Democrats are optimistic that a Donald Trump or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz nomination will expand the map in their favor. But because of how long the GOP nominating contest could take, and how early some congressional filing deadlines are, Democrats may need to take a leap of faith on candidates before they know whether the GOP nominee will put certain states in play.
“I’m telling potential candidates, ‘There’s a chance that our party is going to win the lottery. … It might be worth rolling the dice because it turns out the Democratic nominee in some of these states that are not competitive right now may be worth a lot,’” one Democratic consultant said.
It’s no secret that Republicans are worried Cruz or Trump at the top of the ticket could cost them down-ballot races. But with Cruz and Trump surging in the polls, what was once a just-in-case scenario is now less hypothetical.
“It seems likelier than not that some Republican member of Congress — especially since we’ve seen the rise of straight ticket party voting — who currently aren’t on people’s endangered lists become endangered real fast,” said one Democratic consultant.
“It would be a mistake to not field strong candidates in districts that would otherwise be out of reach,” said Democratic consultant Achim Bergmann, a veteran of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“When I was at the committee in 2006, people were not expecting it to be such a strong year for Democrats,” he said. Only later in the cycle, after Hurricane Katrina, for example, “then the wind started to blow at our backs. We were past filing deadlines and we wanted to expand the map. We did, but there were candidates that were not strong enough,” said Bergmann, noting the party could have picked up even more seats had they had stronger candidates in place.
So far this cycle, Democrats point to at least two states whose filing deadlines have passed where the party missed opportunities to expand the map: Illinois and Ohio. As Nathan Gonzales pointed out last year, the fact that Democrats didn’t field stronger candidates in Illinois’ 12th and 13th Districts means the party will have to make up for it elsewhere, likely in less friendly territory.
No one faults the DCCC for lack of trying. The committee has to maximize its resources where it has the best opportunities, and convincing a Democrat in a red district to run for Congress isn’t an easy sell. “They’re human beings that need to be convinced there’s an opportunity. It’s a lot of work to run for Congress,” Bergmann said.
Playing in more districts has been the DCCC’s presidential-year strategy all along, well before Cruz and Trump burst onto the scene. In January 2015, the committee publicly committed to expanding the battlefield to nearly 70 districts. The party needs to win 30 seats to control the House. Trump and Cruz haven’t changed the committee’s recruitment strategy, a DCCC aide said, but they could help expand the map further, even if neither becomes the nominee.
The DCCC expects GOP-leaning districts in states with diverse populations such as Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, Florida and New York could become more competitive.
In Florida’s 7th District, for example, Democratic businessman Bill Phillips is challenging 12-term Rep. John Mica. “That seat’s going to look a lot more interesting with the wrong Republican nominee,” one Democratic consultant said.
Consultants outside the DCCC went further, identifying several red seats the party could flip blue if Trump or Cruz became the nominee and the party had a good candidate in place.
But in several of those places, time is running out.
National Democrats were hopeful about a recruit in Kentucky’s 6th District, but sports radio host Matt Jones ultimately passed on the race. Although the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the district Safe Republican, Democrats point to the 2015 gubernatorial race, when Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway carried the district, to argue the party can put it in play — with the right candidate. Recruitment is ongoing in the district, but the filing deadline is Jan. 26.
Another upcoming filing deadline is in New Mexico, where Democrats have sought to target 2nd District Rep. Steve Pearce in the past. The 2014 Democratic candidate was on the committee’s “Red to Blue” program. But Pearce has proven difficult to unseat, and Obama didn’t carry the district in either 2008 or 2012.
“It’s tough territory, but that’s one that could be potentially turned,” Bergmann said. Former General Motors executive Merrie Lee Soules recently got in the race. The state’s filing deadline is Feb. 2.
Consultants also said Cruz would be “difficult to swallow” in districts like Washington’s 3rd and 8th, as well as in Minnesota’s 3rd District. Recruitment is ongoing in those districts, but the filing deadlines aren’t until May.