(USA TODAY) - They are an endangered species in Congress and this is hunting season: A handful of Republicans holding House seats in districts that President Obama won in 2012, and Democrats representing districts that Mitt Romney won, are top targets for both political parties.
Crossover congressional districts are at a 90-year low and set to dwindle further in November, a sign of increased partisanship among voters and an indication of bleak prospects for a Democratic return to the House majority this decade.
There are currently 26 crossover seats in Congress, from Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, whose Florida district supported Mitt Romney in 2012 by four percentage points to Republican Rep. David Valadao, whose California district went for President Obama by more than 11. Republicans hold 17 seats in Democratic districts; there are nine Democrats in GOP districts.
The small herd of crossovers is likely to be further thinned by the retirements of two Democrats from heavily Republican districts: North Carolina's Mike McIntyre and Jim Matheson from Utah, the state's lone Democrat in Congress.
"It's become very hard for members to hang on to turf that belongs to the other party,'' says Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert from University of California San Diego. "Voters are now much less willing to vote for someone of the other party, no matter what.''
For this year's congressional election, crossover districts represent the most obvious targets to wrest seats away from the opposition. Republicans have been running ads for months against Romney-district Democrats as part of the party's "Red Zone,'' program. Democrats have a "Red to Blue" program targeting Republican seats in Obama-won districts. Both parties try to portray the other party's incumbents as dangerously ideological.
"This election is going to be a referendum on whose side are you on,'' says Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Crossover district voters are moderates, he says. "Which means you reject the Republican shutdown of the federal government, you reject their obsessive attempts to repeal rather than improve the Affordable Care Act, and you reject their constant undermining of women's health care.''
In turn, Republicans will "expose" Democrats in Romney-won districts, says Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They will talk against their party at home but maybe not fully vote against their party here. In most cases they've supported some initiatives that their voters probably don't know about that don't sit well.''
For instance, the GOP has charged Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., with supporting a carbon tax, an unpopular idea in coal-rich West Virginia, because he voted for a budget resolution that included carbon tax revenue. Voters "think Nick's a great old guy, he's been there forever,'' Walden says. "Well, they didn't know that.'' Rahall has said he does not favor a carbon tax.
Some crossover members, such as Republicans Peter King of New York and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, are considered to have safe seats. But the race for open seats will be particularly intense. The surprise retirement of two-term Republican Jon Runyan, a former NFL player, has created an opening in New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District, which voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
Democrat Aimee Belgard, a first-term county freeholder, has been supported by EMILY's List and is on the Democrat's "Red to Blue'' list, but she has been outraised by at least one of the Republican candidates, businessman Tom MacArthur, who brings a personal fortune to the race - helpful when candidates will have to buy ads in the expensive Philadelphia and New York TV markets.
A further twist: MacArthur is in a primary with Steve Lonegan, the Libertarian who can tap a Tea Party network for funds and has name recognition from his unsuccessful Senate race against Democrat Cory Booker. A GOP primary helps Belgard.
"If you have a divided Republican field there is a very good chance they will bloody each other up,'' says Brigid Harrison, political scientist from Montclair State University.
The art of hanging on to a crossover seat involves a heavy emphasis on constituent service and coming home frequently.
"Run like a mayor,'' Israel says. "If you're campaigning and somebody complains about a pothole and you give them your position on the federal highway budget, you're going to lose. Get a shovel, find some asphalt and fix the pothole. Run as a problem solver.''
Tend to basics, Walden says. "Are you going home? Are you doing your tele-town halls? Are you answering your mail? Are you helping your constituents?''
In New Jersey's 2nd District, which Obama won by more than eight percentage points, GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo has succeeded in staying in his job partly by forming strong relationships with Atlantic City unions, which typically back Democrats. "They become so entrenched and they build up relationships,'' says Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "These guys are pretty talented politicians.''
The one thing that could increase the number of crossover districts is a presidential landslide, which would flip many districts' party orientation but not necessarily sweep out members of Congress.
Otherwise, as Walden says, "It just is what it is. The districts have been drawn, they're going to be there for the next eight years and away we go.'' Democrats' next shot to widen their number of friendly districts through redistricting won't come until after the 2020 presidential election.