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Sept. 28 (Bloomberg View) — There is a forgotten contest in this year’s U.S. midterm elections. Actually, there are 435 of them: the races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In most midterms, House elections are the barometer that measures the state of public opinion and offer a possible roadmap to the political landscape. This year, the focus is on control of the Senate and a few big gubernatorial races.

Thanks to shifting population patterns and redistricting, the Republicans start with an advantage. In 2012, Democrats received in excess of a million more votes for House candidates, but Republicans won more seats, 234 to 201. This year, only 10 percent of the districts are in play, and the incumbent-friendly campaign-financing system means that less than 5 percent of challengers will win.

Nevertheless, though they lack the dramatic narrative of the battle for the Senate majority or for the governors’ mansions in Florida or Michigan, the House elections matter, both in terms of the overall outcome and in some interesting particulars.

There are competitive House races from New Hampshire to Iowa to Arizona, but many of the closest ones are in the Democratic strongholds — California, New York and Illinois. The good news for Republicans is that a majority of these are held by Democrats, who are fighting to retain them. A bipartisan redistricting commission in California has successfully created more competitive districts.

As a result, almost no one expects the Democrats to reduce the current Republican majority, and Republican optimists see their party adding as many as 20 seats.

“It will be a victory for Democrats if they hold their losses under five,” says David Wasserman, the House expert for the Cook Political Report.

If the Democrats minimize their House losses and keep the Senate, it may make Republicans a little less confrontational, and give the House minority a shot at taking over in 2016, a presidential year. That is, if the Democrats field stronger candidates in places such as the Philadelphia suburbs or a central Wisconsin district, where state senator Glenn Grothman, the Republican candidate and probable successor of the moderate Representative Tom Petri, is described by Wasserman as “Wisconsin’s answer to Michele Bachmann.”

Conversely, Republicans will be emboldened if the party scores big gains, and it will be harder for Democrats to recruit candidates if a majority seems out of reach.

Even if the overall results aren’t a harbinger, a few individual races may offer clues. One of the most telling will be the expensive contest in the Denver suburbs — which are the battleground to winning Colorado statewide — between incumbent Republican Mike Coffman and an aggressive Democratic challenger, Andrew Romanoff.

And a handful of newcomers will be big-time political players if they win. On the Republican side, there is Barbara Comstock, a conservative activist and top congressional staffer who is running in a northern Virginia district. In upstate New York, there is Elise Sefanik, a former domestic policy advisor in the George W. Bush White House and a favorite of the Karl Rove contingent. A potential Democratic star is Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Florida governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham, who is running in that state’s panhandle.

Congress may be more unpopular than toxic dumpsites but even some of the most controversial candidates may escape a throw-the-bums-out mindset. For example, Republican Representative Michael Grimm, who represents New York’s Staten Island and is under indictment, may win re-election. As could Florida Democrat Joe Garcia, whose 2010 campaign is being investigated by federal prosecutors for voter fraud.

Then there’s Tennessee’s Scott DesJarlais, a physician who won office in 2010 as a social conservative. Court documents in his 2001 divorce proceedings that came to light last year revealed that he supported his wife’s decision to get two abortions before they were married and had sexual relationships with at least two patients, three co-workers and a drug representative . He won a primary this year and is expected to cruise to re-election Nov. 4.

Such candidates recall the insight of Louisiana’s scandal-prone former governor Edwin Edwards, who once said that the only way he would lose an election was if he was “caught in bed with a dead girl or live boy.”

Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

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