Vulnerable Democrats zoom in and out of the party’s convention

Virtual events avoid downside of leaving the campaign trail

South Carolina Democratic Senate hopeful Jaime Harrison participated in a “Flip the Senate” virtual rally Wednesday.  (Screenshot/CQ Roll Call)
South Carolina Democratic Senate hopeful Jaime Harrison participated in a “Flip the Senate” virtual rally Wednesday. (Screenshot/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 20, 2020 at 6:30am

With her mother’s painting of a chicken visible over her left shoulder, Rep. Haley Stevens joked, “I’ve got to get some posters up behind me.”

The freshman Democrat appeared at a virtual watch party Wednesday night, rallying other Michiganders before the third night of the Democratic National Convention.

In another election year, it might have been surprising to see Stevens, who represents a suburban Detroit district that President Donald Trump carried by 4 percentage points in 2016, at an event affiliated with the national party.

“I’ll just tell you, I’m fired up! I’m ready for Joe Biden. I’m ready for Kamala Harris,” Stevens said.

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Stevens is in a less tenuous position than some of the other 29 Democrats in districts that backed Trump four years ago, thanks to her strong fundraising, Republicans’ failure to recruit a top-tier challenger, and a national environment shifting toward the Democrats. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her 11th District race Solid Democratic.

Lawmakers in competitive districts often avoid their party’s conventions, and plenty of Democrats have this week. But this year’s virtual convention has allowed some of them to participate in policy panels or state-focused watch parties without the risky optics of leaving their districts to attend a four-day event that demonstrates both meanings of the word “party.”

Stevens was one of nearly a dozen members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents who participated in their states’ virtual watch parties, which were organized by the Biden presidential campaign. Democratic House and Senate candidates also took part in virtual events, stressing the importance of electing Biden and defeating Trump.

On Tuesday, a handful of Democratic candidates in competitive races participated in an event with Elect Democratic Women, including Senate hopefuls MJ Hegar of Texas and Amy McGrath of Kentucky, and House candidates Gina Ortiz Jones of Texas, Hiral Tipirneni of Arizona, Jackie Gordon of New York and Alyse Galvin of Alaska, who is running as an independent who would caucus with the Democrats. They discussed their policy priorities, ranging from campaign finance to health care.

While the Elect Democratic Women event was underway Tuesday evening, two Democratic women were participating in a candidate forum not affiliated with the convention, underscoring how some candidates still avoided the party events.

The presidential race didn’t come up at the American Association of University Women’s virtual forum featuring Iowa Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield and former state Sen. Rita Hart, who is running for Iowa’s open 2nd District. Instead, they talked about student debt, the minimum wage and Social Security.

Down-ballot reminders

Greenfield was also not part of the “Flip the Senate” rally Wednesday night. But six other candidates joined the hourlong Zoom event where the message was clear: Democrats have to flip the Senate to make real change.

“Whatever your cause is, whatever you are here for … we won’t be able to get any of those things done as long as Mitch McConnell is in office,” McGrath told the roughly 200 people on the Zoom call, referring to her opponent, the Senate majority leader.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker moderated the event, introducing McGrath, Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Jaime Harrison of South Carolina, who joined the event live. Three other Senate candidates — former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, retired astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona and former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham — appeared via a prerecorded video. They all shared their backgrounds and encouraged those watching to get involved.

Roll calls and song introductions

Harrison and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who is challenging GOP Sen. Susan Collins, had brief moments in the convention’s prime-time spotlight.

From South Carolina State University, a historically Black institution, Harrison cast the Palmetto State’s delegate votes during the convention roll call. And Gideon briefly appeared from the shores of the Pine Tree State to introduce singer Maggie Rogers.

A handful of endangered lawmakers were also featured during the two-hour prime time program, both Democratic senators running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones stressed unity in a two-minute speech Monday. And Michigan Sen. Gary Peters highlighted the auto industry during the convention roll call Tuesday.

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb and Texas Rep. Colin Allred were featured in the unconventional keynote address as two of 17 “rising stars.” And on Wednesday, Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne, whose district Trump carried by nearly 4 points, appeared in a video, talking to a farmer struggling under the president’s trade policies.

“I’m not so sure that the president understands that — when he thinks about business, I don’t think he thinks about farmers as a business,” Axne said.

“No,” the farmer responded. “He has no clue about this stuff."

Stephanie Akin and Herb Jackson contributed to this report.

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