Dems Aim for Competitive Rematches in 2018 House Races
In more than a dozen of the House districts Democrats plan to target next year, candidates who lost in 2016 are again throwing their hats into the ring, hoping an energized base and favorable national mood will swing previously unreachable races in their favor.
Some of those candidates lost narrowly to Republican incumbents last year, including several in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, while others lost by wider margins in districts that appear more favorable this cycle.
But they aren’t the only ones who have noticed the potentially favorable midterm environment. In most cases, Democrats eyeing rematches will have to contend with crowded primaries with as many as half a dozen or more candidates hoping to unseat a GOP member. It’s a source of frustration for some: They may face an easier road in the general election, but it will take a much more competitive primary to get that far.
The districts with potential rematches are found across the country: Three of the seven California districts Democrats are targeting feature the candidate who lost last year. A Minnesota suburban district where the Democrat lost by 1.5 percentage points is likely to see a rematch. A Texas Democrat is running for the fourth time in a district that hasn’t been competitive in decades, but now is viewed as a potential target. Candidates who lost in 2016 are also running again in Arizona, Kansas, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan.
California’s 49th District was Democrats’ narrowest loss in 2016, with Doug Applegate falling to GOP Rep. Darrell Issa by fewer than 2,000 votes in a race decided weeks after Election Day. Applegate declared for 2018 the day after Issa’s win, and hopes that a full two-year cycle and built-up name recognition will give him an early boost.
“I’ve got 15 months to run against him this time, and trust me, it’s a completely different environment,” Applegate said. “Not the least of which was last time, nobody really knew my name until the primary. This time, I’m starting out with 154,000 endorsements.”
Democrats believe Issa is among the most vulnerable Republicans next year: He had won previous races by double digits, but the district has tilted towards Democrats recently, and Clinton defeated Trump there by seven percentage points. But Applegate won’t get a clean shot -- two other Democrats have entered the race: Paul Kerr, a Navy veteran, and Mike Levin, the former executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party.
Levin in particular could be a difficult opponent. He’s raised more than $600,000 so far this year, much higher than Applegate’s haul, and has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women and influential Rep. Adam Schiff. It has the makings of a tough primary: Levin argued that Applegate’s loss despite Clinton carrying the district showed weakness, and touted his campaign staff and links to local Democratic infrastructure as reasons he’d be a stronger opponent.
“We cannot miss another opportunity. This is a district we should have won,” Levin said.
Just north of Los Angeles, California’s 25th District has similar dynamics. Attorney Bryan Caforio lost by six percentage points to Rep. Steve Knight last year, and is running again in a district that Clinton also won by seven points. Like Applegate, Caforio argues experience and a new environment will benefit him next year.
“I was a first-time candidate and tried to build a campaign from scratch,” he told RealClearPolitics. “The most recent races that have flipped in California, it’s on the second or third time.”
But Caforio faces two formidable primary opponents: Katie Hill, a 29-year-old executive director for a group assisting the homeless, and Jess Phoenix, a scientist who studies volcanoes. Hill has strong ties to the district, and has raised almost $220,000 so far this year, nearly equal to Caforio’s haul. Though Phoenix lags behind, with just $77,000, her unique background and the significant national media spotlight she’s attracted give her a boost.
She pitched herself as the opposite of a career politician, and said Congress has an urgent need for unique experience. She did campaign training with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in Washington, and has begun to build out a local organization in the district.
“It’s sort of a message from the voters to me that they want something different,” Phoenix said of the 2016 presidential race. “I think we’re in a new era. The traditional model isn’t going to hold true.”
In California’s 21st District, Emilio Huerta, the son of a labor leader and civil rights icon, lost to Rep. David Valadao by double digits last year in a district Clinton carried by 16 points. He announced another run against Valadao, but national Democrats, frustrated by his slow fundraising and lackluster campaign, are actively recruiting the district in search of a candidate they believe would run a more engaged race.
Some rematch challengers will have a cleaner shot at their 2016 opponents. In Nebraska, former Rep. Brad Ashford (pictured, at right) is likely to face Rep. Don Bacon, who knocked him off last year. Angie Craig, a health-care executive who lost to Rep. Jason Lewis by fewer than two percentage points in a suburban Minnesota district last year, announced in July that she would run again. A third-party candidate won nearly 8 percent of the vote in that race, and Democrats are hopeful that 2018 will provide a better environment for Craig in one of their top targets.
Former Texas Rep. Peter Gallego is considering another rematch with Rep. Will Hurd, who defeated him in 2014 and again last year, but could face a contested primary. Democrat Gretchen Driskell is challenging Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg again despite losing by 15 points in 2016 in a district that heavily favored Trump. Democrat Peter Jacob, who lost to Rep. Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th District by 11 points despite backing from Sen. Bernie Sanders, is making another bid.
Amanda Howland hopes to challenge Rep. Peter Roskam again in Illinois despite losing to him by nearly 20 points last year in a district that favored Clinton, but eight Democrats have announced for that race, and others are considering entering.
In many of these contests, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is working with multiple candidates and not yet putting a foot on the scale in favor of anyone. But party officials haven’t shied away from picking favorites in past primaries, and could intervene if particular candidates begin to distinguish themselves from the field.
Republicans believe opponents’ competitive primaries will work to the GOP’s favor, and are pushing issues like support for Nancy Pelosi and single-payer health care as ways to divide Democrats.
“When you have these large numbers, they’re pulling the entire field left and even if they get the DCCC-anointed candidate through, they’re going to be unelectable in general elections if they take positions to cater to the Bernie and Elizabeth Warren base,” said Matt Gorman, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In smaller primary fields, Democrats could face bruising fights. In Kansas, Jay Sidie, a businessman who lost to Rep. Kevin Yoder last year, is running again, but faces a challenge from Andrea Ramsey, a health-care executive endorsed by EMILY’s List. Sidie lost by 11 points last year in a district Clinton carried by one point, but argues that the shift in environment alone will facilitate success this time around. He said he could run the same attacks linking Yoder to Trump that he ran last year to much greater effect now that Trump is president.
“I thought it was going to be big in ’16. My problem is, I’m a pioneer,” Sidie told RCP. “They didn’t realize how devastating Trump was going to be. But in ’18, they’re going to know.”
Sidie also took a swipe at Ramsey in the interview, expressing frustration that she didn’t run in 2016 when it was viewed as a tougher race. He suggested his primary opponent “says whatever she needs to say to get the money.” (Ramsey has raised more than $200,000 since announcing, while Sidie has only taken in $87,000 this year).
Ramsey, in an interview with RCP, didn’t address that criticism, but said her resume and deep ties to the district made her “by far the more formidable candidate” to face off against Yoder.
Other districts will feature much more crowded Democratic primaries. Matt Heinz, an emergency room doctor and former state lawmaker, lost to Rep. Martha McSally by 14 points last year in a southern Arizona district Clinton carried. Now, he faces a primary against former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick -- who left a different House seat to run for Senate last year and lost to Sen. John McCain -- as well as Bruce Wheeler, another former state lawmaker; Billy Kovacs, a community organizer and businessman; and Mary Matiella, a former political appointee in the Obama administration.
Heinz, who was frustrated the DCCC didn’t spend in the district last year, told RCP he is irked by its support for Kirkpatrick in the primary. But he also said he has commitments from the DCCC that it would be involved in the race next year if he wins the primary because the party considers McSally vulnerable.
Heinz labeled Kirkpatrick’s Senate loss to McCain “embarrassing” and a “colossal fail,” but Kirkpatrick is a formidable opponent given the name recognition and fundraising prowess from her statewide race. Meanwhile, Matiella has the endorsement of Rep. Raul Grijalva, a top Bernie Sanders supporter and co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, and Wheeler has won three state House races in the area.
If Heinz survives the primary, he believes the race against McSally will be vastly different from last year.
“Frankly, I could probably run the same ads at the same level and have, if not a victory, practically a tie this time,” Heinz said of the favorable environment. “We learned a lot, and we learned what we need to do differently.”
James Cargas, a Texas Democrat who lost the last three races to Rep. John Culberson, faces a similar situation. National Democrats have barely eyed that district in previous cycles and haven’t invested any money in it, but believe it’s within reach next year if a wave election develops. Cargas has never come within double digits of winning or spent more than $100,000 on the race, but is nonetheless confident.
“I think Democrats should learn to run multiple times and not to just give up if things don’t go well one time,” Cargas said. “Running multiple times ought to be the model, not the exception. Being persistent shows the voters that you're in this for them, not for yourself.”
Others are skeptical. One Texas Democrat with close ties to the district suggested Cargas had no shot to be the nominee: campaigns are “like his hobby. And he’s not a terribly serious guy,” the Democrat said.
Cargas faces a tough road in the primary. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston lawyer, and Alex Triantaphyllis, a businessman and founder of a nonprofit, are viewed by national Democrats as the best candidates -- Fletcher has raised $365,000 so far this year; Triantaphyllis, $451,000, nearly matching Culberson’s $468,000. Jason Westin, a physician and researcher at MD Anderson, the top-ranked cancer center based in Houston, is also seen as a formidable candidate and expects to run on his experience in the health-care industry.
Laura Moser, another candidate who gained national attention with critiques of the DCCC over its willingness to back pro-life candidates, said Democrats won’t win a reach district like Texas’ 7th by playing it safe.
“This has never been a competitive district, so we are all making these gambles,” Moser said. “I just think it’s not a year to play it safe, because we keep losing over and over again.”
Westin, on the other hand, expressed reservations about pushing too far to the left in a district that still leans heavily Republican.
“It’s a district, I think, that is ripe for change, but it’s not a blue district that’s going to elect somebody completely out of step just because it’s a blue wave,” Westin said. “That’s one of the issues in a crowded Democratic primary. If you’re running so far to the left, you can do damage to yourself for the general election.”