The Democratic Party’s chance to win back the House of Representatives next year, considered a long-shot only a short while ago, is soaring thanks to a crack recruiter: President Donald Trump.
Trump is energizing Democrats and demoralizing Republicans. The 2018 congressional elections are almost a year-and-a-half away, but Democrats are upbeat about picking up the 24 seats they need to take control for the first time in eight years.
Dave Wasserman, a political analyst for the Cook Report and a leading expert on House elections, now puts prospects of a Democratic takeover at between 40 percent and 50 percent.
Democrats are quick to credit Trump for encouraging candidates to step forward. “If you don’t get good candidates you won’t benefit much even from a wave,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who was the architect of the party’s last midterm triumph in 2006, when he was a congressman.
The quality of Democratic aspirants is yet to be determined but the quantity is overwhelming. “We are raining candidates,” said Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, a recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “New candidates file with each news cycle.”
The initial focus is on the 23 districts carried in 2016 by both Hillary Clinton and a Republican congressman. Most are in suburban areas – seven in California – where Trump isn’t popular.
To date, an unusual number of Democratic women and veterans have announced bids for office. A smaller-than-usual proportion of the new candidates already hold elected office.
In a suburban district outside Philadelphia, for example, the two-term Republican incumbent, Ryan Costello, is likely to be challenged by a Democratic political novice named Chrissy Houlahan. She’s a graduate of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served as an Air Force captain and then as chief operating officer for a sports-apparel company and a nonprofit that promotes good business practices.
Houlahan worked as a foot soldier in some campaigns but said that “never in a million years did I expect to run for office.” That changed when Trump was elected and she helped organize bus transportation for participants in the Jan. 21 women’s march in Washington.
“I worried our values, even democracy, were threatened under Trump,” she said of her motivation to run for Congress.
In the suburbs of Denver, Democrats are pushing another political neophyte, Jason Crow, who served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a paratrooper and Army Ranger, against Representative Mike Coffin. Coffin has turned back challenges from Democratic state legislators in the last three elections by using some of their votes against them.
“It’s an advantage for a good candidate who hasn’t cast any votes,” Emanuel said. (Both Costello and Coffin voted against the House Republicans’ unpopular measure to replace Obamacare.)
Even this early, it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance, psychological perhaps more than political, of the June 20 special election in suburban Atlanta for the congressional seat vacated by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. For Republicans, the loss of a Georgia seat they’ve held for almost 40 years would send shock waves. For Democrats, a victory would show strength in the type of district they must win to take back the House.
A Republican defeat might foreshadow trouble for a few other southern Republicans like John Culbertson of Texas, a right-winger who represents a suburban Houston district that leans more toward establishment Republicanism than his Tea Party brand. Clinton carried it narrowly in 2016 after Mitt Romney won convincingly four years before. This time, Culbertson is on every Democratic target list.
The Democrats’ Trump-fueled enthusiasm could pose a problem for them: too many candidates. Already, seven have said they plan to run for Culbertson’s seat. If all of them stick around, it would make for a divisive and resource-draining primary campaign. Clark, the Democratic recruiter, said that party strategists are trying to persuade aspirants in some venues to run for state legislative seats to avoid clashes in congressional contests.
“A primary doesn’t always produce the candidate who best culturally fits the district,” Emanuel said. A dozen years ago, he recruited culturally conservative Democrats like Brad Ellsworth in Indiana and Heath Shuler in North Carolina, the only type of Democrats who could win in those districts.
If Democrats are to score the necessary net gains, they can ill afford to lose almost any of their seats. That’s a concern for them in Minnesota where two Democrats, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan, both of whom narrowly won last November, may run for governor, enhancing Republican prospects in their districts.
Republicans argue that Democrats lack a coherent agenda other than opposition to Trump. But negative intensity usually is what matters in midterm elections, as Republicans showed in 2010 and 2014.
That’s what Trump gives Democrats, and especially after the White House chaos of the past several weeks, they are convinced he will be the gift that keeps giving.
Hunt was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.