Republicans are increasingly nervous that Donald Trump’s campaign for president could sabotage the prospects of more conventional candidates down-ballot, putting GOP control of the Senate – and even the House – at risk. As one unnamed GOP lawmaker recently told FoxNews.com, “We could get our clocks cleaned.”
Among the GOP seats in greatest jeopardy are suburban swing districts, many of which were once in Democratic hands in 2006 and 2008 but swung to red with the Tea Party revolt in 2010. Of the 22 Republican races in the House that the Cook Political Report now considers a “toss-up” (versus just four such races among Democrats), 11 are seats once held by Democrats heading into the 2010 cycle.
But the vulnerable also now include what had been reliably Republican districts, such as that of Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (CO-06), whose district includes suburban Denver; Illinois Rep. Bob Dold (IL-10), whose district sits along the shores of Lake Michigan outside Evanston, and Utah Rep. Mia Love (UT-04), who represents suburban Salt Lake City.
Educated and affluent, the voters in these districts – repulsed by Trump’s racism and crass demagoguery – are the ripest targets for Democratic pickups. Research by the American Communities Project at Michigan State University finds that Republicans living in so-called “Urban Suburbs” – who are more likely to have gone to college and to hold professional, managerial or owner positions – are much more likely to be concerned by Trump than working-class Republicans living in “Middle Suburbs” further from the city core.
Hoping to capitalize on this anti-Trump sentiment, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has targeted more than 30 districts for its “Red to Blue” program, aimed at picking up purple and red House seats – once considered a futile task.
“Trump is saying things that educated, suburban voters don’t want to be associated with,” says Ian Russell, the DCCC’s Deputy Executive Director and Political Director. “They have a three-dimensional worldview that Trump does not personify.”
But if the damage done by Trump’s candidacy does manage to turn many now-red swing districts blue, the collateral effect could be just as significant for Democrats – by replenishing the ranks of moderates and “New Democrats” diminished by GOP gains in the last few cycles. Whatever gains Democrats make this fall will be fragile, resting on those candidates who can sway and hold highly competitive seats. Given the make-up of these districts, the winning challengers are unlikely to be barn-burning Bernie Sanders-like figures endearing to the progressive left but those with bipartisan, cross-over appeal. Their impact on Democrats will be to preserve the party’s identity as a broad-based coalition – while at the same time potentially sharpening intra-party ideological divisions now papered over in the name of unity.
Typical of these swing-seat candidates is Josh Gottheimer, a 40-year-old former Microsoft executive who spent the formative years of his career in Washington writing speeches for President Bill Clinton and who is running one of the most closely-watched campaigns this fall.
His opponent is Republican Tea Party member Rep. Scott Garrett (NJ-5), whose district is a bedroom community of New York City. Despite being elected and re-elected with comfortable margins since 2002 – including by 56% in 2014 – Garrett’s race is now considered “Lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report.
While part of Garrett’s vulnerability this cycle is due to self-inflicted wounds – anti-gay remarks he made earlier this year drew sharp attacks from even his GOP colleagues – the antics of Trump have turned up the spotlight on Garrett’s Tea Party membership and more extreme views. “Now that people are learning more who he actually is and what his record is, I think they are largely appalled,” argues Gottheimer. “I think I’m much more in line with who people are in the district and what their views are, including a lot of moderate Republicans.”
Gottheimer’s website declares him to be “fiscally responsible and socially progressive,” and in the speech declaring his candidacy, he promised to run as “[s]omeone who will be pro-business and pro-family.” Gottheimer says his top policy priorities are corporate tax reform and infrastructure investment. He also advocates the creation of an “infrastructure bank,” a proposed mechanism to draw in private investment for public works, and he is hesitant to bash the big banks that employ many of his would-be constituents.
“Breaking up the banks doesn’t make any sense because it will hurt businesses and individuals in terms of access to capital,” Gottheimer says. “We need a very healthy financial sector to support the pensions of teachers and small business, and we need a vibrant private sector that has resources so we can grow the economy and grow jobs.” And while he strongly supports progressive priorities such as LGBTQ equality and equal pay, he also cautions against what he calls “knee-jerk” anti-corporate populism. “We shouldn’t be in the business of kicking people because they’re successful, or kicking business because they’re successful,” he says.
In Garrett’s district, where the median household income in 2014 was $91,749, nearly 45% have at least a four-year college degree, and 1 in 6 households make $200,000 or more, Democratic candidates like Gottheimer make ideal challengers, says veteran pollster Pete Brodnitz. “To appeal to voters turned off by Trump, Democrats need to have some ideas about how to have a successful economy,” says Brodnitz, who worked with an unsuccessful Garrett opponent in 2010.
So far, Gottheimer’s approach might be working. As of May 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org, Gottheimer had outraised Garrett by 2-to-1, with $2.3 million raised so far, compared to $1.1 million for Garrett. Gottheimer has also already more than doubled the total war chest raised by Garrett’s 2014 opponent, Roy Cho.
One Democratic strategist says the fissures within the Republican Party have created new opportunities for Democrats who can appeal to suburban “economic moderates.” “These are people who want to make sure they have good infrastructure and good schools but who are becoming socially progressive at a really rapid pace,” this strategist said. One private poll found that in some of these districts, constituents’ top priorities are – in equal measure – preserving Bush-era tax cuts for high-income earners and ensuring the legality of same-sex marriage.
This emerging dynamic is also propelling Democratic momentum in the western suburbs of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen (MN-03), is facing Democratic challenger and state Senator Terri Bonoff. Unlike New Jersey’s Garrett, Paulsen is somewhat more moderate, but Bonoff says her opponent can’t shake the taint of Trump.
“Minnesota already stands out as a state that rejects Donald Trump,” says Bonoff, who notes that the state was one of the few won by former Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio. “Donald Trump is a caricature of an extremist at its worst,” Bonoff continues. “It provides an opening for a contrast, and that is why I’m running.”
Like Garrett’s district, Paulsen’s district is also mostly white, well-educated and wealthy. Just 3.9% of families live below the poverty line, according to Census data, and the median household income in 2014 was a generous $79,965.
Like her fellow challenger Gottheimer, Bonoff also considers herself a “pro-growth” Democrat. A former executive and the mother of four teenagers, Bonoff has served for 11 years in the Minnesota legislature under the slogan “uniting the middle.” Last year, she defied union leaders in the state by sponsoring legislation to end seniority-based layoffs for public school teachers, and she also broke ranks with her party by voting against raising taxes for higher earners.
“I represent a swing district,” Bonoff says. “My views reflect the views of the middle. Sometimes people say the middle is ‘weak,’ but I reject that. I think the middle is about understanding how people can work together so we can get things done.”
In an election cycle marked by populist histrionics, neither Gottheimer nor Bonoff are stadium-filler candidates who pump up crowds with fiery rhetoric. Yet they – and candidates like them – are the ones most likely to tilt the balance of the House back toward Democrats in November. And if they manage to stay free of challenges from within their own party, they also promise to bring a consensus-driven style of governing now sorely lacking in Congress.
The extremist campaign of Donald Trump may have one unexpected – if ironic – silver lining: It could revitalize the political center.