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The bellwether districts to watch that could determine control of Congress

If Republicans take control of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California would be the likely next speaker.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
If Republicans take control of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California would be the likely next speaker.

Republicans are heavily favored to take back control of the House, likely breaking Democrats of full control in Washington. That's largely because of the difficult national landscape for the party in power and that many swing districts are in right-leaning places.

Republicans need a net pickup of five seats to take control. And after redistricting, there are already seven Democratic-held seats where Republicans are favored, noted as either Likely Republican or Solid Republican, according to the Cook Political Report.

Below are several of the key bellwether districts to watch on election night on Nov. 8 that might tell us how big (or small) a GOP wave might be (organized by poll-closing time):

7 p.m. ET (GA, IN, KY, SC, VT, VA):

IN-1 (D-Mrvan) Toss Up: After redistricting, incumbent Frank Mrvan (D) is in a district that became more Republican, but would have gone for Joe Biden by 3 points in 2020. His challenger is Jennifer-Ruth Green, an Air Force veteran who would be the only Black Republican woman in Congress, if elected. This is a race that may be a toss up, but one that Democrats would likely have to win to hold the House or keep Republicans' margins down.

VA-2 (D-Luria) Toss Up: Incumbent Elaine Luria (D), who is on the Jan. 6 committee, has made democracy part of her campaign. She's used to tough races, and she's got another one on her hands against state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R). The district has changed hands four times since 2000, and Republicans have won eight of the last 11 elections here. Kiggans has aligned herself with Republican Gov. Glenn Younkin, who cut an ad for her, campaigning on cutting inflation, prioritizing border security, getting "wokeism" out of education and pushing back "against Democrats' efforts to defund or abolish our police departments." A Kiggans win would certainly indicate quite the change for the district — and for House priorities.

VA-7 (D-Spanberger) Toss Up: Incumbent Abigail Spanberger (D) has outraised and outspent challenger Yesli Vega (R), though this remains a close and crucial election. Redistricting shifted this district bluer — Biden would have won the new district by about 7 points. Republicans represented the district from 1971 until 2018 when Spanberger defeated then-incumbent David Brat (R), who had upset then-Republican House leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary. Spanberger has highlighted her bipartisan record and hammered Vega for her hardline stance on abortion. Vega, a law enforcement officer, has centered her campaign on cost of living and public safety. She also makes an appeal mixing Spanish and English in this district where about one-in-five voters is Latino.

7:30 p.m. ET

NC-13 (Newly Created) Toss Up: State Sen. Wiley Nickel (D) is running against Republican Bo Hines, a 27-year-old former college football player. Hines has the backing of Donald Trump and is a self-described "MAGA Warrior," but Nickel, who is a criminal defense attorney, has criticized Hines for his lack of qualification. Nickel is pushing for support from independents and moderate Republicans who disagree with Hines on issues like abortion, which Hines described as genocide.

OH-1 (R-Chabot) Toss Up: Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Greg Landsman, a member of the Cincinnati City Council. The district favored Trump over Biden by 3 points. Chabot, a longtime House member, stands firmly behind Trump, fundraising off of the FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago and opposing both impeachments. His voting record, though, shows more moderate stances, as he broke ranks with most Republicans to support the CHIPS and Science Act and the bipartisan gun reform bill. Democrats have hit Chabot in ads as "obsessed with banning abortion." Republicans are focusing on crime against Landsman.

OH-9 (D-Kaptur) Lean Democrat: This district was made more Republican and opened up Democratic incumbent Rep. Marcy Kaptur to a challenge from Republican Air Force veteran J.R. Majewski. Kaptur is thelongest-serving woman in House history, and if reelected, will become the longest-serving woman ever in Congress. Kaptur didn't back down and retire, and she's been a tough out for Majewski, who aligns wholeheartedly with Trump, painting his front lawn in the image of a giant Trump lawn sign and was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 but says he left before the riot. Majewski has also come under fire for embellishing his military service. The House GOP campaign arm cut plans for a nearly $1 million ad buy in the district, so if Kaptur struggles, it could be a very long night for Democrats.

OH-13 (D-Open) Toss Up: In this newly created seat, state Rep. Emilia Sykes (D), former state House minority leader, faces former Trump campaign staffer Madison Gessioto Gilbert (R). The redrawn district would have gone for Biden by about 3 points in 2020. Gilbert was a conservative commentator, then served on Trump's 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns and as an advisor to the National Diversity Coalition for Trump. This race has drawn lots of attention from outside groups who see this race as a key to House control. Democrats have hit Gilbert for his views on abortion, while Republicans have painted Sykes as soft on crime.

8 p.m. ET

IL-17 (D-Open) Toss Up: This race couldn't be more of a contrast. The race features Democrat Eric Sorensen, an openly gay former local TV meteorologist who believes in "more science and less politics," against Republican Esther Joy King. King, an Army JAG corps veteran, was the GOP nominee for this seat in 2020. She describes herself as "unapologetically pro-life" and endorsed the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. She's also made inflation and energy core campaign issues. This district politically leans slightly toward Democrats, so if King pulls off the win, it could be an indication of things going Republicans' way.

ME-2 (D-Golden) Toss Up: Messing with lobstah in Maine can really ... pinch. It all came to a ... boil ... when Republican Bruce Poliquin hit Democratic incumbent Jared Golden during a debate for not returning a campaign donation from the head of a group that warned against buying Maine lobsters because of their supposed danger to whales. Golden says the money will go toward the defense of Maine's fishing industry. So it goes in politics Down East. The matchup between Golden and Poliquin is now being run for a third straight time. Golden is a rare species — not crustacean, but a Democrat in a district Trump won twice.

NH-1 (D-Pappas) Toss Up: Incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas is facing Karoline Leavitt (R), a conservative Gen Z candidate who served in the Trump administration. Pappas leads Leavitt in fundraising, but the two remain neck and neck. During the primary, establishment Republicans supported Leavitt's opponent, but since her win, Republican House leaders have donated to her campaign.

PA-7 (D-Wild) Toss Up: Incumbent Susan Wild (D) is in a rematch with Lisa Scheller (R). This district has shifted redder with 2020 redistricting, so Scheller is hoping the second time is the charm. Wild has focused on health care, childcare, Scheller's record on abortion and has attacked her for outsourcing jobs as a businesswoman. Scheller has focused on Democratic spending and wants to "open up Pennsylvania's energy resources." Scheller has avoided commenting on whether she supports controversial GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano.

PA-17 (D-Open) Toss Up: Democrat Chris Deluzio and Jeremy Shaffer (R) are in a tight race for this seat vacated by incumbent Democrat Rep. Conor Lamb. The race is seen as a barometer for working-class voters. Deluzio, a moderate Democrat, has made bipartisanship a centerpiece of his campaign. This race has drawn lots of attention from outside groups, who have spent $12 million in this suburban Pittsburgh district that would have gone for Biden 6 points after redistricting. So it's one Democrats, in theory, should hold onto. If they don't, it could be a long night for the party in power.

RI-2 (D-Open) Toss Up: This should have been a seat Democrats have no problem holding onto. Redistricting made it even more Democratic. (Biden would have won it by 14 points.) But that's not how it's worked out, and Republican Allen Fung is threatening to bring a Republican back to New England and the first from Rhode Island in nearly three decades. Democrat Seth Magaziner has outraised and outspent Fung, but Fung's a known quantity statewide, as a a two-time (failed) gubernatorial candidate, but a popular former mayor of the state's second-largest city. He's campaigned as a "voice of moderation" in Congress. Fung focused on the economy, while Magaziner has emphasized a need to prevent Republican control of the House.

9 p.m. ET

CO-08 (R-Newly created) Toss Up: This district stretches north of Denver along I-25 up toward Fort Collins in a quickly growing — and heavily Latino — area. Biden would have won with just 51% of the vote. The two issues dominating in this campaign are abortion rights and energy. The Democrat in the race is state Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician. Her opponent, state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, is focusing on inflation, the budget, energy jobs and trying to paint painting Caraveo as aligned with progressive Democrats.

IA-3 (D-Axne) Lean Republican: Both parties see this district as key to control of the House this November. Democrat Cindy Axne is defending this seat against Republican state Sen. Zach Nunn. Axne was swept in with the 2018 Democratic wave, and her losing in a 2022 GOP wave would be symbolic. She has tried to tout times when she's worked across the aisle, and Nunn has tried to highlight his military service. But the controversies and allegations in this race have taken center stage — from spying with a baby monitor, Chinese-owned company donations, allegations of insider trading, proxy voting on vacationand painting the other as extremeon abortion with both candidates exaggerating the other's position. The mud is flying far and fast, as both candidates hope enough sticks in this evenly split district.

MI-3 (R-Open) Lean Democrat: Republican Rep. Peter Meijer voted for Trump's impeachment and was ousted in the primary by Trump-backed John Gibbs, who has cast doubton the 2020 election result. Gibbs is much farther right than Meijer, pushing Trump's election lies, having said some very controversial things about women and spreading conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton. Democrats spent money in the primary saying Gibbs was "too conservative" for the district, which had the intended effect of helping him win the primary and giving Democrats a better shot in a general election. And they do. The district became more Democratic after redistricting, so if Democrat Hillary Scholten, who worked in the Obama Justice Department, doesn't win, it will likely signal a big night for Republicans — and there will be lots of finger-pointing.

MI-7 (D-Newly created) Toss Up: This newly drawn district is about as evenly divided as it gets. It features Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin against Republican state Sen. Tom Barrett. Inflation and jobs are key issues in this swing district. Barrett has had tough time defending his votes against tax incentives for auto companies to build new factories, as well as his position on abortion. Republicans have tried to tag Slotkin as a tax-and-spend Democrat in their ads, and the race has gotten in the mud with Barrett accusing Slotkin of "living with a lobbyist," when Slotkin — and her husband — have been renting from the person.

MI-10 (Newly Created) Likely Republican: After redistricting, this is a newly formed district that would have gone for Trump by only a point. But John James is favored here. The margin could be indicative of where control of the House is headed or how big the wave becomes.

NE-2 (R-Bacon) Toss Up: Republican Rep. Don Bacon is seeking a fourth term, after winning his last election by 4 points despite his district swinging for Biden. State Sen. Tony Vargas (D) has leaned into abortion and lowering prescription drug and medical care costs.

11 p.m. ET

CA-22 (R-Valadao) Toss Up: Democrats have been targeting this heavily Latino district for years, and it's one of their top targets again this year. David Valadao's seat became even more tilted toward Democrats after redistricting, going from one Biden won by 9 points in 2020 to one he would have won by 13. Valadao is stressing his crossover appeal and Democrats' candidate, state Rep. Rudy Salas, is hardly campaigning on far-left causes in this Central Valley district. He touts both helping get overtime for farmworkers and raising the minimum wage, but also being the only Democratin the state Assembly to vote against a gas tax increase.

CA-45 (R-Steel) Lean Republican: This is the kind of district Republicans likely need to hold to take a fairly sizable majority in the House. Biden won this mostly Asian American district narrowly with 52% of the vote, yet Michelle Steel is favored. The latest controversy here erupted with Steel, who is Korean American, sending mailers into a heavily Vietnamese neighborhood, accusing her opponent Jay Chen, who is Taiwanese American, of being a Communist sympathizer. It's not the first spat over identity — earlier in the campaign, Steel took offense to comments Chen made about Steel's accent.

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Katherine Swartz
Katherine Swartz is the Washington Desk and NPR Politics Podcast intern.