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House race cheat sheet: Seven congressional seats to watch

With 241 seats to the Democrats' 194, the Republicans appear to be in little danger of losing their House majority this year.
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann talks at a medical device roundtable event at Rasmussen College, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Blaine, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann talks at a medical device roundtable event at Rasmussen College, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Blaine, Minn.

With 241 seats to the Democrats' 194, the Republicans appear to be in little danger of losing their House majority this year.

As early as June, New York Times polling guru Nate Silver argued that "Republicans are reasonably clear favorites to maintain their majority." However, even if the return of Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely, Democrats still stand a chance of narrowing the Republicans' substantial majority and weeding out some of the party's more extreme members.

The GOP famously took the gavel—and a whopping 63 seats—from the Democratic Party in 2010, when they rode a wave of Tea Party energy and economic doldrums  to victory. However, they may not be able to consolidate all of those gains this year:  the fervor which made the Tea Party such a potent force has produced elected representatives who are significantly to the right of their constituents. Now that some of 2010's Tea Party freshmen have gained power, they need to maintain it—and the Democrats will do everything within their power to see that they fail.

Below are seven high-profile, hotly contested, or just plain bizarre House races which could serve as bellwethers for the direction of the country as a whole.

Illinois' 8th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Joe Walsh (R)Opponent: Tammy Duckworth (D)What you need to know: Joe Walsh rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010, where he quickly gained a reputation as one of the most outspoken and media-hungry Tea Party freshmen. Case in point: He triggered a national stir over the summer by questioning whether Duckworth was a truly a military "hero" or just someone who talks too much about her military service. Duckworth lost both of her legs from wounds sustained while flying helicopters for the Army in Iraq. Since then, she has worked for the Department of Veteran Affairs on both the state and federal levels.

Wisconsin's 1st Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Paul Ryan (R)Opponent: Rob Zerban (D)What you need to know: Paul Ryan is, of course, running for vice president of the United States. But he's also hedging his bets in the district that he has represented since 1999, fighting to hold the seat in case his ticket does not make it to the White House. Should he win both campaigns, then the electoral drama in this district will continue well past Tuesday.

Assuming Ryan chose to become vice president instead of remain a congressman, then there would be a special election in his district in order to replace him. A Republican victory in that race would be far from assured, especially given how close Democratic challenger Rob Zerban has come to catching up with a big-name fundraising powerhouse like Ryan. Recent polling has Zerban trailing, but only by a single-digit margin. Perhaps that's why Ryan is still running an ad campaign in his other, less well-known 2012 race.

Florida's 9th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Todd Long (R)Opponent: Alan Grayson (D)What you need to know: If Alan Grayson wins this race, it will not be his first trip to Congress. The incendiary Democratic challenger spent one term in the House, representing Florida’s 8th Congressional District, before he was ousted in 2010 by Republican Daniel Webster. The then-congressman’s bombastic style earned him a fan base in the netroots of the Democratic Party, but evidently not in his own district, where Webster crushed him by an 18-point margin.

Neither that loss nor Grayson’s two years out of the political limelight seemed to dampen his incendiary instincts. His campaign against Republican incumbent Todd Long has been vitriolic even by modern political standards, with Grayson digging into the ugly details of his opponent’s divorce and drunk driving conviction.

Virginia's 7th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Eric Cantor (R)Opponent: Wayne Powell (D)What you need to know: Cantor is currently the House Majority Leader and the more Tea Party-friendly foil to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Powell, on the other hand, has been overshadowed in the national press by his campaign’s big name adviser: boisterous Democratic strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders.

“Mudcat” is a mainstay of major Democratic races in the South and helped to elect former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and outgoing Sen. Jim Webb, among others. (He was also a senior adviser to John Edwards’ unsuccessful 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination). Under Saunders' management, the Powell campaign has laid siege to its influential Tea Party opponent, roasting Cantor as out of touch and beholden to oligarchical “parasites.”

Florida's 18th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)Candidates: Rep. Allen West (R) and Patrick Murphy (D)What you need to know: Redistricting shifted Rep. Allen West from Florida's 22nd district to the 18th, but he has no intention of leaving Congress. The former Army colonel and hard-line Tea Party "champion" was part of the Republican freshman class of 2010, where he quickly earned a reputation for his militaristic rhetoric and policy positions. Despite what many critics have denounced as his extremism, he maintains a commanding lead over Democrat Patrick Murphy, a businessman with little electoral experience.

Minnesota's 6th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R)Opponent: Jim Graves (D)What you need to know: Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann may no longer be running for president, but she's still a prominent voice on the right fringe of the House GOP. This year she faces a high profile challenge from hotel magnate Jim Graves, who has put more than half a million dollars into his own campaign.

Bachmann is still favored to win, having attracted millions more in fundraising dollars from around the country. Recent polls have her six points ahead.

Iowa's 4th Congressional DistrictSeat currently held by: Rep. Steve King (R)Opponent: Christie Vilsack (D)What you need to know: Steve King may have a reputation as a "Tea Party firebrand," but he's far from the sort of Washington neophyte who typically fits that mold. In fact, he's sat in the House for the past decade, where he's attracted mockery and ire from the left for his sometimes bizarre statements (for example, his outspoken defense of dogfights).

There is a good chance, however, that this year could be King's last as a member of Congress: one poll from late September had him tied with his opponent, Democrat Christie Vilsack. Vilsack, the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has turned out to be a formidable opponent for King.