challenger in the 4th District of Utah. Threatening his re-election is Republican Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs. She is a young African American, Mormon, fitness instructor, and mother of three who is raising big money from national interests. She pulled in $355,000 in the second quarter of 2012 – 44% of which was from 63 members of the House and two senators. Matheson, “consistently ranked as Utah’s most popular elected official,” has more money at this point and looks good in the polls. But he’s definitely in for a run. His district, according to Washington Post commentators, is “the most Republican in the nation held by a Democrat.”
3) Illinois – There’s money in the race for Illinois’ 8th District, but Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth has gotten plenty of free media through videos of Republican incumbent Joe Walsh acting up on cable news and YouTube. Walsh refers to himself as “a Tea Party conservative first and a proud Republican second.” He was first elected to Congress in 2010, where, according to his website, he “sleeps in his office and comes home every weekend to hold town halls and meet with constituents.” Those town halls may be his undoing; they’re where he first publically suggested that Duckworth – who served as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the Iraq War and lost both legs in an explosion – was not a “true hero.” Despite her injuries, Duckworth continues to drill with the Illinois Army National Guard. Walsh never served in the military.
4) New Hampshire – Republican incumbent Frank Guinta is facing a renewed challenge from the Democratic incumbent he beat in 2010 in New Hampshire’s 1st district. Carol Shea-Porter became the first woman to hold federal office from the state when she won in 2006. She blames her loss two years ago on outside pro-Republican money channeled into the race through Super PACs. She’s running a passionate, largely grassroots, anti-Citizens United campaign (although Representative Guinta’s supporters are correct in pointing to a Super PAC that’s got her covered). Shea-Porter is a social worker and anti-Iraq War activist. Guinta is the former mayor of Manchester, who walloped her by 12 percentage points in 2010. The latest polls show a much closer race this cycle.
5) Massachusetts – There’s drama in Massachusetts’ 6th district, where incumbent Democrat John Tierney is working hard to maintain his seat, despite public chatter about family matters that recently sent one brother-in-law to prison for illegal gambling and another to Antigua, where he is thought to be a fugitive from justice. Tierney, now in his eighth term, has been most active on issues around education, workforce development, and labor. He is being challenged by Republican Richard Tisei, the former GOP leader of the state Senate who is considered to be “one of the top GOP candidates challenging incumbents this election.” Tisei, who is openly gay and pro-choice, describes himself as “a live and let live Republican” who thinks "the government should get off your back, out of your wallet and away from the bedroom." Recent polls sponsored by the candidates show both of them ahead by nice margins. Hmmm...
6) Georgia – Redistricting has thrown another seat into serious play – this one the 12th district in Georgia, one of the “terminal ten most vulnerable House seats in the country,” according to the Washington Post. The incumbent, Blue Dog Democrat John Barrow, describes himself as an “independent voice to stand up to big business and Wall Street, stand up to the partisanship in Washington, stand up to the special interests.” An independent Democrat, indeed, he voted against the Affordable Care Act, against repealing it, and in favor of holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. While many Democrats in this district, which voted 57% for Barack Obama in 2008, bemoan some of Barrow’s positions, it’s unlikely they’ll support his Republican challenger, who will be decided from a field of four candidates in the primary on July 31. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already set aside $900,000 to attack Barrow with media ads this fall.
Although a few of the candidates in these six districts stretch party lines, their policy positions are not what makes them so interesting. Taken together, these candidates illustrate the incredible range and diversity of representative politics today. Where else in world would we find so many different people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives working their fannies off in pursuit of one of the most thankless — and frustrating — jobs available? No where.
So, will Americana be restored when the elections are over and the dust settles across CNN’s magic map? No. It’s best we put any ideals about local elections aside. These congressional elections – and others — will be heavily influenced by big outside money, unbecoming language, and the deeply polarized presidential contest that swirls around them. Further, public confidence in Congress is so low that voter turn-out will likely be dampened, and We the People may not make the most representative choices.
While we can, let’s appreciate what these races represent. But if you don’t especially appreciate them, they will still be amazing to watch.