Campaigns

How an Indiana and a Minnesota district explain the 2020 House battlefield

Democrats are optimistic about Indianapolis suburbs and doubtful about the Iron Range

Democrats are targeting Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks, whose district is changing because of people moving from Indianapolis. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Redistricting is just around the corner, but already the House battlefield doesn’t look like what it did less than a decade ago. 

Demographic shifts have led to partisan realignments — accelerated in some places by President Donald Trump — and that’s created a different map than existed in 2012, when the current congressional lines in most states first went into effect.  

Democrats targeted — and won — Minnesota’s 8th District that year, reclaiming an ancestrally blue seat that had slipped into GOP hands in 2010. But the rural, working-class district swung to Trump in 2016, and after losing the seat last fall, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’t even put it on its target list for 2020.

The opposite demographic shift is at play in Indiana, with younger, more moderate voters moving out of Indianapolis into the suburbs. For the first time, the DCCC is targeting the state’s 5th District, a longtime GOP stronghold. That’s a big change from 2012 when the seat wasn’t on the radar for Indiana Democrats.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales puts both of these seats in the GOP column, with the Indiana race rated Solid Republican and the Minnesota race rated Likely Republican. Not everyone in the Democratic Party thinks Minnesota’s 8th is out of reach in 2020, or conversely, that GOP Rep. Susan W. Brooks is truly vulnerable in Indiana’s 5th.

But the contrast between the two districts  — one with a shrinking, older population and one that’s growing younger and more affluent  — illustrates how the parties’ targets have shifted over the decade.

Also read: What race ratings really mean and how we create them

Hoosier hopefulness? 

Democrats inside and outside Indiana are more than a little hopeful that Brooks will retire. But the four-term lawmaker told Roll Call last week that she’s running for re-election and is energized by her position as chairwoman of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Certainly the Mueller report is helpful,” Brooks said when asked whether Trump will be a drag on down-ballot Republicans in suburban districts next year.

Trump carried the 5th District by nearly 12 points in 2016, but suburban Hamilton County is growing more moderate because of younger voters moving out of the city. Former Indiana Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, who lost statewide by 6 points last fall, narrowly carried the district, which also includes northern Indianapolis.

“It’s contrary to the old model of how Indiana Democrats compete,” said  Peter Hanscom, Donnelly’s 2018 campaign manager, noting that voters in the 5th tend to be more socially liberal and fiscally conservative than Hoosier Democrats in the rest of the state. The district is the only one in Indiana that fits the model of how Democrats won on health care last fall, he said, calling the Trump administration’s decision to back gutting the 2010 health care law “poison” for Republicans here.

After knocking off Republicans in suburban districts across the country last fall, Democrats see an opportunity against Brooks, who’s never had a tough race. She’s built a reputation as an accessible, moderate lawmaker, but Democratic strategists are quick to point out that she’s voted with Trump nearly 100 percent of the time, among the highest in the state’s GOP delegation. 

Democrats are eyeing former state Rep. Christina Hale, who’s previously secured the backing of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and was the party’s lieutenant governor nominee on its losing 2016 ticket. But Republicans scoff at the notion that Brooks, who raised $1.5 million last cycle despite not having a competitive race, is in trouble. She’s talking about the fact that she’s a Democratic target to drum up fundraising. 

“It’s a far-fetched pipe dream to think they can capture the 5th, especially when they’ve got their work cut out for them just to hold the House in a presidential election year,” said Pete Seat, executive director of the Indiana GOP.  

Democrats know this district is a reach. But 2020 isn’t necessarily the party’s only shot.

We are looking to play a longer game,” one Democratic operative said. Which means even if they don’t succeed in the 5th District next year, expect them to keep trying.

The times they are a-changin’

Minnesota’s 8th, though, is tough terrain for Democrats.

The rural seat saw the biggest swing to the right at the presidential level in 2016. It went from backing former President Barack Obama by nearly 6 points in 2012 to voting for Trump by 16 points. Former Democratic-Farmer-Labor Rep. Rick Nolan held on by just half a point that year. 

Fast-forward to 2018, when Nolan wasn't seeking re-election. His former campaign manager Joe Radinovich faced the Republicans’ prized recruit, former Duluth police officer Pete Stauber. GOP outside groups pummeled Radinovich with personal attacks, while the president and vice president made several trips to the district for Stauber. Democratic outside groups eventually cut off Radinovich, who’d gotten a late start after a drawn-out primary

The 8th District, covering the northeastern part of the state, is a largely white, working-class one that includes the iron ore mining region known as the Iron Range. It’s home to people like Bob Dilla, a 40-year-veteran of U.S. Steel, who said last fall he’d never vote for a Republican.

“They’ve never done nothing for me or this Iron Range,” he said over soup at a bar in Hibbing — the childhood home of Bob Dylan. But he worried about the next generation and people like his son, who are skeptical of unions.  

Not all Democrats believe the district is gone, though. Trump’s budget proposal and Republican attacks on the health care law could undercut his populist message, allowing Democrats to draw a contrast with their own economic message. 

“With that kitchen table frame, I think the Democrats can be competitive anywhere,” said Democratic strategist Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC during the 2018 cycle. 

The DCCC’s decision not to include the 8th District on its target list helps keep expectations low. The party could always include the district later, once it sees how the national political environment develops and how much of its resources will be necessary to defend its 2018 gains. 

“It’s still on the board, but it’s tough,” a Democratic strategist familiar with the district said. The party needs a strong candidate who can avoid a contentious primary to put it in play, the strategist added. 

For now, the lack of DCCC attention could be holding back some top-tier candidates. Plus, the possibility of the district disappearing after redistricting may make recruitment here a hard sell.

EMILY’s List has included the 8th on its target list, although it hasn’t yet identified specific candidates. The more socially conservative district may not be an obvious fit for a pro-abortion rights female candidate, but EMILY’s List candidates ran and won in rural places, like Iowa, for example, last fall. 

Former Duluth news anchor Michelle Lee, who lost the DFL primary to Radinovich in 2018, could run, but she’s since lost a state Senate special election. Radinovich, who lost by 6 points last year, likely won’t decide about running again until the summer, he said last week.

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