Published in The Moderate Voice on October 1
Today is October 1. That means that we can officially say that the long-awaited and truly consequential 2018 midterms elections are one month away. And for anxious and morose Republicans in the House, it is increasingly a case of round and round and round she goes, where the doom ends, no one knows. In race after race, polls show the Grand Old Party with little to be excited about as it’s hard to find Republicans who think the party can hold onto control. The question at this point is how many seats they will lose beyond the 23 necessary to give Democrats the majority. A growing number of people are preparing for a horror show and anticipate the party hemorrhaging to the point that the loss of seats could even be in the neighborhood of 40, perhaps even as high as 50.
While the winners and losers cannot be determined until all of the votes are counted and at least some inevitable recounts have concluded, there are a few trends that are developing that are somewhat different than what might have been expected. One wouldn’t think that a cycle could be more any less counter-intuitive than 2016 but, if polls are to be believed, a number of Republican incumbents in Latino friendly areas that Hillary Clinton carried is where Democrats naturally expected the most obvious gains. But right now, incumbents such as Will Hurd of Texas, Carlos Curbelo of Florida and David Valadao of California appear to be weathering the storm and John Katko of New York is viewed as at least one-step ahead of his Democratic rival. In addition, the open Miami area seat left open by retiring Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which was thought to be a slam-dunk takeover, now appears to be trending toward a tossup, though that has to do with the fact that the Democratic standard bearer, Donna Shalala, is running the kind of race that makes some think she is trying to tra-la-la her way into Congress.
Conversely, growing, suburban districts that were either drawn to be Republican friendly or outright GOP vote sinks seem to be beyond the level of simply flirting with sending a Democrat to Congress; they seem on the verge of entering into a marital arrangement, if not an outright commitment. This is the case in a plethora of races in almost every category – open seats, seats with junior incumbents and even those with very senior incumbents who hold very powerful positions in the House.
Consider this. It is no surprise that California’s 49th District, Arizona’s Second Districts and Pennsylvania’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Districts seem to be turning into gimmes for Democrats – the incumbents there are not seeking re-election and the seats themselves have been increasingly competitive throughout the decade. Similarly, incumbents Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Mike Coffman of Colorado, Jason Lewis and Eric Paulsen of Minnesota and Kevin Yoder of Kansas are considered to be badly behind in their re-election bids in districts that are genuinely mixed politically (and Clinton carried every one of them except for Lewis’s which she lost by a razor-tight margin). But the true nature of a probable wave-year comes from the fact that these are districts Democrats either only made half-hearted plays for previously, or left off the table entirely. In other words, seats that shouldn’t even be in play.
Incumbents such as Tom MacArthur and Leonard Lance of New Jersey, Mimi Walters of California, Mike Bishop of Michigan and the neighboring open Michigan’s Eleventh Congressional District are now seen at least nominally headed in the Democratic direction. Dave Wasserman of <em>The Cook Political Report</em> recently tweeted how Republicans created their own conundrum for the latter two: “The truth is that Michigan Rs got too greedy in 2011 when they drew two R-leaning Oakland Co. seats instead of one secure one. Now, the gerrymander is backfiring and they’re poised to lose both.” But of course this possibility wouldn’t be on the table had the environment not been so toxic.
To show how bad the climate has disintegrated for Republicans, Peter Roskam of Illinois is suffering from the opposite result of the effects of gerrymandering. He is also viewed as a slight underdog in his re-election bid but the funny thing about his suburban Chicago seat – Illinois Sixth Congressional District, was that a number of GOP areas were carved out of neighboring districts following the 2012 remap and placed into this one to make districts around it safely Democratic. That succeeded. If Sean Casten knocks off Roskam, now the party will get a bonus (another suburban Chicago district drawn to take in red areas, the 14th District held by Randy Hultgren, is also viewed as a possible switch).
Other suburban incumbents in formerly “safe” districts. Rob Woodall of Georgia, David Brat of Virginia and George Holding and Ted Budd in North Carolina are at or near the tossup level. Another district in the Tarheel State, an seat in suburban Charlotte left open by the defeat of incumbent Robert Pittenger, seems to be trending toward the Democrats. Though mid-decade redrawings of districts tool the shape of some, none of those seats were designed to be remotely competitive. Example: John McCain took 54% in Budd’s district while Romney won it with 56%.
The Republican horror show in suburbia appears to be extending to the reddest states. In Texas, Pete Sessions (Dallas) and John Culberson (Houston) are tied in the polls while John Carter (whose Round Rock home in the fast growing Austin suburbs) narrowly leads MJ Hegar but the challenger has boatloads of cash and the race is thought to be closing fast. Another suburban Houstonite’s race, the 22nd District where Republican Pete Olson is seeking re-election, has moved onto the board as have two open seats – the 2nd District and the 21st, near Houston and San Antonio respectively(the competitive nature is enhanced by major growth and the 22nd’s population has increased more than any other – 199,000 people, since 2010). Republicans are favored to hold all three but the idea that one loss might come as a shock is quickly evaporating. In another deep-red state, Mia Love is deadlocked in a carefully gerrymandered Salt Lake City, Utah district that has had rapid growth while Andy Barr is in the same predicament in Lexington, Kentucky, an improvement of sorts given that he was on the verge of being left for dead this summer.
The suburban sprawl has also hit Iowa, a state that swung from Obama to Trump by a bigger margin of any state. But Rod Blum in Eastern Iowa is considered a dead-man walking and has been triaged by top Republican groups while Des Moines’s David Young, while not performing that poorly, has a serious situation on his hands and is running slightly behind.
Other suburban longtime Republican strongholds that are down-to-the-wire: California’s Twenty Fifth District, which since its creation in 1992 has always been solidly Republican, Washington’s Eighth District which has never sent a Democrat to the other Washington, and California-48, though Orange County’s Dana Rohrabacher is facing the race of his 30-year political life not just because of the climate, but because his bizarre affinity for Vladimir Putin is no doubt a bigger hindrance than his arch-conservatism in a longtime GOP stronghold Clinton carried.
Other districts in Washington State are getting in on the festivities also. After a weaker than expected showing in an all-party primary in August, Democrats have realistic hopes of knocking off Jaime Herrera-Beutler in a Western Washington district designed to thwart , though not necessarily insulate her from a tough challenge. Across the state and in slightly better shape, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth ranking Republican, is slightly favored for survival but will need every tool at her disposal to do so.
One race that is being left off the list of those most competitive is Ohio-14 which is located North of Cleveland. Incumbent David Joyce has tried to come across as a knee-jerk moderate but, I could see his rival, little known attorney Betsy Rader, as being the next Carol Shea-Porter, who in 2006 upset a seemingly secure New Hampshire Congressman after receiving scant help from the party.
Even in wave-years, there’s always a survivor or two and at this point, the suburban survivor for the GOP may be Steve Chabot of Ohio. Democrats were optimistic that Aftab Pureval could unseat him but, in a case of deja vu, the last round of redistricting was designed to shore him up, just like the last decade. Chabot survived the 2006 wave when many didn’t expect he would but fell two years later in a Presidential year (overzealous mapmakers gave Chabot blood red Warren County following redistricting and that area saved Jean Schmidt in her two razor tight elections in the middle of the last decade). Another race in Orange County, once considered the bastion of Republicanism – California-39, seems to be trending in the Republicans direction, but only after the Democratic candidate was hit with sexual harassment allegations. The rumors have largely been defunct but it remains to be seen whether Cisneros can recover from be pounded over the airwaves by his opponent, Young Kim (the district also has a large Asian-American population which Kim may be benefiting from). Republicans are hoping for another break in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bucks County to be exact, where first term incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick is facing a Democrat seen as having some deficiencies as a candidate. But his race is still a tossup.
Republicans also dodged a big bullet in Omaha, Nebraska as former Democratic Congressman Brad Ashford, a moderate seeking to reclaim the seat he narrowly lost to Don Bacon in 2016, was upset for the nomination by Kara Eastman, whom many view as lacking the centrist credentials to win the seat (and which polls see to be bearing out).
One view is that Hurd, Curbelo, and a handful of others, have been vocally working to distance themselves from the Trump administration. But they are no doubt helped by low turnout and voter enthusiasm from Latino voters and that hinders Democrats significantly. On the other side, suburban Republicans might have initially thought the nature of their districts and previous strength would be enough to carry them. But as they are learning, the Trump brands deterioration and their own survivals are not mutually exclusive.
How much Democrats run up the score will depend on how they do in districts that might have a few population concentrations but are not considered extension of cities. These are seats like Colorado-3 (Scott Tipton), Illinois-12 (Mike Bost), Illinois-13 (Rodney Davis), Kansas-2, which is being vacated by Republican Lynn Jenkins and where, for the moment at least, they are leading, New Mexico-2 (Steve Pearce is running for governor), New York-19 (John Faso), New York-22 (Claudia Tenney), and Pennsylvania-16 (Mike Kelly). And of course with waves, even strategists can’t predict what driftwood will wash ashore. And in a climate when the term, “tossup” might be overused, the Modesto Valley California-10 might epitomize what I call a “tossup and then some.” Jeff Denham is seeking re-election in a low-turnout seat Clinton carried but challenger Josh Harder reported $3 million on hand.
Finally, Democrats do have two trouble spots of their own and they are both in rural Minnesota. They might take a loss in the Duluth-centered North Country while a Rochester-Mankato seat they are defending is too close to call.
We shall see, we shall see!