LANCASTER, Pa. — It’s referred to in unguarded moments as the We-Can-Actually-Win-This List.
Since their 2014 electoral wipeout left them with their fewest number of seats since the Great Depression, House Democrats have perfected the art of lowering expectations about chances of winning a majority.
But the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republicans’ presidential standard-bearer and the unpredictable nature of the election has Democrats hoping a host of long-shot candidates can return them to the political promised land.
“If not this year, when? If it doesn’t get done this year, it doesn’t get done,” says Christina Hartman, a Democrat running in Pennsylvania Dutch Country for the open seat vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Joe Pitts.
Hartman is running for a seat that has been represented by a Republican for generations. Pitts was elected in 1996. He succeeded Republican Robert S. Walker, who was elected in 1976. Walker succeeded Republican Edwin Eshleman, who was elected in 1966. Lancaster County has long been a bedrock for the GOP in the Keystone State.
But times change, and perhaps no more so than here, where Hartman’s race, a recent addition to the We-Can-Actually-Win-This List, represents the kind of reach her party needs to catch an electoral wave.
“I’ve spent most of my career walking into politically toxic environments,” Hartman says, referencing her previous jobs at Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute, groups that look to expand democratic institutions and human rights abroad. She describes Republicans here as having lost touch with voters, which, along with demographic changes favoring Democrats, has provided an opening. An internal poll that showed her within striking distance to her GOP opponent, state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, convinced the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, to take her seriously, particularly given Hillary Clinton’s strength in Pennsylvania’s presidential race.
“They’re asleep at the wheel,” she says of Republicans. “We’re about to upend something that’s been in place a long time.”
That kind of statement is what needs to come true across the board for Democrats to have a chance at retaking the House.
Making a list
There are approximately 50 competitive House races that will determine the majority in the next Congress, though the parties put their game faces on and don’t even agree on that number.
The DCCC’s 2016 Red to Blue Candidates list and the second-tier 2016 Red to Blue Emerging Races roster are comprised of folks who have their work cut out for them for things to go the Democrats’ way, be it an entrenched Republican opponent, historical trends or lack of funding.
The designations are a way to attract local media attention and signal to political donors that the races are worth an investment. They come with no promise of support, such as through independent expenditures in the fall. But they do put many candidates on the map.
Hartman’s question — If not now, when? — is not just a reflection of her race, but one that resonates throughout the field.
The 2012 nationwide reapportionment and redistricting that followed wasn’t kind to Democrats because so many GOP-led legislatures and governors got to redraw the congressional district lines to provide the advantage to their own party.
So, assuming they do well in the 2020 elections, Democrats won’t get another shot at more friendly redistricting lines until 2022 — an eternity in political life.
The next election cycle, the 2018 elections, offers little in the way of help. Midterms tend to favor Republican candidates who thrive in the lower-turnout environment. The GOP has built a House stronghold thanks to the 2010 and 2014 midterms, having a field day with Democratic opponents they have tied to President Barack Obama. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, Republicans would be expected to turn to that same playbook.
So what would it take to make this year the year for Democrats?
The odds are long.
Republicans hold a 246-186 advantage in the House. There are three vacancies, in Hawaii’s 1st District and Pennsylvania’s 2nd, which are safe Democratic seats that will be filled on Election Day, and a safe Republican seat in Kentucky’s 1st District that will also be filled Nov. 8. So Democrats need to gain 30 seats to get to the barest of majorities.
There are 38 candidates in the first tier of races Democrats hope to win. These are the seats the DCCC believes are vulnerable enough to go their way.
But there are some glitches in the map.
For one, the 38 Red to Blue names are somewhat of a misnomer. There are, for instance, four candidates in Red to Blue who are Democrats defending an open seat being vacated by a member of their own party.
One example is Tom O’Halleran, who is vying for the seat of Arizona Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is running for the Senate.
O’Halleran is running against Republican Paul Babeu for Kirkpatrick’s swing district, which stretches from the Tucson suburbs around the eastern part of the state, and all the way to the Grand Canyon in the north.
If O’Halleran wins, that’s bully for Democrats, but it’s not a net gain of a seat. It’s a hold. So in the Red to Blue list, Democrats are really targeting 34 pickup opportunities.
That’s still enough to net them a majority.
But nothing ever really goes according to plan, as any political professional will attest.
For instance, Democrats failed to land top-shelf recruits in two Pennsylvania districts, the 6th and 7th, in the Philadelphia suburbs, which have traded party control back and forth over the last few election cycles.
They also recently lost a Red to Blue candidate, Annette Taddeo, who fell short in the Aug. 30 primary in Florida’s 26th District to former Rep. Joe Garcia.
Garcia, who was dragged down by two criminal investigations but was never charged, lost to Republican Carlos Curbelo in 2014. The race will still likely be tight, but Democrats didn’t get their preferred candidate.
And the Democrats have their own vulnerable members to tend to, the ones in the party’s Frontline program.
These are the 11 incumbents who represent swing or GOP-tilting districts, or for whom special circumstances mean the party operatives in Washington are fretting about them. There is Rep. Ami Bera in California, for example. Bera represents the politically divided Sacramento suburbs and faces a tough race against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Bera’s task got a little tougher when his father pleaded guilty to illegally funneling money to his son’s campaigns, adding political corruption to the list of factors affecting the race.
There is also Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, a freshman who represents a conservative district and beat a Republican incumbent in 2014, Lee Terry, who annoyed constituents by complaining about forgoing his pay during the 2013 government shutdown.
For every one of these Frontline Democrats who lose, that’s one more the Democrats have to make up somewhere else.
To provide themselves with some margin for error, Democrats hope to expand the field of play with races in the Emerging Red to Blue races. These are races that don’t enjoy the level of support and resources the national apparatus sends its Red to Blue candidates, but they are under watchful eye to see if things are breaking their way.
There are nine Democrats in the Emerging category, such as Hartman. She got a bit of a boost from the top of the ticket on Aug. 30 when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, rallied Democrats in Lancaster, along with Gov. Tom Wolf and other local officials.
“The Keystone State is a key state,” Kaine said. “We’re going to be here a lot between now and Nov. 8.”
Every bit of effort the Clinton-Kaine ticket puts into her area will likely help her with turnout.
The presidential campaign, for instance, hired a regional press secretary for the area who started on Aug. 29, a sign it sees an opening in what has traditionally been a GOP stronghold. That’s the kind of fortuitous thing that can help motivate donors, volunteers and increase momentum.
“That could be the biggest help, a big Clinton victory,” says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
“In these transition districts, it could be especially hard for Republicans to win because of the pattern of straight ticket voting,” he says.
The Democrats’ campaign committee was heartened when their operatives saw the polling this summer that showed Hartman running close to Smucker, who had to endure a rough primary against Chet Beiler in April.
Hartman began laying the groundwork for a candidacy as soon as she caught wind that Pitts was retiring. She made her case to national Democrats, and met with Rep. Matt Cartwright, a fellow Pennsylvania Democrat, and Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois Democrat in the Frontline program who is active in recruiting candidates. Then, in July, the DCCC put her on the Emerging list.
She has a long way to go. Her third-quarter fundraising might help the campaign organization’s decision whether to elevate her to Red to Blue.
And it’s not like her opponent will just be sitting on the sidelines.
“Our campaign is confident we will be successful in November, and we certainly aren’t taking anything for granted,” Smucker campaign manager Zachary Peirson said in a statement replying to questions about the campaign, as well as the candidate’s schedule. “Lloyd Smucker has a full schedule of events where he is meeting and talking with voter[s].” In addition, according to Peirson, the campaign has an “aggressive” plan to advertise and get the media to cover the candidate.
Smucker did not attend a rally held in the district on Aug. 9 by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate. Smucker has said he supports the Republican nominee — that would be Trump — but he has kept his distance.
Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, was asked about this particular Pennsylvania race at a Sept. 8 National Press Club event and acknowledged that competitive races can come up on the map suddenly. Still, though, he said his guy would prevail.
“We believe very strongly that Sen. Smucker is in good shape and will win that seat,” he said.
Hartman’s strategy, like many Democrats running down-ballot this year, has been to tie her opponent to the polarizing Trump, calling Smucker a “rubber stamp” for the brash New Yorker.
“Make no mistake: A vote for Lloyd Smucker is a vote for Donald Trump,” she told the Kaine rally on Aug. 30. She then threw in wholeheartedly with the top of the ticket: “I’m proud to be a Democrat. And I’m proud to be on the same side as Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.”
Madonna thinks Hartman and Democrats in similar races are still underdogs, but he sees such statements as a smart strategy.
“This appears to be a base election,” he says. “That’s when turnout by party makes a difference.”
Pennsylvania’s 16th District is just one competitive race on the electoral map. Each pickup opportunity brings its own dynamics, from partisan history, demographic trends, and funding to a candidate’s biography. Open seats, in particular, give political professionals heartburn.
“That’s the last thing Ben Lujan and I ever want, is somebody to retire,” Walden said, referring to his DCCC counterpart, New Mexico’s Ben Ray Lujan.
Following are five races to watch — two open seat races, one statewide race, a classic swing district and one whose demographics are particularly attuned to the presidential race — that could determine whether Democrats win the House majority.
Arizona’s 2nd District, hugging the southeast part of the state, is embroiled in the immigration debate that’s also riven the country, thanks to Trump’s proposals to build a border wall and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants.
Republican Rep. Martha McSally, who is facing Democrat Matt Heinz, won her seat against Democrat Ron Barber by a whisker, 167 votes, in 2014. That was a very good year for Republicans, and she barely won. She lost in her first play for the seat in 2012 to Barber by 2,452 votes.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it in 2012, 50-48 percent. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 standard-bearer, won it that year 50-49 percent.
As a candidate and congresswoman, McSally has made no real mistakes. But as one Republican operative put it, Democrats could put up a cardboard cutout as their candidate and probably get around 40 percent. That helped land Heinz on the DCCC’s Emerging Red to Blue list.
The district is also 27 percent Hispanic and Hispanics have extra motivation to come out in a year when Trump has attacked unauthorized immigrants, most recently in his Aug. 31 speech in Phoenix.
McCain is on the ballot as he runs for a sixth term this year and while he has previously pushed for an overhaul of immigration laws and legal status for unauthorized immigrants, he has also said he would support Trump.
This one will go down to the wire.
Hoosier beauty contest
Voters in Indiana’s 9th District are accustomed to change. Since 1998, when Democrat Lee Hamilton, the long-serving congressman and respected foreign policy mandarin, retired, party control has shifted back and forth, subject to wave elections and shifting political winds.
Democrat Baron Hill won the seat in 1998, lost it in 2004, won it back in 2006, then lost to Republican Todd Young in 2010.
Young is now running for Senate against former Sen. Evan Bayh, creating the open seat in this swing district that encompasses the liberal town of Bloomington, home to Indiana University; conservative Indianapolis suburbs in Johnson and Morgan counties; and swing suburban counties along the Ohio River near Louisville, Ky.
Democrat Shelli Yoder, a former Miss Indiana, ran against Young in 2012, losing 55-45 percent. She is facing off against Republican Trey Hollingsworth, a newcomer to the district.
Open seat races tend to be unpredictable. The top of the ticket will likely have a significant effect. Bayh’s decision to run for Senate scrambled the political calculus and put Republicans on the defensive. But he is facing questions about how active a voter and resident he’s been since leaving the Senate in 2010. Similar questions helped fell his former colleague, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, in the 2012 GOP primary. Hollingsworth’s recent move to the district invites similar questions, though.
Then there’s Pence. Normally, having the governor on the national ticket as a vice presidential nominee is a net plus. But Pence, who decided to forgo a re-election bid to join the Trump ticket, was polling poorly for most of the past year. His effect on down-ballot races, coupled with Yoder’s name ID, questions about Hollingsworth and the strength of a Bayh Senate race, provide some headwinds in a district that would typically favor a Republican candidate. Yoder was an easy pick for the Red to Blue list.
Degrees of support
Kansas is a bastion of Republican strength, but intra-GOP warfare has marked its political battles in recent years, the kind that resulted in firebrand Rep. Tim Huelskamp losing his primary this year to Roger Marshall.
Still, not all of Kansas is a desert for Democrats.
In the 3rd District, Republican Kevin Yoder represents Kansas City and its highly educated suburbs.
These are precisely the type of voters Trump has struggled to attract. In addition, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s abysmal high-teens-to-low-20s approval ratings threaten to drag down fellow Republicans.
Yoder’s district, previously represented by Democrat Dennis Moore, provided Obama with his best showing in the state. In 2008, he lost it narrowly to McCain, 50-49 percent. In 2012, he lost it to Romney, 54-44 percent.
Yoder’s opponent, Jay Sidie, was an addition to the Democrats’ Emerging Red to Blue list over the summer. The former Archer Daniels Midland executive and member of the Kansas City Board of Trade is playing up his business experience and arguing that the GOP-led Kansas Legislature is crippling public institutions, like the schools he sends his two daughters to, with budget cuts. It’s a populist message Democrats believe resonates with the district.
Yoder’s internal polling, conducted in early August by veteran pollster Neil Newhouse’s Public Opinion Strategies, shows him with a comfortable lead over Sidie. In a survey released Sept. 6, Sidie’s pollster, GBA Strategies, also showed Yoder ahead, albeit with a smaller margin.
Both polls showed Clinton beating Trump in the district.
National Republicans think Yoder, a Kansan with deep roots who has a sizable campaign war chest, can distance himself from Brownback and Trump effectively.
“The Yoder campaign team is experienced, seasoned, and understands the unique challenges of the 2016 election. They will be ready for whatever the Sidie campaign, the DCCC and their allies have to throw at them,” Newhouse wrote in his memo accompanying his poll’s release.
Sidie’s pollster acknowledged the task in front of his client, but said Yoder was still in for a heck of a race. “Even in this poisonous environment for Republicans, this election is no slam dunk for Sidie and the Democrats,” GBA’s statement accompanying its poll stated. “But there is no question that Republicans will need to scramble to defend a district that they considered safe only weeks ago.”
In 2014, Yoder won re-election with 60 percent of the vote, outperforming Brownback’s 49.8 percent statewide re-election tally.
A treasure of votes
Like most of the Rocky Mountain West, Montana leans Republican. But the state has a history of electing Democrats to statewide office, including Gov. Steve Bullock and Sen. Jon Tester, as well as previous officeholders like Sen. Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Obama made a late play for Montana in 2008, coming up short to McCain, 50-47 percent. In 2012, he didn’t seriously contest it, losing to Romney, 55-42 percent.
But while Democrats have a history of success here, it can come at razor-thin margins. Bullock won in 2012 with 49 percent. Tester won that year with the same tally. He won in 2006, also with 49 percent.
The incumbent congressman, Republican Ryan Zinke, is a freshman who has wholly embraced Trump, and the former Navy SEAL trumpets that support frequently on cable news.
His opponent is state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, a trailblazing figure in Montana politics and part of the Red to Blue list.
Juneau is a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Tribes and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe. She is also gay. In 2008, she won her first term as superintendent, becoming the first Native American woman elected to statewide office. She was re-elected in 2012.
With Zinke representing the entire state, both have statewide profiles, a clash of political titans not usually seen in a House race. About 7 percent of the state identifies as Native American.
Montana’s Hispanic population is small, about 3 percent, but the immigration debate came around recently when Zinke’s wife played a big part in Trump’s on-again, off-again immigration pivot.
After Trump met with Hispanic leaders in August, Lola Zinke, who has Peruvian roots, told Univision, “No one wants criminals or rapists here. But it’s impossible to deport 11 million people. Trump realizes the contributions the Hispanic community has made to our military. He understands Hispanic values and the contributions of our community.”
That was all before Trump’s fiery speech in Phoenix on Aug. 31, where he repeated his hard-line position that all undocumented immigrants would have to return to their home countries.
In Pennsylvania’s 16th District, where Hartman and Smucker are facing off, the pop culture image of Lancaster is centered on the Amish and their portrayals in such narratives as the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.”
The plain people of Dutch Country eschew modern contrivances such as electricity and automobiles.
They are also surrounded by Philadelphia’s growing suburbs. The last redistricting process pulled some Republican voters into those suburban districts to shore up incumbents in the neighboring 6th and 7th districts. That’s made the 16th less solid territory for the GOP than it used to be. About 60 miles from Center City Philadelphia, Amtrak has opened up Lancaster as a bedroom community of affordable housing and old world charm.
Obama won it in 2008, 50-49 percent. Romney won it 52-46 percent in 2012.
Both Hartman and Smucker hail from the Lancaster area. The retiring Pitts is from Kennett Square, in next-door Chester County. The district also includes a sliver of the city of Reading, where the Hispanic population is growing.
Pitts, a rock-ribbed conservative, won in 2014 with 58 percent, up slightly from his 55 percent showing in 2012.
“We’re a mini-America,” Hartman says, pointing to the opening of Yoga studios, gourmet coffee shops and luxury lofts next to the Lancaster Central Market, the country’s oldest farmers’ market.
“There’s no doubt this county has grown,” says Franklin & Marshall’s Madonna. “It’s more diverse than it’s ever been.” But he cautions: “It’s still a large, rural district. It would take something extraordinary” for Hartman to win.
That’s what Hartman and national Democrats are hoping for. The historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy, as the first woman nominee of a major political party, and the polarizing campaign of Trump, could fit the bill.