Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.
As I noted in my mission statement for this series, the goal of House Party is to first give you the lay of the land for Democrats’ attempt to retake the House of Representatives, and then give you news on how that attempt is going. Over the past two months I’ve profiled every seat held by a Republican that a Democratic presidential candidate won at least once in the last three cycles—and, wouldn’t you know it, a bunch of newsworthy things have happened since we ran those profiles! So let's spend this week let’s catching up on new developments in those races before we go back to profiling other seats.
The biggest stories come from the #MeToo movement. You may know of the most prominent politicians whose political careers ended because of allegations of sexual misconduct (Roy Moore, Al Franken) as well as some of the more minor ones (John Conyers, Trent Franks, Blake Farenthold, Ruben Kihuen, Tim Murphy). But you might not be aware of how the same sorts of allegations have affected congressional races—already, candidates from the two of the races I've profiled have had to drop out in the wake of scandal.
Andrea Ramsey’s campaign for Kansas’s Third District was going well—she had the support of the influential EMILY’s List PAC and appeared to be lining up a lot of establishment backers. But then the Kansas City Star found out that her old employer had settled with a former employee of hers who had sued because she retaliated against him after rejecting her advances. The lawsuit was settled, so we don’t know the evidence on either side, and Ramsey insisted he was just a disgruntled employee. Moreover, no other allegations of misconduct against her have been found. I suspect that if this had happened in 2016 she would’ve stayed in the race, but today it’s enough to sink her candidacy.
This is good news for Tom Niermann, who along with Ramsey was one of the more mainstream candidates running for the seat. As I noted when profiling the race, the seat is a bad fit for leftie Brent Welder, who likely won’t be able to count on a big base of left-wing voters in the general election and who just moved to the district from the St. Louis area. Welder’s best chance at winning the nomination came if the mainstream vote were split between Ramsey, Niermann, and 2016 candidate Jay Sidie. With Ramsey out of the race that seems less likely, though she did endorse Welder on her way out.
The allegations against Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach were far more egregious. Like many relatively remote state capitals, Harrisburg suffers from a lack of oversight that can make misconduct more likely. (Scandals have been sweeping through statehouses for months.) The Philadelphia Inquirer found a number of Leach’s former staffers alleging inappropriate workplace conduct, and he suspended his campaign for the Seventh District the week before Christmas. Current candidates Dan Muroff and Molly Sheehan are raising money well, but the DCCC apparently isn’t sold on them and is recruiting prosecutor Tanner Rouse and Army veteran Dave Foster to run here as well. Meanwhile, nobody’s quite sure what the district will look like because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (which has a 5-2 Democratic majority) will hear oral arguments this week on whether the congressional map should be overturned because it’s a partisan gerrymander. So the race for the Seventh is truly in limbo right now.
These moments show why primaries can be healthy. The last person Democrats want is to nominate someone who hasn’t been vetted by a contested primary and turns out to be a weaker than expected candidate. As we saw in the Alabama Senate race, if you nominate a dud you can’t always force them off the ballot if a scandal erupts. So to all the Democratic candidates in competitive primaries out there I beg of you: Air your opponents’ dirty laundry.
California's Crowded Primaries
Republican representatives Ed Royce and Darrell Issa have both announced they were retiring from districts that voted for Hillary Clinton after narrowly supporting Mitt Romney (though Issa may instead be cravenly eyeing a nearby, more Republican-friendly district to run in). So that’s good for Democrats, right? It is, as long as they don’t fuck this up. California has a “top two” primary system where the top two candidates from the blanket primary ballot advance to the general, regardless of party affiliation—so by the general election, there might be two Democrats or two Republicans on the ballot. Democrats faced a similar scenario in 2012 when the 31st District, which Obama won by 15 percent, opened up. Two big-name Republican candidates ran while the Democratic vote was split four ways. The top Democratic candidate then narrowly missed out on making it to the general election and Republicans won a heavily Democratic seat by default.
In the 39th Democrats had five credible candidates (Andy Thorburn, Gil Cisneros, Mai-Khanh Tran, Sam Jammal, and Phil Janowicz) and were joined by a sixth—2012 nominee Jay Chen—after Royce announced his retirement. And on the Republican side former Assemblywoman Young Kim, former State Senator Bob Huff, and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson all declared for the seat. Meanwhile in the 49th there were already four credible Democrats running before Issa’s retirement, while two established Republicans jumped in after he called it quits—Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey. In each seat a repeat of the 2012 debacle looms large.
But the pendulum could swing the other way. The Republican field could atomize in either seat and lead to a Democrat-on-Democrat general election, guaranteeing a pickup. So I’m disinclined to say now whether Democrats should get in line behind one of the candidates in either seat, just to let the election play out and see where the field is leading up to the June primary. But if Democrats do look vulnerable to being left out of the top two then I reserve the right to lose my shit and demand people coalesce behind a single candidate.
- Another Republican representative in a seat that voted for Clinton, Martha McSally, made her Arizona Senate run official. The only Republican who has declared to replace her is ostensible moderate Lea Marquez-Peterson, head of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But this being Arizona it seems likely that someone from the fringe will jump in and create a primary that hinges on whether Pizzagate is real.
- Few House Party entries engendered more pushback than when I noted that Josh Harder was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in California’s Tenth District. Local activist groups argued that he had real problems with his left flank, and now there are rumors that national Democrats are asking 2014 and 2016 candidate Michael Eggman to run again. By all accounts Eggman ran competent campaigns, and I don’t see why a Democrat who lost 52-48 in 2016 can’t win in 2018. As for Harder, you can win without left-wing support and you can win without national party support, but it’s tough to win without either so it’s hard to see a path for him if Eggman enters the race. And if left-wingers don’t like Eggman then businessman TJ Cox is emerging as their strongest candidate.
- The Tenth isn’t the only Central Valley seat where Democrats don’t like their current crop of candidates. They’re recruiting healthcare CEO Steve Schilling to be their standard bearer instead of Emilio Huerta, who lost to Representative David Valadao 57-43 in 2016. Huerta’s a poor fundraiser and his 2016 performance certainly doesn’t recommend him much in a district Clinton carried 55-40. One of the best ways Democrats can turn their voters out is by having a Latino nominee, so Huerta does have that advantage over Schilling. Of course the DCCC is aware of this, so if they’re recruiting Schilling it means potential Latino candidates like Andrae Gonzales and Rudy Salas aren’t running. That also indicates the national party really doesn’t have faith in Huerta as a candidate.
- Across the country, in New York’s 24th District neither of the current Democratic candidates—Anne Messenger and Dana Balter—have inspired much confidence. Syracuse is the biggest city in the district and its former (as of January 1) mayor Stephanie Miner has had a public Hamlet routine about whether she’ll run for the seat. Onondaga County (home to Syracuse) Democratic Party Chair Mark English is sick of waiting, so he set a deadline of February 1 for candidates to declare if they want the county party’s backing. If Miner doesn’t announce that she’s running soon, expect Democrats to scramble to find another viable candidate.
- And in New York’s Second Congressional District—remember when I said we shouldn’t read too much into Tim Gomes loaning himself $1 million because it was probably just an attempt to scare other candidates out of the race because he faced a lot of skepticism from the base? Well, I hate to say I told you so but after local activist Liuba Grechen Shirley reportedly raised more than $100,000 from small donors, Gomes dropped out. Democrats may still try to recruit Suffolk County legislator and 2016 candidate DuWayne Gregory to run against Shirley in the primary, but he actually ran behind Hillary Clinton here last year, losing 62-38.
- When we profiled New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District, former diplomat Tom Malinowski was a recent entrant and it was unclear how viable his campaign was. Well, by one measure he’s the frontrunner here: He raised more than half a million dollars in Q4 alone. However, as a former diplomat his ties to the actual district are pretty weak: he’s spent much of the last two decades in Washington, DC or abroad. So don’t count out other candidates like Lisa Mandelblatt, who’s sitting on a comparable amount of cash and has been more deeply involved in the community.
Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.