House Control Hangs in Balance

Just a handful of seats separate Democratic from Republican control of the House — a body that hasn't been this balanced since 1954.

An incumbent loss here, a come-from-behind victory there, and GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert could trade offices with House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt in January. But no one should be packing boxes yet.

History gives an edge to the opposition during elections where the nation isn't picking a president. In 32 of 34 midterm elections since the Civil War, the president's party has lost seats. But only once this century, in 1994, has Congress changed control in a midterm election and that's when Republicans assumed the majority.

Most experts find only about 35 of the 435 House races competitive. We've tried to narrow this down to five races that could sway the House's control. Here then is the Five-Pack.


No. 1 — South Dakota At Large

In her House race with Gov. Bill Janklow, 31-year-old Democratic newcomer Stephanie Herseth is fast-becoming the candidate who could. The contest itself has been exceedingly cordial. The one and only negative television ad, produced the National Republican Congressional Committee, was pulled at Janklow's request.

But political experts believe Janklow may have underestimated his young challenger; and this could prove a costly mistake in a state that has no trouble electing young competitors over more experienced candidates. Years ago, South Dakota voters narrowly first elected a 31-year old Tom Daschle to the House by only 139 votes. Now Daschle is Senate majority leader.

Most state polls show Janklow with a slim, if not statistically insignificant, lead. But Democrats hope Herseth's positive approach and momentum will sway undecided/independent voters, putting her over the edge and into the House.

No. 2 — Indiana's Second District

The South Bend Tribune has called the race between Republican Chris Chocola and Democrat Jill Long Thompson, " of the most expensive, most contentious and most important races in the nation." The mudslinging has included everything from bad checks to questioning patriotism.

High-profile supporters — including President Bush for Chocola, and former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh on behalf of Thompson — blanketed the area, elevating the stakes but not necessarily the tone of the election.

In the end, this one may come down to turnout and gender. More women support Thompson, men favor Chocola. But both groups agree this election has gotten out of hand. Now it's time for both sides to get out the vote.

No. 3 — Pennsylvania's 17th District

Something strange is happening in Pennsylvania: an incumbent is losing. But that's only a technicality as redistricting has forced four incumbent vs. incumbent battles and one of them is between Democratic Rep. Tim Holden and Republican Rep. George Gekas.

Contrary to Republican expectations, Gekas' age and experience has been working against him. The 72-year-old, 10-term congressman hasn't faced much competition in the past, running unopposed in most of his races. But more importantly, in Pennsylvania's new 17th, Gekas faces Holden, a Blue Dog Democrat, who favors fiscally conservative policies, supports campaign finance, gun rights and anti-abortion measures.

Soft money from both national parties and several interest groups has poured into the state. Holden leads coming down the homestretch but Gekas should not be counted out.

No. 4 — Iowa's Second District

Sporting three competitive House races, Iowa could very well be the state that shifts power in the House. And the most vulnerable of the three is Rep. Jim Leach who faces Democratic political novice Julie Thomas.

All of Iowa's races remain tight in part because of the state's nonpartisan redistricting policies. Leach, who is running for his 14th term, moved from Davenport to Iowa City in order to avoid an incumbent vs. incumbent battle. In the newly drawn 2nd District, Thomas, a pediatrician, has played her strength by making health care a keynote issue.

Meanwhile, Leach suffered a political freefall in the polls; GOP strategists told the Washington Post that Leach's campaign was "... perhaps the worst incumbent campaign in the country."

Nonetheless, national support continues to fly into Iowa, keeping the 2nd District seat "too close to call."

No. 5 — West Virginia's Second District

In West Virginia, it's all about tough talk in a tough re-election. For the White House, backing incumbent Rep. Shelley Moore Capito has a dual purpose: maintaining a GOP seat in the House and testing West Virginia's usually Democratic political waters.

Capito faces Democrat Jim Humphreys, a millionaire who has self-financed most of his own campaign, in a re-match of their tight 2000 contest. Capito campaigns as a compassionate conservative but pays deference to the state's Democratic base by openly disagreeing with the administration; at one point on the campaign trail, Capito vividly described social security privatization as "like playing Russian roulette."

Receiving lukewarm reviews as a campaigner, Humphreys has relied on the state's Democratic bent, basically arguing that West Virginia should simply not be represented by a Republican.

On Nov. 5, West Virginia will decide whether they'll re-elect "a version of Bush", as one analyst described Capito, and many in Washington will speculate on what that means for the real deal in 2004.

Marc Ambinder and Elizabeth Wilner contributed to this report.