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Republican Chip Cravaack (AP/Photo by Martiga Lohn)

Threats to the deep blue

Campaign 2010 | House Democrats once thought safe in their districts now find themselves in tight races

WASHINGTON-No one has won or lost an election yet, but in the last three months Democrats have watched their field of vulnerable candidates grow rapidly. Senior, powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives who no one imagined could fall have found themselves in competitive races in just the last two weeks.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., perhaps illustrates best the extent of the late-breaking upheaval. The lawmaker has 36 years of service in the House under his belt and chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Two years ago he won his seat by 35 points.

Now, if he can pull out a win, it will be by a hair. A Survey USA poll from Oct. 28 has him one point ahead of his Republican challenger, Chip Cravaack, a retired Navy helicopter pilot who with 25 others once asked to set up a town hall on healthcare with Oberstar. When Oberstar's office refused, Cravaack went to the mayor of his 3,000-person town and asked how he could run for Congress.

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The Cook Political Report didn't list Oberstar's race as competitive until the Oct. 28 poll came out-so late as to be useless. Monday, Cook moved the race to a "toss-up."

In mid-August, Cook listed 64 Democratic seats as competitive, and 30 of those were "toss-ups." By late October, Cook listed 92 Democratic seats as competitive, with 49 of those that could go either way. Republicans need 39 seats to gain the majority in the House. (Cook lists eight Republican seats as competitive.)

A similar story to Oberstar's unfolded for another House fixture, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Frank's Republican challenger, businessman Sean Bielat, was 5 years old when Frank first won election in 1980. Though Frank, who serves as the chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, is projected to win this year, Bielat has given him one of the fiercest races of his career. And it grew competitive late. Like Oberstar, Cook didn't rate his race as competitive until Oct. 28.

Frank leads Bielat by 13 points, according to a Boston Globe poll. In 2008, Frank won reelection by 43 points, and in 2006 he ran unopposed. But his concern is heightened because Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., carried Frank's heavily Democratic district in his January special-election victory.

And other House veterans are vulnerable. Seventeen-term Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chair of the House Armed Service Committee, is in a close race with Republican Vicki Hartzler, a former state representative and now a stay-at-home mom. Cook moved this race to the "toss-up" column on Oct. 26. Skelton handily won his last reelection by 32 points.

Spending from outside groups has helped unknowns like Cravaack and Bielat challenge powerful incumbents. A number of lawyers predicted in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that more nobodies could successfully run for office thanks to outside groups replacing the official party apparatus. (See "New playing field," Jan. 21, 2010.)
To keep up with the results of these and other House races, go to WORLD's home page and click on the U.S. House tab above the interactive national map.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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