Democrats try to expand House battlefield by targeting six more districts

With legislation stalled, campaign memo recommends blaming GOP and McConnell

The DCCC has once again added Alaska Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving House Republican, to its target list. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The DCCC has once again added Alaska Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving House Republican, to its target list. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 16, 2020 at 1:05pm

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is adding six new targets to its 2020 battlefield, hoping to flip more Republican-held seats while protecting its House majority.

Having made historic gains in the 2018 midterms, Democrats started the year on defense. Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats to retake the House, and their first targets will be the 30 districts President Donald Trump won in 2016 that are currently represented by Democrats.

The DCCC unveiled its initial 33 targets in January 2019 and added six more in August.

The target list now includes 45 seats, another sign House Democrats think they’ll have the resources and the political momentum to go on offense. (Putting a district on the target list does not necessarily mean the committee will spend there later this year.)

[The 10 most vulnerable House members in 2020: Democrats dominate]

“Our record fundraising gives us the ability to push deeper into Republican territory and hold Republicans accountable for their attacks on working families’ health care,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos said in a statement.

The DCCC announced it raised $125 million in 2019, its best-ever haul for an off year. Many freshman Democrats have reported raising large amounts in the recently ended fourth quarter of 2019, which could free up the committee to play in other races.

The new targets are in Alaska, California, Kansas, North Carolina and Texas.

Despite the politically controversial impeachment trial getting underway in Washington this week, Democrats are confident that their focus on kitchen table issues, especially prescription drug costs, will help them. Although much of the legislation that passed the House since Democrats took control last January does not stand a chance of passing the Senate, Democrats are using that to make their point against the GOP. They’re arguing that D.C. Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are obstructionists standing in the way of what Americans signaled they wanted in 2018.

“As we push further into Republican-held territory the importance of McConnell as a foil beyond President Trump will be even more central,” DCCC leadership wrote in a memo Thursday.

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Democrats are trying to make inroads in suburbanizing and diversifying districts, and the DCCC started early in 2019 trying to reach out to young people and minorities, with field managers spread across the country. Democrats lost a competitive special election in North Carolina last summer, but they used the race to test different strategies to connect with black voters. They’ve made Texas ground zero for their offensive efforts with a headquarters in Austin.

National Democrats at the House and Senate campaign committees, as well as outside groups, have also made voter rights and redistricting litigation a big part of their 2020 strategy to expand the electorate.

[The 10 most vulnerable senators in 2020: Republicans play defense]

Here are the new targets:

Alaska at-large

Independent Alyse Galvin is seeking a rematch against Rep. Don Young, the longest-serving Republican House member in history, who was also a DCCC target in 2018. Galvin, an education advocate, came within 7 points of defeating Young that year, as a newcomer to political campaigning. She argues that this time she has the funding, the experience and the organization to pull off a victory. Young, a legend in Alaskan politics, has faced a series of close races after spending most of his career winning by landslides. Democrats think Young, 86, is vulnerable partly because internal GOP term limit rules prohibit him from holding the powerful committee positions that defined his career. As of the close of the third quarter on Sept. 30, Galvin had $401,000 in cash on hand to Young’s $515,000. Trump won Alaska by 15 points in 2016, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the House race Solid Republican.

California’s 25th District

Democrats are looking to hold on to this open seat in Southern California after Rep. Katie Hill resigned late last year. Multiple Democrats and Republicans are competing in both the special election and the race for a full term. Local and national Democrats have rallied around Assemblywoman Christy Smith, but another Democrat, Cenk Uygur, host of the liberal online show “The Young Turks,” is also in the race. Former GOP Rep. Steve Knight, whom Hill defeated by 9 points in 2018, is running for his old seat. Other Republicans in the race include Navy veteran Mike Garcia, who entered before Hill resigned, and former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who served prison time for lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos is running to represent the district for a full term, but he is not expected on the ballot for the special election.

California has a top-two primary system, although the rules are slightly different for the primary for the full term and the special election. Both elections will take place on March 3, with candidates of all parties running on the same ballot. For the special election, if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she would win the race outright. Because there are a dozen candidates on the ballot, campaign operatives in both parties expect that race to advance to a May 12 election in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would face off. For the full term, the top two vote-getters, again regardless of party, will advance to the November general election. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Democratic.

Kansas’ 2nd District

Democrats hope this sprawling eastern Kansas district is suburban enough, with swaths of Topeka, Lawrence and the outer Kansas City suburbs, to mirror dynamics that helped them flip the Kansas City-area 3rd District in 2018. They also see freshman Republican Steve Watkins, who is the subject of a voter fraud investigation, as a flawed candidate. 

Watkins, an army veteran and military contractor, put a UPS store address on a voter registration form in 2019 and has spent nearly $25,000 of his campaign money on legal costs, an indication that he may be facing a Federal Election Commission investigation, The Kansas City Star reported. Democrats’ interest in the race was piqued this month when Michelle De La Isla, Topeka’s first Latina mayor, announced she would run.

But the district could still be a heavy lift for Democrats. Trump won it by 18 points in 2016, and Watkins was able to narrowly defeat Democrat Paul Davis, who had much greater name recognition as a former minority leader in the state House and as his party’s candidate for governor in 2014. Watkins was able to overcome questions that he misrepresented parts of his biography and concerns about his conservative credentials, among other issues with his campaign. This year, he also faces a primary challenge from Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Republican.

North Carolina’s 8th District

Court-mandated redistricting made this seat more Democratic, and the DCCC now sees an opportunity to go after GOP Rep. Richard Hudson. Under the new lines, Trump carried the 8th District by 9 points instead of 15 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Democrats are optimistic about the new district being majority suburban, with an African American population of 28 percent, according to the DCCC. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

New Jersey’s 2nd District

This seat is now in Republican hands after freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who flipped the seat from red to blue in 2018, switched parties. President Barack Obama carried the South Jersey district in 2008 and 2012 before it swung to Trump, who carried it by nearly 5 points in 2016. After Van Drew came out against impeachment, his own polling showed he’d struggle to hold on to the Democratic nomination. He faces several GOP challengers who were already in the race, but he is now running with Trump’s backing. Several Democrats are running here, and the DCCC is hopeful that Van Drew’s party switch will weaken him as a candidate. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Republican.

Texas 2nd District

The addition of the 2nd District underscores how Democrats view Texas as a top House battleground in 2020. Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, who has a national profile after appearing on “Saturday Night Live” in 2018, has proved to be a prolific fundraiser.

A former Navy SEAL, Crenshaw won his first term in 2018 by 7 points, but Democratic Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke lost the Houston-area district by just 1 point that year. Trump carried the district by 9 points in 2016. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

Former O’Rourke adviser Sima Ladjevardian is challenging Crenshaw, entering the race shortly before the filing deadline in December. She raised $407,000 in the first three weeks of her campaign, according to the Texas Tribune. Navy veteran Elissa Cardnell is also seeking the Democratic nomination, and she had raised a total of $178,000 as of Sept. 30 and had $62,000 on hand. Crenshaw’s campaign ended Sept. 30 with $1.6 million in the bank.