The Class of Trump

Why Democrats feel so comfortable trying to expand the 2018 map.

Rep. Fred Upton
Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, seen here at the Capitol on May 3,  is now a DCCC target.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is getting bolder. On Monday it announced 20 new districts it would target for recruitment and potential investment, raising its total target list to 79 districts. The initial round of 59 targeted districts, announced in January, took care of most of the perennial low-hanging fruit, but this new one cuts into some ambitiously red districts.

The new additions amount to a Democratic thought experiment: How high might the party climb if both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue maintain their recent pace of maximal dysfunction into next year?

The average rating of the 20 new districts, using the 2017 Cook Partisan Voting Index figures, is R+7.8. In a normal year, a host of districts like that are not worth much time, investment, or recruitment. The biggest outlier of the new districts is West Virginia’s 3rd (R+23), a vacant seat whose current congressman, Rep. Evan Jenkins, has opted to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. The average rating of the remaining 19 districts, though, is still a quite high R+6.9.

Why might Democrats be eying an R+23 district in deep-red West Virginia (which would always be a reach despite the lack of an incumbent running)? Because passage of the American Health Care Act opened new frontiers for Democrats. Representatives from each of the new districts voted for the AHCA, which would use nearly $1 trillion in Medicaid cuts to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. The health care bill itself is just an amuse-bouche for the party’s chief agenda item: additional tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. You don’t have to like Democrats to hate this.

The DCCC appears to believe that this agenda creates deep political problems for its backers in the House of Representatives. In the memo released Monday, it described “the first 120 days of Republican-controlled government” as follows: “Debacle. Fiasco. Train wreck. Sinking ship. Pandemonium. Three-alarm fire. Dumpster fire. Soup sandwich. Goat Rodeo.” OK, OK. Its point is that if this governing combination of executive chaos and legislative plutocracy continues apace, Democrats could see opportunity ripen in some of the unlikeliest of places.

Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, for example, is now a target. He represents an R+4 district but won his most recent election by 22 percentage points. He’s an influential senior Republican who served as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee for six years. It’s the way he recently utilized that influence and seniority, though, that’s landed him on the DCCC’s chopping block. After first saying he wouldn’t vote for the revived AHCA, he secured an amendment that brought him and several other reluctant members on board. The bill passed shortly thereafter. It’s not a stretch to say that Upton’s efforts clinched the final votes for the AHCA. Democrats will say that. Many times.

The targeted seats in California also continue to pile up with two new additions to the list: Reps. Duncan Hunter and Devin Nunes. Their AHCA votes might not help. But these two Californians have other problems. Hunter is under criminal investigation for alleged use of campaign funds for “family trips to Hawaii and Italy, private school tuition and dance competitions for his children, and even video games,” as the New York Times wrote in March. Nunes, of course, is the House Intelligence Committee chairman who had to recuse himself from the committee’s Russia investigation because he was being all weird and cozy with the White House. With these two additions, the DCCC is now targeting nine of the 14 Republican-held seats in California.

New York’s Republican delegation, similarly, is targeted for near-extinction. Reps. Tom Reed and Elise Stefanik are now on the list, joining six others. Eight of New York’s nine Republican members of Congress will now be targets, with only Long Island Rep. Peter King spared.

Five of the new targets are members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus: Arizona Rep. Dave Schweikert, Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, and Virginia Reps. Tom Garrett and Dave Brat. Not all such Freedom Caucus districts are R+50 or deep-red rural seats. Dave Brat’s district, Virginia’s 7th (R+6), for example, draws much of its vote from the Richmond suburbs. This may be part of why Brat, in recently speaking to his constituents, was not especially forthcoming about the deregulatory changes he fought for in the AHCA.

Other new targets include Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, Georgia Rep. Rob Woodall, Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski, Michigan Rep. Jack Bergman, Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, North Carolina Rep. George Holding, and Ohio Reps. Michael Turner and David Joyce.

The list is aspirational. Not all of the Democratic challengers for all of these districts are going to get all of the DCCC’s money and support. Some of the targeted seats, like Wagner’s in Missouri, hinge on the incumbent choosing to run for a different office. The DCCC also expects additional targeted members to follow Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s lead and retire in such an adverse atmosphere. Still other difficult districts may only make the list because the DCCC believes it can bag exceptionally strong recruits who just haven’t gone public yet.

“It’s an interesting, ambitious list, for sure,” a DCCC official told me Monday. “I think the best way to look at it is: Where are your priorities to recruit the best candidates, to help them build the best infrastructure, to be in a position to capitalize if everything continues to go in the direction it is now?”

The direction it’s going in now, judging by early generic congressional polls, is quite poorly for the Republican Party. For that trend to abate, President Trump would have to show significant signs of personal and professional maturation, and congressional Republicans would have to pivot to a less ideologically unpopular agenda.

So, yeah, best to keep a long list.