If Democrats Win These Seats, They're Taking Back Congress

A look at the long-shot districts that Democrats are targeting in the midterms.

Feb 12 2018, 5:00am

Image by LIa Kantrowitz

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

Welcome to the final installment of our intro series, where we’re really getting into the weeds. These are traditionally Republican districts with entrenched incumbents. Democrats can win the House without winning any of these, and right now only a few are on national radars. But there are surprise victories in any midterm wave—in 2010 Republicans beat veteran Democrats in seats that never voted for George W. Bush or John McCain, including two congressmen who had served for more than ten terms. So if the Democrats have a big night in November, some of these could fall.

Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District (Bluegrass Region)

2016: Clinton 39–Trump 55
2012: Obama 42–Romney 56
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54

OK, before you get discouraged by those presidential toplines, take a look at Amy McGrath’s badass intro ad. She’s raised a metric buttload of money off that. And for the more analytical minded among you, note that Senator Rand Paul lost this district last year even though he won statewide, and the area was represented by a Democrat in Congress from 2005–2013. Oh, and the guy that Paul lost to in this district last year, Lexington mayor Jim Gray? He’s running, too! This is actually shaping up to be a rather nasty primary, with McGrath even hinting that she’d run as an independent if Gray entered the race (she thankfully backed down).

Utah’s Fourth Congressional District (Salt Lake City Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 32–Trump 39
2012: Obama 30–Romney 67
2008: Obama 41–McCain 56

The presidential toplines aren’t terribly instructive here because Evan McMullin ran particularly well in Utah and in 2012 Obama was running against the LDS JFK (or rather, the LDS Al Smith). Democrats are no doubt heartened by the fact that in three runs for this seat, incumbent Mia Love has never gotten more than 53 percent and that they managed to beat her in 2012. This year she has to face Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, best known for going undercover as a homeless person to garner support for building homeless shelters. He’s popular enough to make this race immediately competitive, and he only trails Love by a few points.

Notably, Utah has a pernicious gerrymander, but it only costs Democrats one seat. You could easily put Salt Lake City and its immediate suburbs in one district, rural Utah in another, and other densely populated areas of the Wasatch Front into two more districts. Such a configuration would be fair and give Republicans a solid 3-1 edge in the delegation. But we’re talking about Republicans here, they’re greedy bastards and they sliced Democratic Salt Lake City up like a pizza, putting its most liberal parts in the same district as uber-Republican rural Utah. Democrats are most competitive in the Fourth, but a fair map could entrench McAdams for a decade.

Colorado’s Third Congressional District (Western Slope)

2016: Clinton 40–Trump 52
2012: Obama 46–Romney 52
2008: Obama 48–McCain 50

This is another district where Democrats have historically run better for Congress than president—from 2004-2010 and 1986-1992 it sent Democrats to Congress even as it voted for Republicans in the White House. Former State Legislator Diane Mitsch Bush is already running for the Democratic nomination, and Robert Baer (a former CIA officer whose book served as part of the inspiration for Syriana) is considering joining her. Incumbent Scott Tipton hasn’t done much to distinguish himself while in Congress, but repeat after me: in a wave year anyone could be vulnerable.

Correction: An earlier version of this entry confused Dan and Robert Baer.

West Virginia’s Second Congressional District (Central West Virginia)

2016: Clinton 29–Trump 66
2012: Obama 38–Romney 60
2008: Obama 44–McCain 55

Incumbent Alex Mooney is weaker than those presidential toplines would have you think. In 2014 he first ran for this seat after serving as chairman of the state Republican Party. The problem was that he served as chairman of the state Republican Party in neighboring Maryland. He got 36 percent in the Republican primary, but with a split field that was enough to make it to the general. He only won the seat by 2 points as Democrats hammered him for being a carpetbagger, and that was in a great Republican year. Democrats naturally thought they could take him down in 2016, but they nominated a former state legislator best known for trying to clone his dead son. Still, Mooney only won 58–42, pretty weak for a district that only gave Clinton 29 percent of the vote.

Democrats have two viable candidates here: Talley Sergent and Aaron Scheinberg. Sergent is a former aide to a Democratic West Virginia senator and HIllary Clinton. Scheinberg is a West Point grad and veterans advocate, but his weak ties to the district make Sergent the better candidate.

Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District (Richmond Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 44–Trump 50
2012: Obama 44–Romney 56
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54

The wealthy suburbs of Richmond were Eric Cantor’s old base before he was beaten in a primary by David Brat because he wasn’t conservative enough. But while Brat may be an extremely right-wing congressman, Trump’s schtick didn’t play well among the moderates here in 2016 and it’s feasible a Democrat other than Hillary Clinton could’ve come even closer than 7 points. Former Marine pilot Dan Ward and former CIA agent Abigail Spanberger hope to be such Democrats, but first they’ll have to duke it out in the primary. Meanwhile Brat has done nothing to endear himself to moderates in his district. Republican Ed Gillespie carried the Seventh in his failed gubernatorial run, but at least he made the effort to tack to the middle.

North Carolina’s Second Congressional District (Research Triangle Exurbs)

2016: Clinton 44–Trump 53
2012: Obama 44–Romney 56
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54

North Carolina has one of the most aggressive gerrymanders in the country, so any geographic description of districts should be taken with a grain of salt. The Second was drawn so that the neighboring Fourth would pack in as many Democrats as possible, and if Justice Anthony Kennedy sides with the good and the right in Gill v. Whitford then this district could be redrawn to be much more amenable to Democrats.

But even if the Second stays in its current shape through the 2018 elections, Democrats have reason for hope here. Tech exec Ken Romley and former State Representative Linda Coleman will face off for the right to take on George Holding. And in 2018 North Carolina might be in for a Democratic backlash to a Republican legislature that seems to be subverting democracy at every turn.

North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District (Charlotte Suburbs to Fayetteville)

2016: Clinton 43–Trump 54
2012: Obama 44–Romney 56
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54

The Ninth may have a pronounced Republican lean but it’s also schizophrenic. On its western end are upscale Republican areas that turned away from Trump. On its eastern end are rural traditionally Democratic areas that are home to the Lumbee Tribe. The Lumbee traditionally vote Democratic but are culturally conservative and turned sharply toward Trump in 2016. So the majority of voters here may have voted for a Democrat at one point, just not at the same time.

Further complicating matters is Representative Robert Pittenger. His old real estate company was under FBI investigation for a few years and we never figured out why. That’s why he only won his primary last year with 34 percent of the vote. After that he said protesters in Charlotte were envious of white people because white people are successful. But ol’ Bobby still pulled in 58 percent of the vote against an underfunded Democrat.

So the party has reason to feel good about challenger Dan McCready. A veteran and a clean energy executive who’s outraised Pittenger and has more money available, he checks all of the boxes for a viable challenger. Now he just needs to execute in a district that has no discernible identity but still favors Republicans.

Ohio’s First Congressional District (Cincinnati)

2016: Clinton 45–Trump 51
2012: Obama 46–Romney 52
2008: Obama 47–McCain 52

It’s actually possible to draw a congressional district entirely within Cincinnati’s Hamilton County. But such a district would reliably vote Democratic, so the GOP legislature cracked the county between the First and Second districts instead. The First is the more Democratic of the two—Cincinnati is liberal enough that even adding all of heavily Republican Warren County to it still makes the district winnable.

But Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, a Democratic challenger, is undeterred. A rising star in the party, he’d be a fresh face compared to Chabot, who’s represented the district for all but two years since 1994. And with Ohio considering a bipartisan gerrymandering commission, Pureval could end up with a much safer seat if he could hang onto the First through 2022.

California’s 22nd Congressional District (Central Valley)

2016: Clinton 43–Trump 52
2012: Obama 42–Romney 57
2008: Obama 42–McCain 55

Yes, the 22nd has a pronounced Republican lean. But the incumbent is that motherfucking piece of shit Devin Nunes. His attempts to subvert democracy at every turn are hurting his popularity, as a recent poll showed him up only 5 points on his main challenger, prosecutor Andrew Janz. Also keep an eye on how he does in California’s June blanket primary. If he gets less than 55 percent or so it means he’ll be in trouble come November, when the electorate should be even more liberal.

Washington’s Fifth Congressional District (Eastern Washington)

2016: Clinton 39–Trump 52
2012: Obama 44–Romney 54
2008: Obama 46–McCain 51

Eastern Washington has more in common with Idaho than deep-blue Western Washington. But it’s not immune to electing Democrats; the last Democratic speaker of the House before Nancy Pelosi, Tom Foley, actually represented this district. But Foley lost in 1994 because his opponent took a three-term limit pledge (his replacement naturally reneged on the pledge) and the district has been in Republican hands since.

Now the Fifth is represented by Cathy McMorris Rodgers. She got in a bit of hot water last year when it emerged she had ties with alt-right figure James Allsup, who was also the head of the Washington State College Republicans. She denied knowing him but it’s highly unlikely that a Republican member of Congress didn’t ever contact the head of the College Republicans at the biggest university in her district.

Democrats have a stellar recruit here in Lisa Brown. She’s a former state legislator who then served as the chancellor of Washington State University until she stepped down to run for Congress. This seat is far from an easy win, but the stars do appear to be aligning for Democrats.

Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District (Oklahoma City)

2016: Clinton 40–Trump 53
2012: Obama 41–Romney 59
2008: Obama 41–McCain 59

Oklahoma County (home of Oklahoma City) is the 80th most populous county in the nation but the ninth most populous to vote for Trump. And like many of those other populous counties it has a lot of college-educated voters who normally lean Republican but may be turned off by the Trump era.

So Democrats are excited about Kendra Horn’s campaign against Representative Steve Russell in the Fifth, where almost 90 percent of the votes come from Oklahoma County. The state recently went through an education funding debacle created by Republicans, so Democrats have been winning special elections in far more Republican seats downballot. Horn seemed to catch Russell off guard when she outraised him in Q3 of last year, but since then the incumbent’s done a better job of shaking the K Street money tree.

Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District (Gwinnett County)

2016: Clinton 45–Trump 51
2012: Obama 38–Romney 60
2008: Obama 39–McCain 60

Gwinnett County is a rapidly diversifying suburb of Atlanta, with many Asian and Latinx migrants settling along the Buford Highway corridor. Barack Obama never won more than 45 percent there but in 2016 Clinton was the second Democrat since JFK to win it (the other being Georgia’s own Jimmy Carter). The second-biggest county in Georgia, it can support a congressional district on its own, but Republicans paired much of it with whiter and more conservative exurbs to its east to make the Seventh.

Representative Rob Woodall has never had to run a contested general election. He’s a former congressional aide who won a primary to replace his boss. Since then he has not distinguished himself in any meaningful way and is best known for trying to make it easier for Republicans to slash the budget. So he could have a glass chin.

And Democrats certainly have a puncher’s chance. Professor Carolyn Bourdeaux and businessmen Ethan Pham and David Kim are all running here and have raised solid amounts to date (though Pham and Kim appear to be running out of steam on that front). The district is 19 percent African-American, 13 percent Asian, and 18 percent Latinx, so whoever the nominee is would be wise to work on minority turnout.

Ohio’s 14th Congressional District (Cleveland Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 42–Trump 54
2012: Obama 48–Romney 51
2008: Obama 49–McCain 49

As you can see, the 14th should have been closely contested during the Obama era. The problem is that Republicans like former Representative Steve LaTourette and current Representative David Joyce have been able to run on a moderate image and Democrats never even came close, even though they’ve usually nominated viable candidates.

And while Joyce is a normally Republican vote he didn’t support the AHCA. So now Sean Hannity, Jared Kushner, and Michael Cohen (who for some reason is still Trump’s attorney) asked Darrell Scott, CEO of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, as a potential primary challenger. (Yes, I thought Don King was in charge of Trump’s diversity coalition too.) But the filing deadline came and went without him declaring his candidacy, so that ship has sailed.

If the district reverts to its Obama-era form the general election could be closely contested.

This entry has been updated to reflect the fact that Scott is not running.

California’s 50th Congressional District (San Diego Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 40–Trump 55
2012: Obama 38–Romney 60
2008: Obama 39–McCain 58

Spending money in a solidly red congressional district like this with no history of electing Democrats would normally be a waste. But when you’re dealing with Duncan Hunter Jr.—the vaping congressman—then normally doesn’t apply. You see, Hunter has gone from a rising star to a cautionary tale. If reports are to be believed, this member of the "bros caucus" is spending his time in DC drinking at work and cheating on his wife instead of engaging in the normal congressional behavior of begging donors for money. And while he was broing down his wife was back home in San Diego allegedly spending campaign funds on personal expenses, which is illegal.

Anyway, Hunter’s lackadaisical attitude toward work might be catching up to him, as he’s caught up in an FBI probe and Republicans are openly questioning his ability to serve. He also has a pair of credible Democratic opponents in former Navy SEAL Josh Butner and former Department of Labor staffer/total dime Ammar Campa Najjar. The district is so conservative it’s unlikely Democrats would beat a Republican candidate not named Duncan Hunter Jr. (his father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr., would win here with ease) so it’s unclear whether it’d be a good investment. Even if Butner or Campa Najjar does win it’d be hard to hold onto the district in 2020.

Texas’s 31st Congressional District (Austin Exurbs)

2016: Clinton 41–Trump 54
2012: Obama 38–Romney 60
2008: Obama 43–McCain 56

Ohio’s 15th Congressional District (Columbus Exurbs)

2016: Clinton 40–Trump 55
2012: Obama 46–Romney 52
2008: Obama 46–McCain 52

Arkansas’s Second Congressional District (Little Rock)

2016: Clinton 42–Trump 52
2012: Obama 43–Romney 55
2008: Obama 44–McCain 54

I’m grouping these three districts together because none of them were on Democrats’ radars heading into 2018 but all have had polls (some private) showing Democrats within striking distance. If you want to make a 15-seed over 2-seed prediction, Democrats MJ Hegar (Texas), Richard Neal (Ohio), and Clarke Tucker (Arkansas) might be the Cinderellas you’re looking for.

California’s Fourth Congressional District (Sierra Nevadas)

2016: Clinton 39–Trump 54
2012: Obama 40–Romney 58
2008: Obama 43–McCain 54

Missouri’s Second Congressional District (St. Louis Suburbs)

2016: Clinton 42–Trump 52
2012: Obama 41–Romney 57
2008: Obama 46–McCain 53

Ohio’s Seventh Congressional District (Northeastern Ohio)

2016: Clinton 33–Trump 63
2012: Obama 44–Romney 54
2008: Obama 46–McCain 51

Florida’s 16th Congressional District (Sarasota/Bradenton)

2016: Clinton 43–Trump 54
2012: Obama 45–Romney 54
2008: Obama 48–McCain 51

New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District (Central Jersey)

2016: Clinton 41–Trump 56
2012: Obama 45–Romney 54
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54

West Virginia’s First Congressional District (Northern West Virginia)

2016: Clinton 26–Trump 68
2012: Obama 35–Romney 62
2008: Obama 42–McCain 57

As you can see from those presidential toplines, a Republican will win these districts most years. The best-case scenario for a Democrat varies, but it appears to be somewhere north of 40 percent but south of 50 percent. In spite of that, these districts have candidates that are raising enough money to be competitive next November. It’s unlikely any of them will win, but there’s a nonzero chance that there’s an upset here.

And if you’re a Democrat, that’s what should give you hope. In the course of all these previews, I’ve listed more than 90 seats where the party has a chance. The majority of those chances will probably fizzle out at some point, but considering how slanted the House map is against Democrats this is a decent place for them to be. Democrats only need to net 24 seats to take back control of the House, so having such a wide playing field is the best they can hope for months before the election.

It’s impossible to say today whether the Democrats will take back the House. There’s too much campaign left ahead of us. When I was in college we learned that campaigns only matter on the margins and that the outcome of an election is pretty much determined a few months out, and the voters who decide at the last minute have a minimal impact on the eventual result. Well, 2016 showed us that may no longer be the case. My theory is that the social media era makes every news event the most important, irrespective of its actual weight. It’s why Clinton’s email server was seemingly more important than Trump’s history of corruption and abuse by Election Day. Voters now have the memories of goldfish, aided and abetted by media in a neverending feedback loop of RTs, shares, and signal boosting off whatever the latest thing happens to be. An historically unpopular president with no legislative achievements and an economy that’s bound to slow down SHOULD lift Democrats to victory in November, but we simply can’t forecast that far out.

But what we can do is keep an eye on House races and make sure Democrats are positioning themselves as well as possible to take advantage of a potential wave election. That’s what this series is for. Keeping you updated, letting you know which primary candidates would be the best choice, which districts near you that you might want to volunteer in, and what could happen if a redistricting lawsuit scrambles the election. Next week, we’ll start that part of the project in earnest.

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