Thanks to special elections and retiring Republicans, Democrats could pick up seats in unexpected places.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Welcome back to House Party, our column looking at the 2018 House of Representative races as midterms approach.
Presidential votes are a pretty good indicator of which House districts are going to be competitive, but there are exceptions to the rule: There are eight Republicans in Congress who sit in seats that Democrats haven’t won in the past three elections. So Democrats would be foolish to compete only in seats where they’ve won a presidential campaign in the past three cycles. They won’t win in many places carried by John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, but every seat helps—and Democrats could have real shots to take seats that are either held by freshman Republicans or are open due to retirements or resignations. So today we’ll look at contests in normally Republican seats that could still prove competitive because there’s no or little incumbency advantage.
Upcoming Special Elections:
Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District (Southwest Pennsylvania)
2016: Clinton 39–Trump 58
2012: Obama 41–Romney 58
2008: Obama 44–McCain 55
March 13 special election
Pro-life Representative Tim Murphy resigned after it was discovered that he’d asked his mistress to have an abortion. Now Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb are facing off in a special election. Notably, this contest will be held under the existing Pennsylvania congressional lines instead of whatever the state supreme court puts in place for the 2018 election.The area has been trending toward Republicans for decades. It includes Greene County, where the Democratic share of the vote has declined in every presidential election since 1988. But there’s still a lot of Democratic strength downballot, and Democrats not named Clinton have done relatively well there in contested races.
On top of that, Saccone’s lackluster campaign has Republicans worried, and it just emerged that he’s billed Pennsylvania’s taxpayers for more than $400,000 in expenses over the past seven years, which is a lot to spend at the Harrisburg Buffalo Wild Wings. For his part, Lamb is downplaying abortion and gun control and focusing on economic issues. He’s also focusing on winning over union support: Murphy was able to stay in labor’s good graces, but Saccone sponsored a right-to-work bill that infuriated unions. With Lamb down 3 points in his own internal polls he still has plenty of work to do, but if Republicans don’t improve their message to blue-collar voters, this could be Democrats’ first House seat pickup in the Trump era.
Ohio’s 12th Congressional District (Central Ohio)
2016: Clinton 42–Trump 53
2012: Obama 44–Romney 54
2008: Obama 45–McCain 54
May 8 Special primary, August 7 special election
The 12th has a pronounced Republican lean and has some heavily Republican rural areas but about two-thirds of it is in the Democratic-trending Columbus suburbs. If rural turnout suffers while suburban turnout soars (as was the case in the Alabama Senate special election) then Democrats have a good shot at the seat. Especially because the election will take place in August, when most people aren’t paying attention to politics and a lot of voters will be in Clearwater or Cedar Point.
On the Democratic side two candidates who’ve won countywide in Franklin County (home to more than 1.25 million people, the city of Columbus, and about a third of the 12th’s voters) are running: County Recorder Danny O’Connor and former County Sheriff Zach Scott. Scott has a difficult relationship with the county party so O’Connor is the favorite. On the Republican side there are a number of viable candidates running but it’s unclear if there are any Roy Moores in the group (State Senator Troy Balderson seems the most right-wing of the bunch).
New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District (Sopranos New Jersey)
2016: Clinton 48–Trump 49
2012: Obama 47–Romney 52
2008: Obama 47–McCain 52
The 11th has a persistent Republican lean, but that lean nearly got wiped out by Clinton. Its current congressman, the relatively moderate Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, recently decided to retire, supposedly after he put a poll into the field that came back with bad results. So the 11th is looking like one of Democrats’ top pickup opportunities.
It doesn’t hurt that the party has a great candidate here. Former Navy pilot and prosecutor Mikie Sherrill cut one of the best ads of the year so far. Make sure you watch the whole thing (relax, it’s only two minutes) so you can pick up on the message that every Democratic candidate should ape. She’s also raising money at a good clip and will have the county parties lined up in her favor in the primary against former United Negro College Fund administrator Tamara Harris.
The Republican side is less settled, but anyone who even casually follows politics would have to assume that the state senator who wrote a nationalist manifesto about putting homeless people in concentration camps would be the frontrunner for their nomination if he runs.
Along with the following seven districts, New Jersey’s 11th is one of a few normally Republican open seats that Democrats are seriously contesting. The last time that Democrats won the House they did so by running well in GOP-leaning open seats. So even if the presidential toplines look tough, Democrats just need to pick off a few of these to make up for the entrenched incumbents they won’t be able to beat elsewhere.
West Virginia’s Third Congressional District (Southern West Virginia)
2016: Clinton 23–Trump 72
2012: Obama 33–Romney 65
2008: Obama 42–McCain 56
OK, so you looked at those presidential toplines and think I’m crazy. Fair, maybe I am, I decided to write an entire series on House races. But you know who else may be crazy enough to win? State Senator Richard Ojeda, who in 2016 won a district that voted for Trump 78-19. And he won after being beaten up in a parking lot bumper sticker fight. This district abuts the part of Kentucky where Justified took place, after all.
Ojeda’s a new type of populist Democrat—he’s pro-life, pro-coal and pro-gun, but he’s also pro-legalization (the opioid epidemic has hit few districts worse than this one), anti-AHCA, and pro-union. Democrats have nowhere to go but up in the Third, which is also one of America’s poorest areas. Why not try someone like Ojeda?
Kansas’s Second Congressional District (Eastern Kansas)
2016: Clinton 37–Trump 56
2012: Obama 42–Romney 56
2008: Obama 45–Romney 53
The likely Democratic nominee for this conservative seat is former State Representative Paul Davis. Davis was the 2014 nominee against Governor Sam Brownback, and held him to a narrow 50–46 win in an awful year for Democrats, And during that gubernatorial run he actually beat Brownback in the Second. He also raked in more than $740,000 in less than half a year; in a rural district like this one that money goes a very long way. And as long as Kansas continues to deal with the fallout from their Grover Norquist–designed fiscal disaster, Republicans are likely in for a bad 2018 there. Plus Davis could face State Senator Steve Fitzgerald, who compared Planned Parenthood to Nazi concentration camps, in the general election. So there’s reason for optimism for Democrats here in spite of the district’s pronounced Republican tendencies.
Texas’s 21st Congressional District (Hill Country)
2016: Clinton 43–Trump 53
2012: Obama 38–Romney 60
2008: Obama 42–McCain 56
In yet another postmodern reminder of how diseased our politics are, climate change truther Lamar Smith is the chairman of the House Science Committee. It’s stunning that a virus like Smith would actually think that the Trump era is too much to deal with, but apparently it is: In early November he announced that he would retire when his current term was up.
That might be because, for the first time, Smith was facing a viable challenge. Joseph Kopser checks all the boxes for a candidate in Texas: veteran. Businessman. Accent. Wears a Longhorns hat with a suit. He marshaled pro-science forces to raise funds when he was supposed to go up against Smith, but it’s unclear any of the other Republicans running to replace the veteran congressman will present as good of a boogeyman to scare donors.
Texas’s Second Congressional District (Houston Suburbs)
2016: Clinton 43–Trump 52
2012: Obama 36–Romney 63
2008: Obama 37–McCain 62
The Second is similar to the 21st: a heavily gerrymandered district that pairs a slice of an urban area with some much more Republican outlying regions that nevertheless shifted toward Democrats in 2016 and saw its incumbent retire after a Democratic challenger—Todd Litton in this instance—started making waves.
Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Harrisburg)
2016: Clinton 30–Trump 66
2012: Obama 45–Romney 54
2008: Obama 47–McCain 52
We have no idea how this district will look when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is done fixing the lines here, which could mean heavily Democratic Harrisburg is placed back into the district. Still, I wasn’t even going to put this seat on the list of competitive ones until I saw Denny Wolff’s introductory ad. The GOP field and district lines are still in a lot of flux, but if Wolff finds a district he can run in and Republicans don’t get their act together he could nab a seat in Congress.
2016: Clinton 32–Trump 62
2012: Obama 40–Romney 58
2008: Obama 45–McCain 53
For much of the 00s South Dakota had at least one Democratic Senator and was represented by a Democrat in the House, so don’t laugh. This is an open seat (incumbent Kristi Noem is running for governor) and Democrat Tim Bjorkman has the right profile for a rural, agricultural area—a former grocery store bagboy turned judge who’s running on a populist platform. South Dakota is also a cheap place to operate and advertise, so a congressional campaign here will cost far less than one in Orange County, even if Democrats have a more active base in California. So if you want a low-key sleeper race to keep your eye on, set a Google News alert for Tim Bjorkman.
New Mexico’s Second Congressional District (Southern New Mexico)
2016: Clinton 40–Trump 50
2012: Obama 45–Romney 52
2008: Obama 48–McCain 50
The last time Representative Steve Pearce ran statewide race he lost badly and Democrats captured the seat he’d vacated. So they’re hoping for a repeat performance of that in 2018 as he’s the likely GOP nominee for governor. Mad Hildebrandt is the only Democrat raising serious cash here and is the type of unconventional candidate that Democrats should try running in conservative-leaning areas. She could be helped by the fact that much of Trump’s border wall would be built here, as I doubt the conservative-leaning ranchers whose land would be seized in such an effort are big fans of it. Hildebrandt would face former state GOP chair Monty Newman, State Representative Yvette Herrell, or former New Mexico National Guard Adjutant General Andrew Salas in the general election.
Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District (North Atlanta Suburbs)
2016: Clinton 47–Trump 48
2012: Obama 38–Romney 61
2008: Obama 40–McCain 59
OK, so you already know that Jon Ossoff lost here in June, by less than 4 percent when Trump’s approval rating was around 39 percent. I’d posit that Ossoff (or another Democratic candidate) could win in the Sixth in November if Trump’s approval rating goes down to 37 percent or less. Also, the special election occurred right after the Steve Scalise shooting galvanized Republicans. Assuming no such October surprise is in store next year then Ossoff could prevail in a rematch. Just no more commercials where you’re texting about the deficit, OK?
But Ossoff hasn’t made any moves toward making another run. Businessman Kevin Abel is raising good money and local TV anchor Bobby Kaple is a compelling candidate as well. But now-incumbent Karen Handel has gained the national fundraising connections to be able to outgun either on the airwaves.
2016: Clinton 36–Trump 57
2012: Obama 42–Romney 55
2008: Obama 47–McCain 50
Rob Quist might be a congressman today had Greg Gianforte chokeslammed a reporter a week earlier than he did. Since his narrow special election win Gianforte has done little to mitigate the fallout from the event; he hasn’t made any rapprochement with reporters and votes as a down-the-line Republican. Quist doesn’t appear to have another run in him so consumer protection attorney John Heenan or former nonprofit exec Grant Kier will likely be the nominee instead. Gianforte is wealthy enough to flood the airwaves in this cheap state, so whoever the Democrats do nominate will head into a buzzsaw without the luxury of having a nationalized donor base paying attention like they did for Quist. But if you want to keep tabs on the race, the Montana Post has had great coverage of it so far.
New York’s 22nd Congressional District (Central New York)
2016: Clinton 39–Trump 55
2012: Obama 49–Romney 49
2008: Obama 49–McCain 49
Until 2016 the 22nd was represented by Republican Richard Hanna, one of the few true moderate Republicans in elected office. He even endorsed Clinton over Trump, an act of political courage all too rare among Republicans. Naturally he retired that year, fed up with politics. Replacing him was right-wing Republican Claudia Tenney, who won with ease in a district that Trump had no trouble in.
But the 22nd still was one of the nation’s closest in 2008 and 2012, so it makes sense to see if it will vote for Democrats not named Hillary Clinton. One such Democrat is Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, who already represents a district that voted 53-41 for Trump and is fundraising well. And Tenney’s response to his candidacy is far from encouraging for Republicans. She’s intimated that Brindisi Italian defense attorney father was in the Mafia, and one of her staffers was caught using a fake name to slander him in letters to the editor. And the election is still nine months away! If Tenney continues campaigning like this the 22nd should be one of Democrats’ easier pickups. She’s already trailing Brindisi 45-43 in a poll conducted a year before the election.
Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District (Southern Indiana)
2016: Clinton 34–Trump 61
2012: Obama 40–Romney 57
2008: Obama 46–McCain 53
In the Middle Ages wealthy nobles would send their failsons to die in Crusades. Now they send them to Congress. Representative Trey Hollingsworth grew up the son of an industrial magnate in Tennessee. His old man sent him to the finest schools but, as far as we can tell, Trey accomplished little in his business career. So Pappa Hollingworth sent him to live two states away in a vacant congressional seat, pinned $500,000 to his jacket, and told him good luck. Hollingworth won his first term with only 54 percent of the vote even as Trump cruised here.
Two Democrats think Hollingworth may still be vulnerable, even though by Election Day 2018 he’ll have lived in Indiana for two whole years. Civil rights lawyer Dan Canon and IU professor Liz Watson are both running for the nomination here. Canon’s made a lot of waves for taking some bold stances on legalizing marijuana and abolishing ICE, while Watson’s running a more traditional campaign. Democrats have two good candidates here, but I really want to see if Canon’s found the blueprint for winning as a progressive in areas that have trended Republican.
South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District (Metrolina)
2016: Clinton 39–Trump 57
2012: Obama 44–Romney 55
2008: Obama 44–McCain 55
Republicans will win most of the districts I’m listing today. They might win some by a lot. But one district we know a Democrat can win is the Fifth. That’s because in a special election earlier this year Archie Parnell lost very narrowly to Ralph Norman, 51-48. And Norman only won because he ran up good margins in the Charlotte suburbs, an area where Republican strength is eroding. So if Trump’s approval rating continues to dive, then it stands to reason that Parnell can actually win here in November.
The caveat is that Democrats are outperforming their historic baselines in every special election because their base is so much more motivated. It stands to reason that the midterm election will draw out reliable Republican voters who may not be engaged enough to vote in special elections but already have the regularly scheduled ones marked on their calendars. And it’s true special elections can have fluky results. But we’re at the point where we’re only listing districts where Democrats can win, not where they will win or are favored to win. And it’s hard to look at Parnell’s performance in the special and conclude that he can’t win.
North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District (Piedmont)
2016: Clinton 44–Trump 53
2012: Obama 46–Romney 53
2008: Obama 48–McCain 51
All you need to be a Republican congressman is a gun store and some dark money. At least, that’s how Ted Budd made it to Congress. His 2016 win was so fluky that nobody’s quite sure how good a candidate he really is, and while this district has been trending Republican it also contains portions of Greensboro, which has plenty of the type of moderate college-educated whites who are turning to the Democratic Party in droves.
Budd will likely face Democrat Kathy Manning in the general election. Manning was a fundraiser for numerous community causes before she got into politics, and as it turns out she’s incredibly good at her job. So Budd will actually have to break a sweat this go-around.
Virginia’s Second Congressional District (Hampton Roads)
2016: Clinton 45–Trump 49
2012: 49–Romney 51
2008: Obama 48–McCain 51
The Second is the median district in America. That is, 217 districts gave Trump a better margins, and 217 districts gave Clinton better margins. Considering the national vote was nearly the opposite of the 45–49 Clinton loss here it shows you just how gerrymandered America is, and how difficult it will be for Democrats to win the House back. Still, the fact that Ralph Northam carried the district in his gubernatorial run should give Democrats hope.
Representative Scott Taylor is a former Navy SEAL who has tacked to the middle on legalizing marijuana, gay rights, and DACA. So he’s not an easy out, though Democrats Elaine Luria and Karen Mallard are taking a run at him. Annapolis grad Luria appears to be the party establishment’s favorite, while Mallard is running more of an outsider populist campaign. So if you want to re-litigate the 2016 primary without worrying about gender politics, this is the Democratic primary for you!
Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District (Central Virginia)
2016: Clinton 42–Trump 53
2012: Obama 46–Romney 54
2008: Obama 48–51
An ugly gerrymander that stretches from DC exurbs to the border with North Carolina, the Fifth was drawn to append as many Republican counties as possible to liberal Charlottesville. And so far it’s been effective: It hasn’t voted for a Democrat since it was redrawn to prevent Representative Tom Perriello from returning. But incumbent Tom Garrett was ham-fisted in his response to the violence in Charlottesville and it later emerged that he met with the rally’s organizers.
That news was a fundraising boon to former Marine and tech entrepreneur RD Huffstetler, who’s raised more than $700,000 to date and is sitting on almost five times as much cash as Garrett. But Hufstetler will face Leslie Cockburn, a former journalist who’s also the mother of actress Olivia Wilde, in a contested convention. That’s right, Democrats will choose their nominee at a party insider–dominated convention instead of a normal primary, a terrible and anti-democratic idea that can still be reversed.
Next time we’ll take a look at seats occupied by veteran Republicans and that support Republican presidential candidates, but where Democrats are running strong.
Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.