House Party

Here Are the House Seats Where Democrats Could Be in Trouble

As the Democrats try to take back the House this year, they'll have to make sure they don't lose ground in these key races.

by Robert Wheel
Jan 22 2018, 3:30pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

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

Before we get into this week’s subject—the places where Democrats are on defense—I wanna drop a little history on you. Democrats are shaping up to have a good 2018. If Trump’s approval ratings continue to languish in the 30s, Democrats will likely win the House back, meaning a gain of 24 seats or more. And when parties have wave elections, their veteran congressmen are usually pretty safe. The last time a party gained 20-plus seats but had a veteran (more than one-term) congressman lose was 1980, when the Reagan landslide wasn’t enough to save veteran Ohio Republican Samuel L. Devine from Bob Shamansky. Shamansky only served one term in the Columbus-area seat before losing to a young go-getter named John Kasich.

In other words, Democrats should be wary of losing open seats held by vulnerable freshmen. But the veterans on this list shouldn’t be too worried unless Trump manages to turn things around.

Minnesota’s First Congressional District (Southern Minnesota)

Presidential election results:
2016: Clinton 38–Trump 53
2012: Obama 50–Romney 48
2008: Obama 51–McCain 47

Minnesota’s congressional delegation is the country’s most aberrant. There are three Democrats in rural seats that voted for Donald Trump, and two Republicans in suburban seats where Trump couldn’t crack 50 percent. So there could be turnover in both directions. Democrats have the most reason for concern in the First because incumbent Representative Tim Walz is running for governor. Veteran and former assistant secretary of defense Dan Feehan appears to be the party’s favorite, but he could be vulnerable to Republican attacks of opportunism as he hasn’t lived here since high school. Still, when you leave the district to serve in the military voters usually give you a pass.

On the Republican side, 2016 nominee Jim Hagedorn is running again, but it’s unclear whether his surprisingly good showing against Walz that year (he lost by fewer than 1 percent) was due to political skill or the fact that Trump was more interested in winning the state than Clinton (as with Wisconsin and Michigan, the 2012 margin here is probably more indicative of the district’s baseline behavior). He’s also dating the state party chair, which has made some other potential Republican challengers afraid to run against him in a primary. But State Senator Carla Nelson is challenging him nonetheless.

Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District (Western Minnesota)

2016: Clinton 31–Trump 62
2012: Obama 44–Romney 54
2008: Obama 47–McCain 50

In 2009, there were almost 50 Democratic congressmen sitting in seats that John McCain won. Today only one of them, Collin Peterson, is still in the House. Peterson has actually supported Trump 66 percent of the time, more than any other Democrat, but less than all but two Republicans. Though he’s pro-life, Peterson still provides a key Democratic vote on issues like tax reform and healthcare—notable to pro-choice Democrats who want to purge the party of pro-life members.

Peterson won with 53 percent of the vote last year, running more than 20 percent ahead of Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to see how he loses in 2018 if he didn’t in 2016, but if there’s anything I learned from 2016, it’s that politicians can always blow a two-foot putt. Democrats would be hard-pressed to hold this seat when he retires but that may be a moot point when it happens: Minnesota will likely lose a district after the 2020 Census, and Peterson’s is the obvious one to be cannibalized.

Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District (The Iron Range)

2016: Clinton 39–Trump 54
2012: Obama 52–Romney 46
2008: Obama 53–McCain 45

Congressman Rick Nolan represented the adjacent Sixth District from 1974–1980, spent 32 years in the private sector, then returned to win a seat in Congress for a second time at age 69 in 2012. Damn millennials and their nontraditional career paths! According to FiveThirtyEight, Nolan is the most valuable Democrat running for reelection, so the party should do as much as it can to shore him up.

Nolan has faced local wealthy failson Stewart Mills in both his reelection bids, narrowly winning each time. Republicans decided running a rich kid in a white working-class district wasn’t working, so their likely 2018 nominee is Duluth cop and former hockey player Pete Stauber. And Nolan, who supported a controversial new mine in the Iron Range, also faces a challenge from the left in the primary and a third-party candidate who could siphon away anti-mining liberal votes in the general.

New Hampshire’s First Congressional District (Boston exurbs)

2016: Clinton 47–Trump 48
2012: Obama 50–Romney 49
2008: Obama 53–McCain 46

Here’s incumbent Carol Shea-Porter’s congressional career:

  • 2006: Beats a DCCC-favored candidate in a primary, given up on by the national party because she can’t raise money, still manages to upset an incumbent Republican in a good Democratic year, 51-49
  • 2008: Defeats the former congressman in a rematch 52–46.
  • 2010: Loses reelection 54–42 to Frank Giunta, mayor of the biggest city in her district.
  • 2012: Beats Giunta 50–46 in a rematch.
  • 2014: Giunta wins a re-rematch 52–48.
  • 2016: Turns out Giunta won the re-rematch with the help of illegal donations from his parents, and Shea-Porter wins a re-re-rematch 44–43.
  • 2018: Shea-Porter announces she’s retiring.

Normally when an incumbent retires it puts their party at a disadvantage because they’ve built up support in the district and perform better than a generic candidate. But as you can see from Shea-Porter’s electoral history, she never had such an advantage. So when she announced she was retiring it didn’t really affect how people saw this race; it was always going to be competitive.

The Democratic primary is crowded, but New Hampshire executive councilor Chris Pappas is probably the frontrunner. Long a rising star in the state, he can probably hold onto the seat for more than two terms in a row. But he’ll have to beat a number of other candidates including former Obama administration official Maura Sullivan, whose ties to the state are so weak she couldn’t even get the shape of New Hampshire right in her logo.

Nevada’s Third Congressional District (Las Vegas Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 47–Trump 48
2012: Obama 50–Romney 49
2008: Obama 54–McCain 45

Representative Jacky Rosen is leaving the House after just one term to run against embattled Senator Dean Heller, and philanthropist Susie Lee (who lost the primary in the neighboring Fourth District last year) is the heavy favorite to replace her on the ballot, having wrapped up nearly every endorsement of note in the state. As is the case with Florida’s 26th and 27th, the two districts both include parts of the Vegas suburbs, and there isn’t a meaningful community of interest corresponding with the border between them. So I don’t think Lee will be penalized too harshly for running first in one district then another. However, she and her husband own a Romney-esque 17 homes, so a Republican opponent could paint her as out of touch with the district for other reasons. State Senator Scott Hammond is a teacher, so if he wins the GOP primary he could be the man to pursue that line. However, his fundraising has been lousy to date.

New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District (North Jersey)

2016: Clinton 48–Trump 49
2012: Obama 48–Romney 51
2008: Obama 49–Romney 51

Former representative Scott Garrett wasn’t just a corporate shill like most Republicans, he was also an anti-gay culture warrior who opposed the Export-Import Bank on ideological grounds. All of that made him a poor fit for the suburban portions of this district (it reaches into rural Jersey as well), and former Clinton aide Josh Gottheimer used those weaknesses to beat Garrett 51–47 even as Clinton lost the district 48-49. Gottheimer has tacked to the middle and Republicans have had a hard time recruiting a candidate against him; right now political gadfly Steve Lonergan is the frontrunner. If Clinton had won Gottheimer would be a top target, but it’s hard to see Republicans expending too much effort here.

Arizona’s First Congressional District (Rural Arizona)

2016: Clinton 47–Trump 48
2012: Obama 48–Romney 50
2008: Obama 48–McCain 51

The First has always been closely contested but freshman Congressman Tom O’Halleran won by a relatively easy 51–43. That’s likely because he was running against then Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu, who was hobbled by a number of scandals. So Republicans think they can win the seat back in 2018 and have landed a decent recruit in State Senator Steve Smith. He still has to get through a primary, and Republicans could nominate a fringe candidate again, but the race bears watching as even in a wave a seat like this could get caught in the undertow.

Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District (Northeast Pennsylvania)

2016: Clinton 43–Trump 53
2012: Obama 55–Romney 43
2008: Obama 57–McCain 42

The 17th was actually drawn as a Democratic vote sink. In 2002, Republicans controlled redistricting in Pennsylvania and tried to get rid of Democratic Representative Tim Holden by drawing him into a GOP-leaning district around Harrisburg with a Republican incumbent. But that Republican hadn’t run a competitive race in decades, and Holden won. And he kept winning.

Holden's big edge was that the district contained Schuylkill County, where he was personally popular after serving as county sheriff even though it’s a traditionally Republican area. So in 2012 Republicans put all of Schuylkill in the same district as a bunch of far more Democratic outlying areas. That led to Scranton attorney Matt Cartwright challenging him in a primary and knocking him off.

In 2016, Cartwright only won by 7 points against a relative unknown; so he could be vulnerable to banker John Chrin, who’s shown a willingness to self-fund his campaign. If Republican fortunes improve, this could be a district to watch, but for now I’m dubious of the former JP Morgan banker who just moved to the district from New Jersey.

New York’s 18th Congressional District (Lower Hudson River Valley)

2016: Clinton 47–Trump 49
2012: Obama 51–Romney 47
2008: Obama 52–McCain 47

Iowa’s Second Congressional District (Southeast Iowa)

2016: Clinton 45–Trump 49
2012: Obama 56–Romney 43
2008: Obama 57–McCain 42

Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District (Western Wisconsin)

2016: Clinton 45–Trump 49
2012: Obama 55–Romney 44
2008: Obama 59–McCain 39

Illinois’s 17th Congressional District (Quad Cities, Rockford, Peoria)

2016: Clinton 47–Trump 47
2012: Obama 58–Romney 41
2008: Obama 60–McCain 39

I’m lumping these four districts together because Republicans haven’t made any serious attempts to contest any of them in 2018. It’s rumored that a state senator might run against Iowa Congressman David Loebsack, but even then it just looks like Republicans will trot out the same guy who he beat last year. Perhaps if the environment improves for Republicans these districts could be competitive, but for now you can kind of put them out of mind.

There are a few districts won by Clinton and held by Democrats (Arizona’s Ninth, Florida’s Seventh, Florida’s 13th, California’s Seventh) that could be competitive next year, and if Trump and Republicans’ favorability recovers we’ll do a series on them. But for now, I’m not too concerned about such districts, and we can focus elsewhere. So next week we’ll be looking at districts that should be safely Democratic, but will be the sites of fierce primary battles.

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