Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.
Democrats will have to face a choice in next year’s midterms: How should they handle the voters who voted twice for Barack Obama before flipping to Donald Trump? On one hand, their choice seems inexplicable to dyed-in-the-wool liberals; on the other, if they backed Obama they surely shouldn’t be abandoned.
How to appeal to these voters is a big question in all of the below districts, which have gone Obama–Obama–Trump. I know that some of that shifts is due to people leaving the electorate, but if you look at some of the spreads in these largely blue-collar areas you can’t help but determine there are people who’ll vote for certain Democrats—just obviously not Hillary Clinton.
Maine’s Second Congressional District (Northern Maine)
2016: Clinton 41–Trump 51
2012: Obama 53–Romney 44
2008: Obama 55–McCain 43
We start with Maine’s Second Congressional District because man, if you don’t think there are people who voted for Obama twice then Trump, then explain those spreads to me (and turnout was actually slightly up in 2016). The district is white working-class to the core, but Trump was the first Republican to carry it since George H.W. Bush. For a long time the area was represented by Democrat Mike Michaud, a gay former millworker who never attended college. But when Michaud stepped down to run for governor, Republican Bruce Poliquin won his seat.
The Democrats’ previous candidate against Poliquin was a college professor who grew up in New Jersey, and she didn’t win more than 45 percent in two tries. So now they’re running Jared Golden, a Marine turned state representative who grew up in a dairy farming town outside Augusta. If you watch Golden’s video you’ll see Poliquin try to escape a constituent questioning him on his healthcare vote through a nursing home patio door. So Republicans are already running scared in these Obama-Trump areas, literally. And Poliquin’s approval is 42-50, actually worse than Trump’s 46-49 in the district.
However, Golden may not be the nominee. Lucas St. Clair isn’t the name of a soap opera villain; he’s a rich guy who lives in Portland but is moving here to run for the seat. He’s best known in the district for being the son of the Burt’s Bees founders and leading the movement to create a national park in the area. To be fair, St. Clair showed some political skill in working with hunters and snowmobilers on the project, but it’s hard to argue he’d be a stronger candidate than Golden.
New York’s 21st Congressional District (North Country)
2016: Clinton 40–Trump 54
2012: Obama 52–Romney 46
2008: Obama 52–McCain 47
Representative Elise Stefanik worked in the Bush Jr. Administration before she was elected to Congress; proof that she never should have been trusted with any further public service. But she still represents the most rural seat in New York (which has historically been controlled by Republicans, though it was held by a Democrat from 2009 to 2015), taking in almost all of the state from the Erie Canal north to the Canadian border, and has won her first two elections in blowouts (thanks to some help from a Green Party candidate who isn’t running again).
In 2018 her most touted opponent is former St. Lawrence County Legislator Tedra Cobb, who has also worked to provide home heating oil to low-income people in the area—a huge deal in rural northern areas like this. Contrast that with someone who worked for the geniuses behind the Katrina response and voted to take away residents’ health care, and you have an obvious—if not exactly guaranteed—path to victory. Cobb has banked nearly $130,000 so far, a decent sum in a cheap area, but she’s been out-raised by attorney Don Boyajian, who just moved to one of the district’s rural towns from the Albany area (To be fair, Stefanik was also a recent transplant when she first ran here.) Cobb certainly has a better profile for Democrats, but Boyajian might be able to do a better job of keeping up with Stefanik, who’s sitting on $900,000.
New York’s 19th Congressional District (Hudson River Valley)
2016: Clinton 44–Trump 51
2012: Obama 52–Romney 46
2008: Obama 53–McCain 45
The 19th is a mishmash of liberal Hudson River Valley towns and Republican outlying areas. Much of the area was represented by now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand while she was in the House, but she had to be far more moderate than she is now to win here. Moderate (by today’s standards) Republican Representative Chris Gibson represented the seat after it was created in the 2012 round of redistricting until his retirement last year, when John Faso took over.
Faso won against a weak carpetbagger from New York City (Zephyr Teachout) last year, but he hasn’t been able to scare off Democrats in 2018. Faso got a lot of traction painting Teachout as an outsider, which is why it’s alarming that none of Democrats’ top four fundraisers (Brian Flynn, Pat Ryan, Antonio Delgado, and Gareth Rhodes) were domiciled here in 2016. All have better ties to the district than Teachout though, with the exception of Delgado. Attorney Dave Clegg and teacher Jeff Beals have better claims to being local, but they’ll need to get their fundraising numbers up to keep pace with the top tier. Democrats should be particularly wary of Rhodes as he’s been an aide to Andrew Cuomo, one of America’s most worthless Democrats. But there’s still plenty of time for voters to figure out which candidate would actually be the strongest.
New York’s First Congressional District (Eastern Long Island)
2016: Clinton 42–Trump 54
2012: Obama 50–Romney 49
2008: Obama 51–McCain 48
Most New Yorkers associate the eastern end of Long Island with the upscale Hamptons vacation community, where a lot of city dwellers have second homes. But the majority of voters here live in the more conservative (though still swingy) New York exurbs. And those other parts of the district are understandably wary of the Hamptons—culturally the resort are is more aligned to New York City than Long Island. Southampton native Tim Bishop held this seat for Democrats from 2002 to 2014, but his family had lived in the area for centuries, so he could claim townie status.
Last year’s Democratic nominee, Anna Throne-Holst, lost to Lee Zeldin not much worse than Clinton’s 55–40 defeat. Throne-Holst is a Swedish immigrant who had moved to the Hamptons 20 years ago as a teenager and was a poor cultural fit for the remainder of the district. But Zeldin, a Newsmax regular, certainly hasn’t shown any inclination to tack to the middle, so a stronger Democrat could take him down.
Democrats’ best chance at taking him out may also be an immigrant, though one with a far different backstory than Throne-Holst. Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning left Northern Ireland during the Troubles and eventually moved to a blue-collar part of Brookhaven with her NYPD officer husband. She then worked her way up through the school bus drivers’ union and New York’s labor-dominated Working Families Party.
But she won’t have the primary to herself. Manhattan rich guy Perry Gershon thinks a house in the Hamptons makes him a native and has used his finance connections to raise a ton of money. But Browning’s blue-collar bona fides make her the ideal candidate in an area that swung hard from Obama to Trump, and the party should be wary of nominating anyone like Gershon, who likely doesn’t know the parts of the district that aren’t on the Hampton Jitney.
New York’s Second Congressional District (South Shore)
2016: Clinton 44–Trump 53
2012: Obama 52–Romney 47
2008: Obama 51–McCain 48
Peter King survived the 2006 and 2008 waves and was for a time one of only two Republicans in the New York congressional delegation. So he’s not an easy out. Long Island knows what it likes, and that’s angry Irish guys with massive heads.
But there’s a chance King will retire, and if he does, he’ll probably wait until after the filing deadline. There are a lot of ambitious Republican politicians in his district, and he’ll likely want to make sure that his daughter will be his replacement. A contested primary could put that plan at risk, so he may want the state party to decide the nominee instead of his voters (a special election or resignation before the primary would put the decision in their hands).
So Democrats will need to keep their heads on a collective swivel here and make sure they have a nominee capable of winning, which they might have in lighting company CEO Tim Gomes. He’s wealthy enough to seed his campaign $1 million (a boon for the already overextended DCCC), but he had a nasty habit of being a registered Republican for the last nine years (he says he voted for Obama both times). So he’ll have to convince the primary electorate that he’s a good soldier or they could turn to UN staffer Liuba Grechen Shirley instead. Also, wealthy candidates frequently loan themselves large sums to try and scare away other challengers without actually spending the money, so we’ll see if Gomes is actually do what’s necessary to take down King (who’s sitting on more than $2.7 million).
New Jersey’s Third Congressional District (South Jersey)
2016: Clinton 45–Trump 51
2012: Obama 52–Romney 47
2008: Obama 51–McCain 48
The Third District is based in two counties: Burlington and Ocean. Burlington (where more than half of the voters live) is based in the Philadelphia suburbs and is trending Democratic: Clinton won this side of the district 55-38. Ocean County is a refuge for people who leave New York City because it’s too liberal (cops and Hasidic Jews), and that side voted for Trump 65-32.
The current representative is Republican Tom MacArthur. If his name sounds familiar it’s because he was the “moderate” congressman who gave Paul Ryan a key vote that helped pass the American Health Care Act. That immediately put him in Democratic crosshairs and the party has coalesced around Andy Kim, a former Obama national security aide, as its standard-bearer. Both national parties realize the race will be competitive and will pour plenty of resources into it, but MacArthur can count on his sizable personal wealth.
New Jersey’s Second Congressional District (South Jersey)
2016: Clinton 46–Trump 51
2012: Obama 54–Romney 45
2008: Obama 53–McCain 46
For years Democrats have assumed that they’d pick up this seat when State Senator Jeff Van Drew finally ran against Representative Frank LoBiondo or when LoBiondo decided to retire. Every cycle since 2006, LoBiondo made noise about retiring, Dems asked Van Drew to run, but neither happened. But LoBiondo retired on November 7 and Van Drew announced his run last week. So the Democrats got their manic pixie dream candidate, just 12 years later than they wanted.
In New Jersey county parties have a big say in who wins the primaries, as the ballots are purposely confusing so that voters are inclined to vote for the county-endorsed candidates. Van Drew will have the backing of the county parties in South Jersey so even though he’s more conservative than the Democratic electorate (he’s opposed some gun control measures and same-sex marriage), he’s the heavy favorite.
Meanwhile the Republican field is still sorting itself out, with former Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian, former Assemblyman Vincent Polistina, and trucking company owner Mike Torrissi all being recruited.
Illinois’s 12th Congressional District (Metro East)
2016: Clinton 40–Trump 55
2012: Obama 50–Romney 48
2008: Obama 55–McCain 44
With a 15-point Trump win, you’d figure Democrats would have written this seat off. But Democrats can still win elections here. To wit, Senator Tammy Duckworth won by a near identical margin to Clinton in Illinois—both were at around 55-40. But Duckworth actually won the 12th as Clinton was getting blown out here (to be fair, Duckworth also lost the Sixth District while Clinton won it, and that seat is a Democratic target too). Like many of the districts on this list, it’s willing to vote for Democrats not named Hillary Clinton.
Democrats’ top recruit, St. Clair County State Attorney and Navy vet Brendan Kelly, was willing to take on Representative Mike Bost. Kelly is known locally for prosecuting some high-profile political corruption cases (in illinois you have many opportunities to do so). Meanwhile Bost has always had a bad temper and still calls Asian people Orientals, so while he may resemble Trump in some regards he’s actually never gotten more than 54 percent of the vote in the 12th. So this is a winnable seat for sure.
Iowa’s First Congressional District (Northeast Iowa)
2016: Clinton 45–Trump 49
2012: Obama 56–Romney 43
2008: Obama 59–McCain 40
When you look at those Obama numbers you realize why the First tops Democrats’ hit list. Representative Rod Blum certainly hasn’t done himself any favors; in a bizarre May interview he tried surrounding himself with children as he refused to answer questions about taking donations from outside the district. While previous iterations of the First have elected Republicans down-ballot while supporting Democratic presidential candidates, Blum isn’t as moderate or genial as those past representatives. And his approval rating in the district (33-51) is actually worse than Trump’s (45-50).
Into the breach has stepped State Representative Abby Finkenauer. She’s racked up some big union and elected official endorsements, becoming the favorite for the nomination over other contenders like former Department of Labor official Thomas Heckroth. National parties have spent heavily on this district in 2014 and 2016, so whoever gets the Democratic nomination next year can expect plenty of help on the airwaves.
Iowa’s Third Congressional District (Des Moines and Southwest Iowa)
2016: Clinton 45–Trump 49
2012: Obama 51–Romney 47
2008: Obama 52–McCain 46
While Finkenauer has separated herself from the pack in the First, the Democratic field in the Third is fluid. And while the two districts voted for Trump by similar margins, the Third has less historic Democratic strength—it includes much of greater Des Moines so it contains its fair share of college-educated Republicans who voted for Clinton but may still back incumbent David Young. However, the district has soured on Trump more quickly than other areas that voted for the president—his approval here is 43-53.
There are half a dozen Democrats running here and nobody has really separated themselves from the pack. The good folks at Iowa Starting Line have a well-done rundown of where the primary race stands. It’s long, so just know that any one of five candidates could win the nomination, though local businesswoman Theresa Greenfield is the favorite right now. Notably, if no candidate gets more than 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee will be chosen at a convention dominated by party activists.
Minnesota’s Secod Congressional District (Southern Minneapolis/St. Paul Suburbs)
2016: Clinton 45–Trump 46
2012: Obama 49–Romney 49
2008: Obama 51–McCain 48
The Second District race in 2016 was like the presidential contest writ small. Republican nominee Jason Lewis was a vulgar local radio host. Democrat Angie Craig was a bland health care exec who didn’t run on much other than opposing Trump. Lewis narrowly won. Remarkably he’s been able to keep his favorability ratings almost even (39-40) as his colleagues in other vulnerable districts are underwater, and his net favorables are better than Trump’s (44-52) in the district.
Craig is running again, and it’s hard to fault her for making another try; without the Comey Letter she might be the incumbent right now. But local high school football coach and history teacher Jeff Erdmann wasn’t impressed with her campaign last year and is now running to her left. High school football coaches make for good candidates (seriously!) because they have built in name recognition and connections, but he’s only got $7,000 in the bank while Craig is independently wealthy and raised $4.8 million her last time around. But whoever does win will be able to count on plenty of outside help in one of Democrats’ top takeover targets; Lewis remains vulgar and still votes with Trump on things like the tax bill and the AHCA.
Next week, we’ll look at seats Clinton won but Obama lost both times.
Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.