Gonzales

I Met 12 Democratic Candidates in Two Days and Lived to Write About It

None of them are talking about Trump or Pelosi

A demonstrator holds a sign at a news conference last week to announce the launch of the Medicare for All Caucus. Health care is a key component of the Democrats’ messaging this fall, Gonzales writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

I swore I’d never do it again.

In October, I interviewed 16 Democratic House candidates in two days. As much as I enjoy having face-to-face conversations with people running for the offices we cover, it might have been too many in a row.

But when Democratic candidates descended on Washington recently for meetings, I sat down with a dozen more of them over the course of two days.

I know people think political handicapping is luxurious, but sitting in a windowless basement for seven consecutive hours in a day isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At the same time, each interview is a window into the mind of each candidate, a preview of the general election ahead, and an introduction to potential future lawmakers.

Each candidate had a unique path to the barren conference room where we met, but some broad themes quickly became apparent.

Democratic candidates still aren’t all that interested in talking about President Donald Trump. If the president came up in our meetings, it was usually because we brought him up. These Democratic campaigns might be infused with Trump-inspired energy and money, but the individual candidates are often laser-focused on litigating their case against Republican incumbents, including their votes in Congress.

This could be a reaction to 2016, when Democrats arguably went too far in connecting the GOP to Trump, or a function of Republicans on the Hill taking more controversial votes in the last year and a half.

Democratic candidates aren’t all that interested in talking about Nancy Pelosi. This has become a punchline among those of us who cover congressional races and interview candidates. Most Democrats will give a version of the same answer: No one on the campaign trail has ever brought up the question of backing Pelosi for leader, and it’s not something we’re focused on. This is largely a group of college-educated candidates, including some lawyers, who are unable or unwilling to look a few months into the future to talk about who might head their party.

I understand the politics of the issue and I even believe candidates who say voters aren’t talking about it now. But Republicans will almost certainly raise it as an issue this fall and it will be part of the general election conversation. At one point my colleague Leah Askarinam asked, “Who should lead the Democratic Party?” and the candidate paused before responding, “Is that the Nancy Pelosi question?”

Fellow Democrats are throwing off the fundraising curve. We met with multiple candidates who raised more than $600,000 during the three months ended June 30, which would normally be considered a respectable fundraising quarter. But considering multiple Democrats raised more than $1 million over the same period, what would normally be good looks less impressive. At least one thing is becoming apparent this cycle: Republican candidates cannot assume they will outspend their Democratic opponents into oblivion and rely on a financial advantage to vault them to victory.

Watch: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising

Democrats are betting heavily on health care. If you take a drink every time a Democrat mentions health care or pre-existing conditions between now and Election Day, you’ll either be well-hydrated or very drunk. Health care, specifically action by Republicans on the issue this Congress, is a key component to the Democrats’ messaging. They not only believe Republicans have gone too far, but Democrats will use it to counter any goodwill voters might have toward the GOP tax bill and positive economic numbers. Democrats are talking about — and defending — the Affordable Care Act more now than when they passed it more than eight years ago.

I was wrong about Colin Allred. I doubted his baseball skills since he played in the NFL as a linebacker. But I learned he had his eyes on a Major League Baseball career at Hillcrest High School in North Dallas before doors kept opening to play football in college and the NFL. He could be patrolling centerfield and the middle of the Democrats’ lineup in the annual Congressional Baseball Game if he defeats GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in Texas.

Watch: How the Midterms Might Affect the Congressional Baseball Lineup

Democrats have an impressive crop of candidates. I’m still not sure how many seats Democrats are going to gain and thus I’m not sure how many of these Democrats are going to win. But it’s hard to walk away from these meetings and not be impressed with the candidates. They certainly aren’t perfect, but they are credible individuals, raising serious money, and running legitimate campaigns. And they are going to force Republicans to work hard to defend their seats.

Watch: Behind the Scenes of Race Ratings — The Candidate Interview

Democrats are going to live or die with new candidates. Only three of the congressional hopefuls we met hold elected office, and most of them have never run for anything before. They can more easily claim the “outsider” mantle, but they are also beginning their campaigns from scratch and adjusting to the life and scrutiny of a candidate. Some of these Democrats have already survived competitive primaries, but the general election will likely be a more difficult test.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.