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Decisive battles

Politics | Only a handful of races will determine which party controls the House for the next two years

Issue: "Autumn books," Oct. 7, 2006

Out of the 435 House races this November, only about 65 should be competitive. An election season in which 85 percent of incumbents should coast to victory may not sound exciting. But compared to previous years, 2006 may be as topsy-turvy as they come. That's good news for Democrats hoping to gain control of the House. They need to win just 15 seats to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker of the House and take back control of that side of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Can the Democrats do it? A lot depends on how they fare in these 10 crucial races:

Note: Cook Rating is the forecast for the race as judged by elections guru Charlie Cook as of Sept. 20. PVI indicates the Partisan Voting Index, a measure Cook uses to determine the temperature of each House district. A PVI of R+1 indicates the district voted 1 percentage point higher for Bush in 2000 and 2004 than the national average. D+5 would indicate a district that voted for Gore or Kerry at an average of 5 points higher than the national average.

Connecticut 4th District
Cook Rating: Tossup
PVI: D+5

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Connecticut congressman Chris Shays promises that if he goes down in November, he'll do it without slinging mud. Under siege by robocalls from surrogates of Democratic opponent Diane Farrell, the Republican Shays has urged the National Republican Conference Committee to keep its attack ads out of the Connecticut House race. The 2006 face-off between Farrell and Shays marks a rematch of a tightly contested bout in 2004. Democrats are banking on Connecticut voters' opposition to the Iraq war. Until recently, Shays was one of President Bush's most hawkish supporters. Now, after his 14th trip to Iraq in August, Shays supports a timeline for the removal of troops. Farrell has opposed the war from the beginning, leading peace marches even before it started in 2003.

Texas 22nd District
Cook Rating: Leans Democratic
PVI: R+15

On the surface, the open-seat district that belonged to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seems like an almost certain pickup for Democrats. Democrat Nick Lampson won't even face a Republican challenger on the ballot due to DeLay's pullout from the race. Still, Republicans have pushed former Houston city councilwoman and anti-smoking crusader Shelley Sekula-Gibbs into the fray as a write-in candidate. Lampson, a former congressman and casualty of the GOP-led redistricting efforts in 2004, actually trails Sekula-Gibbs in polls. But on election day, conservative voters will have to press a button and spell out "Shelley Sekula-Gibbs" into an on-screen keyboard. If voters can't spell her name right, election judges will have to determine the intent of the voter-a formula for a potential legal challenge.

Arizona 8th District
Cook Rating: Leans Democratic
PVI: R+1

For nearly two decades, Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe kept Democrats at bay in southern Arizona with a moderate voting record. Now, with Kolbe retiring, conservative voters finally have a candidate they can get behind. Border security champion Randy Graf may fire up the GOP base, but Republicans at the national level remain skeptical about his chances against Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords, a former state senator. In September, national GOP officials canceled $1 million in advertising for Graf, leaving him alone to try to win what was once considered perhaps 2006's premier competitive House race.

Indiana 8th District
Cook Rating: Tossup
PVI: R+9

Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth enjoys a sizable lead over incumbent Republican John Hostettler in both polls and war chest, but the sometimes-controversial Christian incumbent has beaten long odds before. Hostettler, first elected in 1994, raised eyebrows frequently with votes that have gone against the Republican grain. He was one of six Republicans to vote against the authorization of force in Iraq and one of just 11 House members to vote against the aid package for Hurricane Katrina victims. And in a district known by reputation as the "Bloody 8th" for voting out six incumbents in the past 50 years, Hostettler might be running against not only his Democratic opponent, but also a constituency prone to get antsy with long-time congressmen.

Illinois 8th District
Cook Rating: Leans Democratic
PVI: R+5

Republicans think incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean can be beaten in the Republican-leaning district. And if GOP candidate David McSweeney can take out Bean, the Democrats' task on election night could get much tougher. Bean took office after a close election in 2004 and became the district's first Democratic representative in its nearly 70-year history. Once elected to the House, Bean joined the Blue Dog Democrats caucus, a group self-described as conservative. McSweeney, an investment-banking millionaire, has loaned cash to his campaign to try to equal the well-heeled Bean. Both campaigns should eventually drop more than $3 million into the race.

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