The winner of the Kentucky Derby, and for a time the front-runner in last weekend’s Preakness, was a horse named Always Dreaming. That name might also be appropriate for Democrats who will be making a play for a number of fertilely Republican Congressional seats next year. It’s not that victory will be elusive – in fact, the climate Republicans find themselves in suggest a wave is developing significantly against them. And every wave sees senior incumbents lose in districts that have not been considered “in-play” for some time.
This year, however, many districts Democrats are targeting for the first time have something in common.They are areas that are educated, more affluent than not and, while geographically disperse, have one thing in common. They were all drawn to have a distinct Republican lean but voted – or came notably close to opting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump last November. But they haven’t chosen a Democrat to represent them in Congress since the age of the dinosaurs. A bevy of Democrats are hoping to change that.
The Republicans in these areas are usually not hard-core, socially conservative people. They are more like stainless steel conservatives whose core concerns are business related rather than cultural. That, more than anything else, explains the shift away from Donald Trump’s brand of politics. The special election next month in a Georgia district similar to the others would bolster the odds of challengers unseating some of the below incumbents though with the important caveat that cannot be repeated often enough: that with 18 months remaining until the November 2018 ballots are cast, anything can happen. That said, they are still long-shots for turnovers at this point. Still, 2018 will be the Democrats best shot in decades for changing that so, let’s give them a looksee.
In Houston, the district John Culberson has represented since 2000 is a descendant of the one that sent George H.W. Bush to Congress in 1966 – land that in the 1980s was the most GOP district in the nation. Mitt Romney carried it with an astounding 60%. But last year, Clinton eked out a victory and Culberson was held to 56%. Nine candidates are eyeing the seat but James Cargas, an ex-Clinton aide seems to have a nominal edge, if only because he sought the set last year and grabbed 44% – higher than any of the previous challengers Culberson faced. Alex Triantaphyllis, director of immigration and economic opportunity a local community development nonprofit and Dr. Jason Westin, a cancer research doctor, are also seen as credible candidates. A donnybrook such as this will likely got to a runoff.
In North Dallas, Pete Sessions’ already fairly safe GOP turf was made even more Republican to insulate it from heavy Latino growth. It was successful for a time but Clinton carried the district by 3% and Sessions has been under fire for shepherding the ACA Repeal to passage by virtue of his perch as House Rules Committee Chair. A number of Democrats are in the process of declaring for the seat but the national party is clearly enamored with Colin Allred. Democrats in the past have been hurt by low turnout, particularly among Latinos and they will have to change that to have any hope of beating the entrenched Sessions. But Allred, if he does become the nominee, has name recognition and the activist wing of the party is on defense. So this is certainly one to watch.
In central Jersey, Leonard Lance voted against the ACA repeal on the House floor but he did back it in committee and has taken heat for voting to prohibit Planned Parenthood funding. And unlike other parts of the country, this Union/Somerset district, which already has some strong Democratic pockets, has been trending Democratic at the local level (Democrat Andrew Zwicker wrested an Assembly seat from an incumbent two years ago). Like many of the other districts ,a cacophonous yet perhaps incomplete field appears to be developing among Democrats. Peter Jacob, Lance’s opponent from last year, is running. But Lisa Mandelblatt, an ex-criminal defense attorney attorney and community activist, appears to be generating the most excitement. This district, where Romney received 53%, may be the embodiment of whether ancestrally GOP voters who have ditched that label for now at the top of the ticket, are willing to do so down-ballot as well.
Further North, the Frelinghuysen name in New Jersey-11 has long been golden. This district, which also gave Romney 53%, stuck with Trump, but only barely. Frelinghuysen opted to back the recent ACA repeal after coming out against the first version just before passage, which angered both sides. Beating him will not be easy, if only because of is longevity and the fact that he has just secured the gavel of the Appropriations Committee. But Frelinghuysen recently came under fire for a fundraising letter to a board member of a local bank in which he included a handwritten note informing him that a bank employee was a member of an anti-Trump organization (the woman subsequently resigned her position). Democrats hope to lure Assemblyman John McKeon into the race and he plans to decide after the legislative elections this fall. If he passes, the party will likely look to attorney and Navy veteran Mike Sherrill. Whatever the case, Frelinghuysen knows he’ll be facing his first competitive general election ever – and is not guaranteed to win.
Now, lets go west. Before last year, Orange County, California hadn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1936 and 300,000 vote margins for GOP candidates was not out of the question. Ed Royce won his seat in 1992 and even with the changing dynamics, has never had to sweat re-election. But the caliber of his challengers have been increasing and Clinton carried the 39th 52-43% from Romney’s 51-47%. Royce has always enjoyed substantial backing from within the Asian-American community but the climate may put that to the test. The Democrat eyeing his seat, Mai-Khant Tran who was brought to America as a migrant. It’s not unlike the story of Florida Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, who won her seat last year.
The terrain Mimi Walters had one of the most dramatic partisan swings in the nation. It went from a 55-43% Romney margin to a 50-44% Clinton. This is Coastal California (Huntington Beach,Newport Beach and Laguna Beach) which the Almanac of American Politics notes was ground zero for the Beach Boys in the 1960s. Walters is only in her second term but served in the California Legislature for a decade. Two law professors, Katie Porter and Dave Min lead the field among the Democrats and have strong political connections in Washington D.C. – Porter has the backing of Elizabeth Warren while Min once worked for Chuck Schumer. It’s been surmised that candidates with ties to Warren or Schumer might face strong undercurrents in this coastal district and it certainly is a handicap. But whoever turns out to be the nominee will have to be well-versed in local issues and make the case against Walters. The incumbent meanwhile will have to make the case as to why she is an asset despite an unpopular president, which may be hard, particularly since she has not been holding town meetings. This is a classic case of how much the climate changes over the next 18 months – and how Walters handles it, may impact whether she stays or goes. If she does go, California-45 will be in all probability the seat that puts Democrats over the top in the House.
Finally, Steve Chabot’s Cincinati based district trended a bit toward Trump. Some Democrats are hoping State Representative Commie Pillich, who is seeking the Governorship in a crowded field, will give up her statewide ambitions and drop down to this race but unless she decides to do that soon, she’d likely be out of luck as other candidates are getting established. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune appears to be the favorite. The 2012 redistricting supposedly shored Chabot up but that had supposedly been the case after the ’02 remap. and Chabot was actually unseated for a term by Democrat Steve Driehaus (he regained his seat by beating Driehaus in ’10). Incidentally, some Democrats see Driehaus as a probable candidate but he has just returned from Africa and at this point, appears to have little interest.
Races to take on suburban Philadelphia Congressmen Glen Costello and Pat Meehan are also taking shape. Those districts voted hard for Obama in 2008, very narrowly for Romney in ’12 but for Clinton by the narrowest of margins last time. Both Congressmen opposed the health care measure but Democrats hope to use the tide of general discontent to show them the door.
In closing, there’s no guarantee that even one of these challengers will have a seat in Congress.But if even a handful make it, we can always call it the”Always Dreaming Class.”