Battle for the House: GOP targets Democrats in Trump districts

When Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright woke up on Election Day 2016, he represented a safe blue Pennsylvania district. But by the time he went to sleep that night, Donald Trump had painted Cartwright’s turf red beneath his feet.

Cartwright still won a third term, but Republicans hope to follow up on Trump’s top-of-the-ticket success by targeting Cartwright and 11 other House Democrats in Trump districts in 2018. A well-funded Republican jumped in to oppose Cartwright for the first time, while Cheri Bustos — the only Midwesterner in House Democratic leadership — has also drawn a stronger challenger than last year. Other Trump-district Democrats in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin are also top Republican targets, as are open seats in the Las Vegas suburbs and southern New Hampshire.

Republicans are mostly on defense in the House of Representatives ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, with Democrats looking to erase the GOP’s 24-seat advantage and take back the majority. But Republicans are also confident they can pad their margin by picking off some Democrats in heavily white, blue-collar districts next fall, despite the political winds blowing against them elsewhere in the U.S. — and Democrats are relying on those members to learn the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to avoid 2018 surprises.

“Incumbents realized their districts are more competitive than they thought [after 2016], and that it’s a different world,” said Democratic pollster Jason McGrath. “Nothing gets you to eat your vegetables like a health scare.”

Congressional Leadership Fund, the main Republican super PAC focused on House races, has already named Cartwright, Wisconsin's Ron Kind and Iowa's Dave Loebsack as top 2018 targets. The super PAC has yet to open district offices in Democratic territory, but “at this point, all options are on the table,” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for CLF.

“Let’s see what happens when these Democrats are viciously attacked for the first time in their careers,” said Corry Bliss, CLF’s executive director.

Kind and Loebsack have yet to draw serious GOP opponents. But John Chrin, a self-funding former investment banker, has stepped forward to test that proposition against Cartwright, in a district that was drawn by Republican legislators to be safely Democratic just a few years ago. Chrin said he got into the race because he “cares about the American dream being achievable for everybody in this country,” which he believes is the “common thread” among the Trump coalition that backed the president, “a mosaic of different people” who “felt the American dream was being challenged or threatened.”

Cartwright, who won reelection by 7 points but saw Trump carry his stretch of central and northeastern Pennsylvania by double digits (after voting for Barack Obama twice), says he is on track to hold the seat.

“I think that the real question is: Why did I do well there too? Why did 30,000 Trump voters also vote for Matt Cartwright?” he said. “I think the reason is that I focus on jobs and wages, better jobs and better wages.”

But Democratic operatives say they simply don’t yet know whether the party’s presidential numbers among blue-collar whites in 2016 were a one-year aberration — or a new normal foreshadowing tough sledding with those voters for local candidates next year.

“It’s too early to figure out whether that’s the new normal for Democrats to get in the upper 20s [among less educated white voters] at the statewide level or if it’s a onetime phenomenon that reverts back to getting 36 to 37 percent,” said Jill Normington, a Democratic pollster. “But that’s the fundamental question for the Democrats who represent seats like this.”

Republican Jim Hagedorn believes he’s at the crest of a sea change in southern Minnesota. The businessman challenged Democrat Tim Walz in 2014 and 2016, losing by just a few thousand votes last year in a race that outside observers did not realize was competitive until election night returns started streaming in. Now, Walz is running for governor, opening a district that backed Trump by 15 points.

“The district’s been pretty consistently going this way in the last six to eight years, electing conservatives to the state legislature,” said Hagedorn. “Walz, perhaps, was one of the few types of Democrats — [in] the way he presented himself — who could win and hang on to it.”

Several Democrats are jockeying to replace Walz, but it’s not clear whether any of them will replicate Walz’s position on guns, for example. The congressman touted an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association during his time in Congress.

“This time, the Democrats aren’t going to get the endorsement,” said Hagedorn, who must first also emerge from the endorsement and primary process against state Sen. Carla Nelson. “Once the Democrats lost the advantages of incumbency, it’s going to swing our way.”

Two other Trump-Democratic districts won’t have Democratic incumbents in 2018. New Hampshire's Carol Shea-Porter is retiring, while Nevada's Jacky Rosen is running for Senate. But so far, for both parties and in both perennial battleground districts, the primary fields are largely wide and unsettled.

Farther north in Minnesota, another Republican-leaning seat has evaded the GOP’s efforts by backing Democrat Rick Nolan for the past three terms. Last year, Trump won the district by 16 points, while Nolan squeaked by Republican Stewart Mills by just 2,009 votes.

“He’s not voting the way the vast majority [of the district] would like him to vote,” said Republican Pete Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner running against Nolan. Stauber raised more money than the Democrat last quarter.

Democrats acknowledge that the party was surprised by the depth of antipathy it saw from blue-collar white voters in 2016. But they say those results served as an early wake-up call for the midterm elections. “I think the [Obama-Trump] voters have their attention now,” said Tim Waters, national political director for the United Steelworkers.

“Is it going to be challenging to hold on to these seats? Sure,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of House Majority PAC, Democrats’ flagship House super PAC. “[But] these Democratic incumbents were able to outperform in a cycle where the deck was really stacked against them and yet they still won.”

Nolan, who has also attracted a primary challenger, is downright cheerful about the coming midterms, and he says voters feel that “Trump’s promises were not authentic” — and his connection to the district is.

“My family and I, we tap maple trees and boil maple syrup every spring. I spend a couple weeks out hunting deer and I never miss a fishing opener. We pick a little wild rice in the fall,” Nolan said. “We’re at a time when authenticity really matters a lot.”


By Elena Schneider

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