WASHINGTON -- In an election year full of uncertainty, one thing seems fairly sure: Republicans will retain firm control of the House of Representatives.
Democratic Party dreams of carving into the 240-190 majority that Republicans enjoy are meeting the harsh reality of many Republican-held seats being secure because of redistricting and a potential lack of congressional coattails from President Barack Obama, several election experts say.
But while control of the House isnt likely to change, the composition, tone and political tenor of the chamber probably will. Just as after the 2010 election, the chamber probably will have a huge influx of freshmen, thanks in part to contests for 39 open seats, 19 new seats and four vacant seats, according to David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which monitors congressional races.
Democrats could pick up anywhere from zero to five seats, some handicappers predict, well below the 25 needed to take control of the House, and less than the five-to-10-seat pickup some Democrats and political observers were projecting earlier in the campaign season.
While theres not much change on the surface, theres plenty underneath, Wasserman said. Theres a whole lot of change and a whole lot of freshmen coming to Congress. Were headed for the most polarized Congress ever. Theres a moderate exit in the Senate that extends to the House.
The House may become more partisan than the current 112th Congress because of the continued thinning of moderate ranks in both parties. The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, whose ranks were halved to two dozen in 2010, are expected to shrink to the teens with the retirements of Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Mike Ross of Arkansas and anticipated losses on Election Day.
Another likely development, Wasserman said, is that the House could have 80 to 90 new members and nearly one-third of the 435-member chamber will have less than three years in office.
Heres a look at races to watch on election night from coast to coast:
DEMOCRATIC SEATS THAT COULD GO REPUBLICAN
An incumbent Blue Dog, Rep. Larry Kissell, is considered among the most endangered Democrats because of a strong challenge by Republican opponent Richard Hudson in a redrawn district that now tilts Republican.
Rep. John Barrow, another Blue Dog, is hanging tough, running in a new, less Democratic district against Republican state Rep. Lee Anderson in one of the more expensive House races in the country. The good news for Barrow is that Andersons campaign recently released internal polls that found Anderson held only a 1-point lead over the incumbent. The bad news for Barrow is Obama might be a drag on his re-election chances. Mitt Romney leads Obama in red state Georgia by 12.5 percentage points, according to the nonpartisan website RealClearPolitics.com.
Rep. Jim Matheson, another Blue Dog, is in a close contest with Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love, whos bidding to become the first black Republican female Mormon elected to Congress.
Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul scored an upset victory last year in a special election in a Republican-leaning upstate New York district to replace Republican Rep. Christopher Lee, who resigned after it was revealed that hed been soliciting women on Craigslist by sending shirtless photos of himself. Former President Bill Clinton parachuted in recently to stump for Hochul, but that might not be enough in her race against former Erie County Executive Chris Collins.
Messy family legal problems may sink incumbent Democratic Rep. John Tierney and help make former state legislator Richard Tisei the first House Republican from Massachusetts since 1996. Tisei would also be the first Republican in the House who was openly gay at the time of his election.
REPUBLICAN SEATS THAT COULD GO DEMOCRATIC
Dan Lungren, a nine-term Republican from the Sacramento area, and Democrat Ami Bera are in another expensive House race. More than $6 million in outside money has poured into the district, much of it to Beras benefit. Some congressional handicappers have the race leaning Democratic.
Rep. Allen West, a tea party favorite and one of two black Republicans in the House, is engaged in a nasty battle with challenger Patrick Murphy. The Democrat has attacked Wests interrogation methods from when he was in the Army. West dug up a Murphy arrest from when he was a 19-year-old college student, on suspicion of drunk and disorderly conduct. (The case later was dismissed.)
Incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh, another tea party favorite, found himself in a redrawn district, courtesy of the states Democratic-controlled legislature. He faces Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq War veteran, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Recent polls in Chicago have shown Duckworth with leads of 10 to 14 points over Walsh.
Roscoe Bartlett, an 86-year-old, 10-term conservative lawmaker, is having his toughest run in years in a redrawn Democratic-leaning district. He faces political newcomer John Delaney, a Maryland businessman.
Its not easy being an incumbent New Hampshire Republican, as Reps. Charles Bass and Frank Guinta are learning. Bass narrowly won an open seat in 2010, a seat that he once held for six terms. Hes locked in a rematch against Ann McLane Kuster. Speaking of rematches, Guinta is in a tough contest against former Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, whos trying to recapture the seat she lost two years ago.