Democratic Gains in House Depend on Clinton’s Success

Candidates in white, working-class districts must overperform even the presidential nominee

Maine Democrat Emily Cain, seen here bowing her head in prayer at the Franco American Heritage Center’s monthly La Rencontre last month, is running in a district where Trump is beating Clinton. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Maine Democrat Emily Cain, seen here bowing her head in prayer at the Franco American Heritage Center’s monthly La Rencontre last month, is running in a district where Trump is beating Clinton. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 4, 2016 at 5:00am

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

Even before Donald Trump became the GOP presidential nominee, House Democrats heralded Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the key to winning battleground races in all manner of swing districts.

“Every single one of our competitive districts would be welcoming to her,” New York Rep. Steve Israel, the former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Roll Call last year.

“There is no district that is competitive in the United States where she doesn’t play well,” he said.

Time is running out for Clinton to live up to those expectations.

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The Democratic presidential nominee leads Trump in national polls, and her advantage may grow after Trump’s rocky first debate and a subsequent report in The New York Times that he might not have paid income taxes for 18 years.

But with five weeks left before Election Day, House Democrats are hardly in position to make the big, across-the-board gains they thought Clinton might help them achieve.

Democrats must net 30 seats to win the House majority. The latest Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report projection has the party picking up 7 to 12 seats.

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The reason? Clinton’s underperformance with working-class white voters who populate a handful of winnable districts that are now trending toward the GOP.

An ABC/Washington Post poll from September found Clinton winning only 30 percent of white voters without a college degree. In Florida, a poll released Monday from Quinnipiac University found her performing even worse: She won just 27 percent of them.

Trump’s dominance with that demographic could prove particularly troublesome for Democratic House recruits running in heavily working-class, white, and often rural districts in states like Maine, Michigan and New York.

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“No matter how much Clinton runs up her popular vote margin nationally by cleaning up in big cities, wealthy suburbs, college towns and coastal enclaves — there’s a cultural, and thus geographic, limit to her appeal,” said Andy Sere, a veteran GOP strategist.

“In so many of these downscale but historically competitive districts that House Democrats need to regain power, Hillary is underperforming Obama by a significant degree. So it’s much harder for them to expand the map, or even to lock up many of the districts they thought were in the bag.”

In a CNN/ORC poll released Monday, 59 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable view of Trump; 54 percent had an unfavorable view of Clinton.

Trump’s candidacy has helped Democrats expand the House battlefield beyond the tossup races they started the cycle targeting. The DCCC has recruited candidates in traditionally red, suburban districts where Trump’s rhetoric turns off well-educated, wealthy voters.

But some of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities remain among the 26 GOP-held seats that President Barack Obama carried in his re-election. Many of those should be winnable districts for Clinton — and in era of reduced ticket-splitting — for House Democratic candidates, too.

“We’re sort of at the mercy of the presidential race,” said a Democratic operative who works on House races, noting that with a month to go, plenty could still change overnight.

But up to this point, Clinton has been underperforming Trump in some Obama districts. That’s given Republicans an excuse to tie Democratic recruits, like Maine’s Emily Cain, to the top of the Democratic ticket and give incumbent GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin and vulnerable freshmen like him — many of whom still keep their distance from Trump — some breathing room.

“Time after time, you’re seeing us do OK in a district because voters fundamentally dislike Hillary Clinton in a relatively comparable way to Donald Trump,” said Brock McCleary, former polling director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Taking control of the House was always going to be a tall order for Democrats, and one that party leaders have been hesitant to commit to, even after Clinton’s post-convention bump showed her far ahead. Making a solid dent in the party’s deficit now seems like the most realistic goal.

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“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that we take back the House if there’s a wave election created. Right now, we don’t see that,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said last Thursday. He estimated Democrats would pick up 20 seats.

With the post-Labor Day tightening in the presidential race, the House map has become more competitive, too. “When Clinton tightens, we tighten,” the Democratic operative said.  

Said a different Democratic strategist: “We will see a number switch from red to blue, but there are also a lot of tossup races that a month ago looked like they were going to be a little easier to pick up than they are now.”

Trouble spots

Maine’s 2nd is one of those tossup races that looks tougher now because of the way the presidential race is breaking. The state’s northern, more conservative district is 94 percent white and heavily working-class. Obama won this seat by 11 points in 2008 and 9 points in 2012.

But Trump is leading here, holding a nearly 9-point lead in the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. His populist message strikes a chord with the district’s mill workers, farmers and fishermen, some of them disaffected Democrats, while Clinton remains unpopular.  

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It’s no wonder the National Republican Congressional Committee has tried to tie Cain to Clinton in its TV advertising, and why Cain has instead touted her record working with conservative Gov. Paul LePage in the legislature.

This seat is a top target for Democrats, who believe this year is their best shot at unseating Poliquin. The DCCC recruited Cain for a rematch just a month after her 2014 loss, and House Majority PAC has made this district a priority.

Public polling of the congressional race has showed Poliquin ahead by five to 10 points, while the Cain campaign’s internal polling showed the race tied late last month. For Cain to eke out a win, Democrats say she’s going to have to do better than Clinton is now.

In a year when Democrats are almost entirely on offense, the state with the biggest potential gains could be New York, a reliably blue state at the presidential level that Clinton represented in the Senate.

[New York Could Hold Key to Democratic Majority in House

Democrats in the Empire State have the opportunity to flip two open seats currently held by Republicans and unseat four GOP incumbents. But in some of those upstate districts as well as on Long Island, Trump is faring better than Clinton, and that could spell trouble for down-ballot Democrats.

GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin represents the 1st District, a seat Obama won narrowly in 2008 and even more narrowly in 2012. Zeldin has embraced Trump, and his suggestion that Obama is a racist has landed the GOP freshman on Roll Call’s list of the most vulnerable incumbents.  

But in a working-class district that’s 77 percent white, Trump is doing better here than Clinton. That makes Democrat Anna Throne-Holst’s job of unseating Zeldin harder. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates the district Tilts Republican.

Of course, Democrats can’t just win Obama seats. To truly expand the map, their candidates would have to overperform Trump in some white rural districts that Republicans have won. That includes swing districts like Michigan’s 1st and 7th Districts and Wisconsin’s 8th District.

Obama carried Wisconsin’s 8th District in 2008, while Romney carried it in 2012. Democrats had been high on Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson’s candidacy, but his path looks increasingly tough with Trump leading Clinton here. The DCCC recently pulled a week of ads in this district.

Democrats’ strategy

Party strategists acknowledge Clinton struggles with working-class whites, but say they see ways for their House candidates to succeed where she has failed.

Just as Republicans tout their incumbents’ ability to run their own races, Democrats see vulnerable incumbents like Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan standing on their own. Trump may be outperforming Clinton in Minnesota’s 8th District, but Democrats say Nolan, who originally backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, is leading repeat challenger Stewart Mills in their polling.

When it comes to House recruits, a winning strategy might even include Sanders. Democratic strategists say their candidates need to mimic the Democratic socialist’s message of economic populism, which they say resonates with blue-collar whites.

In the Democratic primary against Sanders, the senator won those voters overwhelmingly in places like West Virginia and Wisconsin.

“I’ll tell you flat out, Bernie Sanders is the best selling point for Democrats. Period,” said Paul Maslin, a Wisconsin-based Democratic pollster. “It’s not even close. It’s beyond Obama.”

Democrats also say that although Clinton is not performing well in these districts, Trump’s numbers aren’t much better even if he leads.

“There’s certainly some of these working-class districts where Trump is still at 42,” said one Democratic strategist. “She might be weak, but it’s not like he’s sitting there at 53.”

The remaining vote that is undecided, or committed to supporting a third-party candidate, could swing the outcome of races in these districts, the strategist continued. And if House Democratic candidates position themselves to win those votes, they could push them to victory.