House Party

A Lot of Congressional Races Got Upended by Filing Deadlines

Dropouts, forged signatures, and a Republican who may have picked the wrong moment to retire.

by Robert Wheel
Mar 26 2018, 8:55pm

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty

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

In the last month a raft of states have had filing deadlines, and various fuckups, surprises, and shenanigans have taken Democrats by surprise and even affected the likelihood that they’ll win some seats back.

The most impactful surprises came in California. In the Central Valley’s 21st District, Emilio Huerta dropped out of the race just days before the deadline, briefly leaving Republican incumbent David Valadao without an opponent in a district that voted for Clinton 55-40. Thankfully businessman TJ Cox switched from running in the Tenth District to the 21st, which is closer to his Fresno home. Valadao and the NRCC were ready for his entry with hits on multiple lawsuits against Cox’s businesses, but for the congressman that’s throwing a rock from a big ol’ glass house.

Democrats caught breaks further south when in the 39th where two candidates—Jay Chen and Phil Janowicz—took one for the team and bowed out before the filing deadline. There are still sizable candidate fields for both Democrats and Republicans here so either party could be shut out of the nefarious top two runoff but Democrats would probably breathe easier if one or two of their top four candidates—Gil Cisneros, Mai Khanh Tran, Sam Jammal, and Andy Thorburn—threw in the towel before the June 5 blanket primary (even though dropping out after the filing deadline means you remain on the ballot). Thorburn puzzlingly has gotten the endorsement of left-wing groups like Our Revolution even though he made his fortune off of tax shelters highlighted in the Panama Papers. (Meanwhile Jammal says he’s running “as a case study” to see if a non-millionaire can make it to Congress.)

Further south in the 49th District it was Christina Prejean who stepped aside to help Democrats avoid a top two calamity but as with the 49th Democrats still probably want one or two of their four candidates—Mike Levin, Sara Jacobs, Doug Applegate, and Paul Kerr—to leave the race. Thankfully the Republican field is fractured among eight candidates, four of which have held office before. Polls here show a rosier picture than in the 39th, but one of the Democrats standing down for the good of the party would certainly help people who want the party to retake Congress sleep easier at night.

In the state's 48th District the surprise was on the Republican side—Assemblyman Scott Baugh decided at the last minute to primary incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, whose closeness to Vladimir Putin and appearances in Mueller investigation files make him vulnerable in this traditionally Republican seat that supported Clinton by 2 percent. It’s unclear how much the Republican base here will really care about Rohrabacher’s Russia ties, but if the GOP vote does end up getting split somewhat evenly it could crowd out some of the eight Democrats running here. On the blue side it appears Hans Keirstead has locked up party support, Harley Rouda is a hit with the activists, and women’s groups have lined up behind Rachel Payne. That makes it hard to see how another Democrat could advance to the top two. Laura Oatman saw the writing on the wall and dropped out after the filing deadline (so she’ll still appear on the ballot), but the party would prefer more candidates follow her lead.

There were filing deadline surprises outside California as well. The biggest was in Iowa, where the day before the filing deadline Theresa Greenfield’s campaign manager told her that he’d forged signatures on her petition and she had 24 hours to get almost 2,000 valid ones, including dozens from small rural counties with few Democrats. Ultimately she failed, leaving only three candidates in the Democratic primary: Cindy Axne, Eddie Mauro, and Pete D’Alessandro (unless Greenfield, rumored to be the DCCC’s favored candidate, can get onto the ballot via a backdoor method with an uncertain likelihood of success). D’Alessandro actually helped Greenfield try to get the necessary signatures but before you chalk that up to a case of Midwestern nice, note that if no candidate gets 35 percent in a primary a convention dominated by liberal organizers would choose the nominee. And D’Alessandro happens to be a longtime liberal organizer, and likely figures that kind of vote-splitting is more likely the more candidates there are in the field.

In Pennsylvania the big news might be what didn’t happen at the filing deadline. After much complaining and hinting that he might retire, Republican Representative Ryan Costello filed to run for re-election. But then he quit after the filing deadline, meaning the GOP couldn’t recruit a more established politician to run his stead and likely sticking them with a little-known tax lawyer as their only candidate. Now the seat is a probable Democratic pickup because Costello fucked over his own party.

In non-deadline news:

  • Dan Lipinski narrowly defeated Marie Newman in a closely watched Democratic congressional primary in Illinois. Even though Newman arguably better reflected the district ideologically than the notoriously conservative Lipinski, she didn’t do enough to hold down Lipinski’s margins in four key Chicago machine wards that carried him over the line. Now Lipinski has a massive target on his back heading into 2020, when a Democratic presidential primary will increase turnout even more in the seat. The Chicago machine may be wise to ditch Lipinski before then and back a candidate of their own who doesn’t have the incumbent’s ideological weaknesses.
  • In other Illinois primaries Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and Lauren Underwood decisively won their contests, while Sean Casten narrowly upset Kelly Mazeski in the Sixth. Casten ran a strong campaign and Mazeski was hobbled by a weak turnout operation and the women’s vote being split five ways. Female candidates received more than 65 percent of the vote here, but that was enough for Casten to win with just under 30 percent.
  • Illinois Democrats can be heartened that in their four top takeover targets (the Sixth, 12th, 13th, and 14th) they had 50 percent or more of the primary ballots cast even though both parties had contested gubernatorial races. To be fair, some of those numbers are padded by Republicans undervoting in House races where their incumbents ran unopposed, but by my count Democrats still had 55 percent or more of ballots cast in the Sixth, 12th, and 13th.
  • Our old friend Devin Nunes appears to have stepped in it yet again. When he’s not politicizing intelligence to protect America’s big wet president he’s subject to an FEC investigation as a number of his donors appear to have conspired to circumvent contribution limits. If Nunes’s campaign actually encouraged this it’s especially stupid because if they’re hard-pressed for cash it should be pretty easy for them to shake the MAGA Chud small donor tree.
  • For my money, Representative Claudia Tenney is still the Republican incumbent trying hardest to lose in November. Her latest? Claiming the “deep state” is responsible for buying Ben Carson’s $31,000 dining room set. Everyone knows that the deep state shops at Ikea.
  • Tenney’s opponent, State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, doesn’t face a competitive primary. But for Democrats in the Empire State who do—the First, 11th, 19th, 21st, and 23rd all have crowded fields—endorsing Cynthia Nixon’s insurgent campaign against America’s least valuable Democrat, Governor Andrew Cuomo, could be a way of differentiating their campaigns from the rest of the pack. The only congressional candidate I’ve seen so far with the courage to take on the notoriously thin-skinned and vindictive Cuomo is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (who is challenging Joe Crowley from the left in the 14th District), but it could pay electoral dividends for candidates trying to win as leftists elsewhere in the state.
  • In New Jersey’s Seventh District Tom Malinowski maneuvered his way to being the party endorsed candidate by one measly vote. By way of background, New Jersey’s notoriously confusing primary ballot makes county party endorsements critical, and candidates without them rarely win. Malinowski and local tech executive Linda Weber were the only candidates in the race to take on Leonard Lance to have won any county party endorsements. But Weber said she’d drop out if she didn’t have the backing of a majority of county parties. So it all came down to the vote of a Democratic town party chair in one town in suburban New Jersey. The lesson? Local politics matter, even for federal races.
  • Former HHS Secretary and University of Miami President Donna Shalala entered the primary for Florida’s 27th District, which voted for Clinton by 20 percent and is an open seat, almost assuring that it’ll flip to Democrats. But Shalala’s nasty history of donating to Republicans has come to light, and it appears she’s Republican donors’ favorite Democrat in this race. Accordingly, voters in the 27th would be wise to consolidate support behind the most viable non-Shalala candidate, as Florida doesn’t have a runoff and she may make it to the general based on name recognition alone.

A note to our loyal readers: House Party is taking a few weeks off while its writer takes a much-needed vacation. It will return April 16.

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

2018 election