Democratic lawmakers this recess are out campaigning for recruits in districts they never thought they’d be setting foot in this time last year.
The party is optimistic that with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, they can make a serious dent in their 30-seat House deficit by contesting seats that wouldn’t be otherwise competitive in a presidential election year.
Perhaps nowhere is that optimism stronger than among the House Democratic caucus, particularly a group of highly engaged women, who have been motivated this year to help the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recruit candidates and mount strong campaigns.
Republicans don’t see a wave coming. The National Republican Congressional Committee said it is confident in its own polling and the ability of voters to distinguish between the top of the ticket and the legislative accomplishments of their freshman members.
“We recognize that the atmosphere is one we cannot control. That’s why from Day One, we’ve been working district-by-district, member-by-member, to create their own identities in their own districts,” NRCC Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon said at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week.
Democrats know that an automatic connection to Trump isn't a given, especially when some GOP incumbents have already disavowed him. But they're ready to tie Trump to the House Republican agenda in ways that they think will implicate their vulnerable colleagues across the aisle.
And on that front, Democratic lawmakers think their involvement can actually make a difference this year — if not in helping their party win the majority, then at least in narrowing their deficit ahead of what's likely to be a tougher year in 2018.
As recruitment season has wound down, weekly DCCC recruitment meetings have evolved into meetings of the 25-member "Red to Blue" program. Red to Blue is the DCCC's assistance effort for its strongest recruits.
Attendance at the last two Red to Blue meetings before the recess was standing-room-only. Throughout the summer, those Thursday morning meetings have attracted 30 to 40 members, plus chiefs of staff from other offices.
“I keep expecting the attendance to fall off, and the attendance keeps growing,” said Washington Rep. Denny Heck, who co-chairs Red to Blue along with Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It reflects the optimism,” he added.
This time last election season, the enthusiasm level was very different, said Florida Democrat Lois Frankel, the vice chairwoman of Red to Blue in 2014. “Half the room was empty.”
Not this year.
“Every week, we have somebody new who’s joining us,” Bustos said.
Enhanced optimism is to be expected during a presidential year, when higher turnout typically boosts down-ballot Democrats.
But member optimism has spiked over the course of this year alone.
“There’s a marked difference in people’s optimism even from the beginning of the primary process,” Massachusetts Democrat Katherine M. Clark said.
On the road
There’s particular excitement about the diversity of this year’s Democratic recruits, and lawmakers are eager to hit the road for them.
Bustos has made female recruitment a priority. Half of this year’s Red to Blue candidates are women.
During the first week of recess, Bustos, Frankel and Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell are making the rounds out west for four female Democratic recruits, two of whom are running in Safe Republican districts.
Campaigning in Nevada’s 3rd District, where Jacky Rosen is running in an open Tossup race, is to be expected. As is a swing through Colorado’s 6th District, where state Sen. Morgan Carroll is taking on GOP Rep. Mike Coffman in a traditionally targeted seat.
But a stop in Colorado’s safely Republican 3rd District? That’s more unusual. National Democrats are enthused about state Sen. Gail Schwartz’s chance to pick off Republican Scott Tipton there.
The three female members will also swing through Montana, where Democrat Denise Juneau, the state superintendent for public instruction, is running against freshman GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke in a Safe Republican seat.
At their weekly Red to Blue meetings, Bustos makes a point of recognizing lawmakers who have traveled for recruits and of publicizing photos of their travels.
The Pink Ladies
Mentoring is another way Democratic lawmakers are becoming more engaged with recruits this year.
California Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, for example, said she’s tried to be more personally engaged earlier this campaign season. She’s been keeping in close touch with Annette Taddeo, who’s running in Florida's 26th District, and Nanette Barragan, who’s running in her backyard in Southern California.
Bustos and her closest friends in Congress — six sophomores collectively known as “the Pink Ladies” — have made a point of meeting with every female recruit and taking them out to dinner when they come to Washington, D.C.
The low-key Chinese restaurant Young Chow on Capitol Hill and Frankel’s apartment are favorite places for these casual get togethers hosted by Bustos, New Hampshire Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, California Rep. Julia Brownley, New York Rep. Grace Meng, Frankel and Clark.
At last Thursday’s Red to Blue gathering, members stressed the importance of helping Throne-Holst replenish her coffers after that close primary.
“Women candidates are very different from men candidates,” Bustos said, and they often have different questions about raising money or what to do with their kids.
The six Pink Ladies, who didn’t always feel like they had that support system when they were running in 2012, want this year’s women to feel ready.
The Trump factor
There’s no question a lot of this year's enthusiasm has to do with Trump securing the nomination.
“Donald Trump could be the biggest gift that the Republican Party has ever given the Democratic Party,” Sánchez said.
In several cases, Trump actually helped the DCCC recruit candidates who were reluctant to run for Congress in red districts or had passed in previous years. Colorado’s Gail Schwartz, Minnesota’s Terri Bonoff and Florida’s Stephanie Murphy all took the leap because of the New York real estate mogul's rise.
With Trump having officially secured the GOP nomination Tuesday, and with recruits in places like Florida’s 7th District and Kansas' 3rd, the DCCC envisions a competitive playing field of at least 65 seats.
Much of that has to do with the top of the ticket. In internal polls from 40 competitive districts across the country, Hillary Clinton’s favorability rating is, on average, nine points higher than Trump’s.
“If we get that wave, we have the candidates that will come in with the tide,” Frankel said.
But in a few states with early filing deadlines, the Trump phenomenon came too late to help Democrats recruit.
Democrats failed to recruit competitive candidates in what should have been competitive races in Illinois, for example, and a race that could have been competitive in Virginia.
The DCCC lost several of their top recruits, too. Michigan’s Melissa Gilbert had to withdraw from her challenge to Republican Mike Bishop, while West Virginia Democrat Cory Simpson lost his primary. The Democrat who won isn’t considered a credible challenger against Republican freshman Alex Mooney.
Members are cautious about committing to a certain number of seats they think the party can pick up in November. They must net 30 seats to win control of the House.
But just the fact that conversations about winning the majority are happening, Heck said, “six to nine months ago, people wouldn't have believed it.”