July 24, 2020 102 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this weekend’s edition of the Surge where, like the president, we are adopting a new, more somber tone.

This week we look at our old pal, House races. In 2018, all anyone wanted to talk about was the House—the House this, the House that. Who’s going to win the House?, the people would ask. Now no one cares! Well, the Surge is here to fix that. We’ve got a mix of remaining primaries and a few general elections to look at where incumbents are either in danger, criminals, or—somehow—both. Let’s start in Michigan, where it’s illegal to be fun and say fun things.

Rashida Tlaib.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. Michigan’s 13th District

The Squad’s most vulnerable member.

In the 2018 primary for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District—an open seat to replace longtime Rep. John Conyers—Rashida Tlaib defeated Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones by 1 percentage point. Now the two are facing off again in the Aug. 4 primary, and here’s the mathematical issue for Tlaib: This time it’s one-on-one. Last cycle, Tlaib and Jones were on the ballot with four other candidates. This time, those four other candidates are supporting Jones. As for the nonmath: Jones has been critical of Tlaib’s flamboyant and outspoken style. “There are things that I might feel, but I just don’t say in public and an example is ‘impeach the M-F’ on the very first day,” Jones told the Associated Press. “Not to say you’re going to always agree, but you have to be able to work with those people because you never know who you’re going to need in order to get things done that need to be done.” Tlaib counters that she has been effective, getting legislation she sponsored to protect pension benefits signed into law, as well as getting an amendment approved in a recent infrastructure bill offering billions to replace lead pipes. There’s also a racial element to the race. Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, represents a majority-Black district. Some of Jones’ surrogates, like John Conyers’ great-nephew (and 2018 primary candidate) Ian Conyers, have been observing the distinction, telling the AP that the district should be represented by a Black member as “folks are wanting someone to make their case in their own words.” Tlaib does have one great advantage beyond her incumbency: Through June 30, she had raised nearly $2.9 million, roughly 20 times what Jones had.

Rank 2

2. Texas’ 21st District

The most prominent of (several) Texas tests.

We’ve got a couple of Texas districts in this newsletter, and that’s no accident. For one, left-leaning consumers of national news simply cannot get enough speculative jabber about the Blue-ening of Texas at any level. YOU ALL wake up every day and say, Is Texas blue yet? Let me search the internet for content. The other reason is that there are simply a bunch of good House races in Texas, as its metropolitan areas are turning so fast against the Trump GOP that the Partisan Voter Indexes can’t keep up. The PVI of Texas’ 21st District, one of several Texas gerrymanders that takes a slice of blue Austin and attempts to dilute it by adjoining it with large swaths of red, rural Texas, is R+10. That should mean it’s a relatively safe GOP seat. But the Cook Political Report recently shifted the seat to “toss-up” status as it “sports the third highest share of college graduates of any GOP-held seat in the nation and is moving rapidly away from Republicans.” As for the candidates: The GOP incumbent, Chip Roy, is a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz and current Freedom Caucus member who’s behaved in Congress like a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz and current Freedom Caucus member. His blessing and curse are that he’s running against Wendy Davis—blessing, because she’s a candidate on whom previous national media waves of “BLUE TEXAS?” have come crashing down, and curse, because she’s a national name who can raise a lot of money. Through June she had raised $4.5 million to Roy’s $2.6 million. A fresh new Democratic internal poll—yes, consider the caveats—shows a dead heat.

Rank 3

3. New Mexico’s 2nd District

If Republicans don’t flip this one …

House Republicans are not likely to retake the chamber in 2020. They’re down by an average of 8.6 percentage points in the generic congressional ballot and have reached a “Yelling at Dick Cheney’s daughter for not being ‘Trumpy’ enough” stage of flailing in the wilderness. That doesn’t mean they won’t have some opportunities. Democrats narrowly pulled off victories in some true “reach” districts in their 2018 wave that Republicans are eager to claw back. Of these, Republicans consider New Mexico’s 2nd District their single best flip opportunity on the map. It’s an enormous district comprising the southern half of the state, and though it abuts Albuquerque, it’s largely rural and thus relatively immune from Republicans’ dawning disaster in the suburbs. Trump won the R+6 district by 10 points in 2016, and freshman Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small only narrowly won the open seat—previously held by a Freedom Caucus member—by 1.8 percentage points in 2018. This cycle, Torres Small is facing a rematch against her 2018 opponent, Yvette Herrell. Torres Small’s biggest advantage in this difficult environment, though, is a now-familiar one: Congressional Democrats appear to have seized control of a United States Mint to print money for their campaigns, and at the end of July, Torres Small had nearly $4 million on hand to Herrell’s $379,000.

Rank 4

4. Minnesota’s 5th District

Another ugly Squad primary.

Rashida Tlaib is not the only Muslim woman who’s part of a four-member clique of leftist freshman Democrats known as “the Squad” to face a competitive August primary in the Midwest. Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents Minneapolis, is also facing a stiff challenge, in this case from lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux. Despite being a political novice, Melton-Meaux raised an absurd $3.2 million in the second quarter of this year to Omar’s $471,000, with much of it coming from large donors: About $3 million of that $3.2 million came from donations of $200 or more. Omar, who represents a sizable Jewish community in her district, has been the face of multiple national controversies for her perceived use of coded anti-Semitic language. And as we’re writing this, there’s a new round of controversy brewing about the language with which Omar’s mailers criticize Melton-Meaux’s donors, while Melton-Meaux’s campaign has released an FAQ saying that the money he’s received from the Jewish community would not influence his decisions. Basically, it’s not great.

Rank 5

5. Kansas 2nd District

Nothing beats the smell of fresh crimes in the morning.

Republicans held this eastern Kansas seat by 1 percentage point when it was open in 2018 and were presumed to be in solid shape for retaining it in 2020. And then last week, the incumbent, freshman Rep. Steve Watkins, goes and gets himself charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor related to listing a UPS box as his home address on a voter registration form. It’s not great to be charged with offenses your own party treats as the worst of all crimes. But true character shines in how one owns up to mistakes. And once he was caught, well, Watkins did the right thing: He passed off all blame to his staff. His primary against 32-year-old Kansas State Treasurer Jake LaTurner is on Aug. 4. Democrats, presumably, would prefer to run against the guy who recently has been charged with three felonies.

Rank 6

6. Texas’ 23rd District

An expensive Cruz-Trump proxy war, and for what?

Remember when Ted Cruz and Donald Trump spent six months in 2016 trying to bury each other? (This followed the six months in 2015 when they were strategically pretending to be best friends.) With so much mutually assured destruction seemingly in the air, it was the last time the Surge truly felt alive. How can we return to such green pastures? Well, in a way, we recently did. The Republican primary runoff for the nomination in Texas’ 23rd District—a vast border district stretching from San Antonio to El Paso—served as a proxy fight between the Trump and Cruz camps. Tony Gonzales a military dude, was the preference of the 23rd’s retiring representative Will Hurd, and House Republican leaders convinced the president to endorse Gonzales as well. Cruz, though, had backed the campaign of Raul Reyes, another military dude for whom Cruz’s 2016 campaign manager, Jeff Roe, was working. Trump recorded robocalls for Gonzales, Cruz’s PAC put in money for Reyes, and the winner of the July 14 runoff was … one second here, hang on, tabulating … holy smokes, this runoff is within seven votes out of 24,000+ ballots cast! Way closer than Ted Cruz ever got to Donald Trump. Huh! Anyway, the winner will face the Democrats' 2018 candidate, Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s the favorite to flip this highly flippable district now that Hurd is out of the picture.

Rank 7

7. Massachusetts’ 1st District

One last opportunity for progressives to take out a chairman.

Democrat Jamaal Bowman took out the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, in a New York primary earlier this cycle. The question is now whether progressives can take out the chairman of a committee that matters. Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is facing a primary in his western and central Massachusetts district from 31-year-old Alex Morse, mayor of Holyoke. Morse and the left have criticized Neal for his voluminous donations from corporate PACs—the chairman of the House’s tax-writing committee getting money from corporate PACs? Get outta here!—and for slow-walking investigations into Donald Trump. Neal has been highlighting how much he’s used his perch to deliver for his district, though, with ads that demonstrate how he was able to save the local country club. We’ll see on Sept. 1 how well that turns out.