Dentists on the March to Congress
November could see two more join the cavity-fighting caucus
Of course, the first step to growing the number of dentists on the Hill is re-electing the current ones. Considering they represent heavily Republican districts, their prospects are good, even though the political winds might be blowing against them.
GOP Rep. Paul Gosar represents Arizona’s 4th District. He doesn’t appear to have a challenger in the Aug. 28 Republican primary, and none of his three Democratic challengers had more than $13,000 in their campaign accounts on March 31. The incumbent had $247,000 in the bank. Of course, it helps that President Donald Trump carried his district by 40 points in 2016.
Freshman Rep. Drew Ferguson from Georgia’s 3rd District came to Congress after finishing second in a crowded GOP primary with 27 percent, and then winning the runoff with 54 percent. This cycle, his challenger in the May 22 primary had just $4,000 in the bank at the end of March. Ferguson had $163,000. The Democratic candidates aren’t in any better financial shape, and Trump carried the district easily as well, 64 percent to 33 percent over Hillary Clinton.
GOP Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho’s 2nd District turned back challenger Bryan Smith 62 percent to 38 percent in a 2014 primary that received national attention as anti-establishment forces outside the state revolted against the congressman. This time around, Simpson ($204,000 on March 31) is unopposed in the May 15 primary, and he’ll have the advantage in the general election, considering Trump carried the seat by 25 points and the Democratic candidates aren’t raising much money.
Rep. Brian Babin of Texas’ 36th District won a crowded and competitive Republican primary in 2014, but just ran unopposed in the March primary in his bid for a third term. Trump carried the district by 47 points, so Babin ($837,000 in the bank at March 31) shouldn’t have problems with Democrat Dayna Steele ($80,000).
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At least three dentists are running to join the cavity-fighting caucus.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew has the best chance of winning. The New Jersey Democrat is running in an open-seat race for the 2nd District after GOP incumbent Frank A. LoBiondo announced his retirement. Trump carried the district 51 percent to 46 percent, but voters here backed President Barack Obama twice and Van Drew already represents some of the more Republican areas of the district.
The GOP has also struggled to get a top-tier candidate. Van Drew had $456,000 in his campaign account on March 31, while none of the Republicans had more than $83,000. Van Drew could draw criticism from his own party, considering he’s received money from the National Rifle Association in previous races. But for now, he represents one of the Democrats’ best opportunities to take over a GOP seat anywhere in the country.
Florida Republican Fred Costello’s path is more complicated. The first step is to become the GOP nominee in the 6th District, which has eluded him in the past.
In 2012, he finished second to Ron DeSantis in the GOP primary for the open seat. In 2016, when DeSantis ran for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Costello ran for the 6th District seat again. But when Rubio decided to seek re-election, DeSantis dropped his Senate bid and switched to the race for his House seat. He easily beat Costello 61 percent to 25 percent in the primary.
With DeSantis running for governor this year, Costello, a former mayor of Ormond Beach, is back. He’s a credible contender but had just $16,000 in his campaign account on March 31. Private equity investor and Navy veteran John Ward had $709,000, including nearly $600,000 of his own money, and former Green Beret Michael Waltz had $653,000, including $400,000 of his own money. St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns recently dropped out of the race. The primary is Aug. 28.
The GOP nominee will start the general election with the advantage, but it’s not completely out of reach for Democrats, considering Obama carried the district in 2008. Mitt Romney took it four years later and Trump carried it by 17 points in 2016, so it won’t be in the first few tiers of seats to fall in a Democratic wave.
Democratic optimism is partially fueled by potential nominee Nancy Soderberg, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. She had $595,000 in her campaign account at the end of March.
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In Pennsylvania, Democrat Gary Wegman is running for the newly drawn 9th District seat that’s open with GOP Rep. Lou Barletta running for Senate. Trump carried the district 65 percent to 31 percent, so any Democrat will be an underdog. But first, Wegman must get through the May 15 primary. He had less than $2,500 in the bank on March 31, and faces dairy farmer and former state Agriculture Secretary Denny Wolff ($181,000). The top GOP contender, former state Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser, had $518,000 in cash on hand at the same point.
With Van Drew running in a competitive race, it looks like there could be at least one more dentist in Congress next year. The maximum gain, though, looks likely to be two because if the electoral wave is so overwhelming that Wegman wins a heavily Republican seat, then Costello will probably lose in Florida, assuming both make it to the general.