House Party

This Is How Democrats Can Win Back Congress

Wild primaries in Texas and an upcoming special election in Pennsylvania offer hints of what the opposition can do to storm to victory—and how they could blow it.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz

Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.

On Tuesday night, a special election is being held in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district, and nobody knows what to expect. A raft of recent polls have shown the race between Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone to be a toss-up. This is notable because the 18th supported Trump by about 20 percentage points, and if Republicans are fighting Democrats to a draw in seats Trump destroyed them in less than two years ago, odds are they’re losing control of the House this November.


The most prominent House special election to date was in Georgia’s Sixth District, which Trump won by only 1 percent and where Republican Karen Handel fended off a spirited but flawed challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff. After that loss, I suggested that if the 2018 midterms had been held then and there, Democrats would not have retaken the House. After all, in wave elections, the dominant party improves their performance over the presidential top-line in virtually every competitive open seat—if a tsunami were coming, Ossoff should have won.

I still think that was the case—Democrats weren’t yet in a position to take back the House last June. The true depths of the Trump Administration’s depravity were not yet known, Congress’s most unpopular ideas had not been fully fleshed out, and Republicans had been galvanized by the recent shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise.

But I suspect that if the Georgia Sixth special were held on Tuesday, Democrats would be favored in it for these very reasons—the national environment for Republicans has arguably worsened significantly over the last nine months. And, in Pennsylvania’s 18th, not only do Democrats have a better environment, they have a better candidate. Meanwhile, Republicans have a flawed nominee who has alienated a lot of the pro-labor social conservatives in the area by supporting right-to-work laws and cuts to Social Security and Medicare.


Then again, flawed Republicans have won plenty of times in the past, so Democrats should still try to take some lessons from Lamb’s campaign—even if he loses, coming close in this seat is impressive. What are those lessons, you ask?

Tie Your Opponent To Paul Ryan

In conservative districts like the 18th, Trump is still relatively popular. In a poll last week that showed Lamb up three percentage points, Trump still had a net-positive approval rating. So Lamb has mostly ignored the president while hammering Saccone for supporting Ryan’s proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Ryan’s numbers nationwide are netting out around -20, and unlike Trump, he doesn’t really seem to inspire much loyalty unless your district is full of Heritage Foundation interns. If you’re a Democrat running in a conservative district, Paul Ryan is a much safer punching bag.

Run on Social Security and Medicare

The two biggest and most effective government programs also happen to be the most popular. Republicans have, for many years now, put both in their crosshairs, and Lamb has been hammering Saccone on exactly that. Lamb has one ad in particular that Democrats nationwide should copy, effectively portraying the tax cut as a pretext for cutting those programs. Perhaps that’s why Republicans quietly ditched their own slate of ads supporting it. Instead, they’re focusing on tying Conor Lamb to Nancy Pelosi. Speaking of which…

Ditch Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi’s approval ratings are almost identical to Paul Ryan’s, and it’s hard to think of any voter who would decline to support a candidate who calls for new Democratic leadership in the House. She and her top lieutenant have led Democrats since 2003 and have been able to steer the party to majorities in just two of the seven Congresses seated since. This means opposition to her from Democrats comes from across the ideological spectrum, with the leadership team seen as millstones on the right and ineffective tools of the donor/consultant class on the left. Lamb has repeatedly said he won’t support Pelosi for Speaker; other Democrats should do the same. They might even get some badly needed new blood in leadership if they follow through, and the DCCC apparently won’t punish them for it.

In any event, if you want to follow this race’s results live, they’ll start coming in around 8 PM Tuesday night, and we’ll probably know the winner before bed. Nobody’s quite sure what a Lamb win would look like, but everyone expects him to do better in the portions of Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh) in the 18th than the Washington, Westmoreland and Greene County precincts. One model (based on State Auditor Eugene DePasquale’s performance here in 2016) would have Lamb taking 56 percent in Allegheny, 47 percent in Washington and 43-44 percent in Greene and Westmoreland. But considering how Democrats overachieved in suburban areas in 2017 special elections, Lamb might get closer to 60 percent in Allegheny and lag further behind in the outlying areas, with turnout higher closer to Pittsburgh.


Of course, Pennsylvania 18th is the second big election night in as many weeks, as last Tuesday saw Texas’s first-in-the-nation 2018 midterm primary. Looking at the results, there are plenty of conclusions to draw, but with a caveat. Democrats have two major ways to ensure the nomination of insider-backed candidates: a strong state party, and closed primaries that keep out unaffiliated voters. Texas has neither. So insurgent candidates will perform better there than elsewhere. Keeping that in mind, there are still four lessons to take from what happened in the Lone Star State.

TV Ads Won’t Make Up For Being Moderate

In Democrats’ top three target districts, relatively moderate candidates who stood out as good fundraisers—Alex Triantaphyllis (TX-07), Jay Hulings (TX-23) and Ed Meier (TX-32)—finished in fourth place. Top fundraisers have an advantage because they can spend more money on TV ads, but in a low-turnout primary, those ads matter less than in a general election. In each of those races, a candidate only needed around 8,000 votes to make a runoff. A turnout operation can get you 8,000 votes about as well as a barrage of TV ads. So a big money advantage doesn’t mean much if you can’t get your people to the polls.

Where this might come into play: Fundraising leaders in NY-01, NH-01 and MA-03 all have weak ties to their districts and so are unlikely to have a ton of grassroots support. And while Angie Craig has posted astounding fundraising numbers, Jeff Erdmann is running an insurgent left-wing campaign focused on turnout in MN-02. That said…


Don’t Count Women Out

The most surprising result of last Tuesday's primaries was Mary Street Wilson finishing first in the TX-21 primary. She had the least money of any candidate and what appeared to be a Magic Eye poster on the biography section of her website. But she was the only woman in her race and pulled 31 percent. Gina Ortiz Jones, meanwhile, makes for a solid favorite heading into the TX-23 runoff, two women advanced in TX-07, and even though Colin Allred dominated in TX-32, it was Lillian Salerno and not Ed Meier or Brett Shipp who’ll face him in the runoff. Being the only female candidate on the ballot will likely be an advantage in Democratic primaries nationwide.

Where This Might Come Into Play: In next week’s Illinois primaries, the 13th District’s Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and 14th District’s Lauren Underwood will be the only notable women on their primary ballots. And with no runoff in the state, they are probably the favorites for their respective nominations. Democrats scrambling to avoid getting shut out of the Top Two runoff—where the candidates who earn the most votes regardless of party advance to the general—in California’s 39th and 49th districts might be wise to throw support behind Mai Khanh Tran and Sara Jacobs, even if neither is a perfect candidate.

Establishment Candidates Can Win If They’re Politically Established

The TX-16 and TX-29 primaries were relative snoozes for Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, respectively. Both faced well-funded challengers but had represented most or all of both districts as County Judge and State Senator respectively. Escobar in particular faced attacks from the left (her husband is an immigration judge) but she still managed to win her primary and avoid a runoff.

Where This Might Come Into Play: Next week, Chuy Garcia, who’s represented much of IL-04 in various local offices over the past three decades, is the heavy favorite over Sol Flores. Joe Neguse represents CO-02 on the state Board of Regents and is the heavy favorite in his primary. And while Brad Ashford may be a moderate male, having represented NE-02 before probably gives him an advantage against Kara Eastman.


The DCCC Needs To Take A Light Touch In Primaries

Laura Moser is not a very good candidate, and her brand of smug online liberalism seems guaranteed to turn off both conservatives and bona fide leftists. But when the DCCC intervened in her race. it seemed to backfire horribly. Both statistics and anecdotes suggest that, at the very least, the move got some liberals sitting on the fence to back Moser over Jason Westin. Her margin was wide enough that I don’t think it can be entirely blamed on the DCCC, but if they had released their damaging oppo research on her earlier, and through a friendly journalist instead of a press release, I suspect she wouldn’t have done nearly as well.

Now she’s facing a runoff against the establishment favorite Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, and both the national Democratic Party and Moser’s movement allies are digging in. It’s going to be a nasty battle, and it may cost Democrats the seat. If Moser wins, they’re stuck with a flawed candidate. If Fletcher wins, there’s a chance Moser’s supporters sit the race out. I spent a lot of time researching how Bernie Sanders supporters behaved in the 2016 election, and for many of those who didn’t vote in the general, their justification was that the DNC was corrupt and tilted against their candidate. Moser only had about 8,000 people vote for her in the primary, but if some of them decide to bail on the general, it could be enough to sink Fletcher in a close race.

Where This Might Come Into Play: The DCCC has already been kneecapped. Moser’s resilience in the face of their attacks means other similarly situated candidates won’t—or at least shouldn't—be afraid of them. This means it’ll be difficult for the establishment to thin the fields in California primaries where Democrats are at risk of missing the Top Two and advancing to the gen. So not only did the DCCC potentially cost themselves TX-7 with this move, but maybe even CA-39 and CA-49 as well.

This last lesson from Texas is probably the most important. Democrats appear to be on the verge of a wave election after which the typical freshman congressman will feel little loyalty to the national party. And as soon as Tuesday, we'll find out if disavowing Nancy Pelosi can win you a district where Trump won by 20 points. If I were offered a wager on who will be the next speaker of the House, I'd take the field over both Pelosi and Paul Ryan (well, assuming I got odds).

Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.