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Don’t Blame Trump for These Imperiled Republicans

Some down-ballot Republicans are in tough spots because of faults of their own

Democrats have seized on comments New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett made about his opposition to gay candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats have seized on comments New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett made about his opposition to gay candidates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Not all down-ballot Republicans can blame Trump for making their elections in typically red districts competitive. A few of them have themselves to blame.

Chief among them is New Jersey’s Scott Garrett. His 5th District seat wouldn’t normally be a top Democratic target, but Democrats have spent millions trying to unseat the seven-term Republican this year. They’re going after his 2015 comments about not paying his dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee to protest the committee’s support for gay candidates. 

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House Majority PAC, the super PAC that works to elect Democrats to the House, has made this race one of its biggest priorities. In a brutal ad called “Dixie,” the group suggested Garrett was a better fit for Alabama than northern New Jersey. “Scott Garret’s views might sound fine in the land of cotton, but we’re not singing his tune in New Jersey,” the narrator says, with “Dixie” playing in the background. 

Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who’s challenging Garrett, has proven a strong fundraiser. But it’s not just the fact that Democrats have a strong candidate that’s landed Garrett on the list of the 10 most vulnerable House incumbents. Garrett’s comments about gay GOP candidates took a toll on his own fundraising. Over the past year, the financial services industry, traditionally one of Garrett’s biggest backers, curtailed its contributions to his campaign.

Indiana’s 9th District is another seat that’s not typically competitive for Democrats. Mitt Romney carried this south-central Hoosier district by 16 points in 2012. But Democrats are spending here, and they’re holding up internal polls showing Democratic recruit Shelli Yoder within striking distance of Republican Trey Hollingsworth. That’s forced Republicans to spend here too. Once again, the problem isn’t Trump. He’ll carry Indiana and the district. The problem is Hollingsworth. 

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The first-time candidate only moved to Indiana last fall, just weeks before filing his candidacy. He’s faced a barrage of attacks — both during the primary and general election — that he’s a carpetbagger. Democrats call him “Tennessee Trey,” in reference to his native state, and have accused him of trying to buy the seat with help from a super PAC largely funded by his father.

Now Democrats have seized on an Associated Press review of public records from Hollingsworth’s company that found he was obligated to live in five states — none of them Indiana — “to represent his business interests.” Yoder’s campaign has accused him of committing a felony for having falsified documents. The Hollingsworth campaign has blamed the company documents on a “clerical error.”

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A Yoder win in this Republican Favored district would be a major upset, with a lot to do with Hollingsworth’s baggage.  

After redistricting added more Democrats to its population, Florida’s 7th District became more competitive than either of the above-mentioned districts where Republicans have gotten themselves in trouble. That’s part of the reason 12-term Rep. John L. Mica is facing his first real re-election fight in two decades.

But with Democrats spending big on this race, Republicans are anxious that the congressman hasn’t taken his re-election seriously and hasn’t expended the resources to introduce himself to voters in his new district. He only recently aired his first TV spot, trailing Democrat Stephanie Murphy on air. In a revealing Politico story last week, Mica bragged about not having a campaign manager or a full-time press secretary. If Murphy pulls off an upset in this 50-50 district, Republicans will likely blame Mica, not Trump.

Trump’s down-ballot effect has been mixed. He’s certainly been a liability for some Republicans in suburban districts, where his rhetoric is turning off independents and moderates. Elsewhere in the country, though, Republicans have been resilient to Democratic efforts to tie them to the top of the GOP ticket. And in some heavily white districts, Trump may even be a boon to Republicans who initially looked very vulnerable in the face of presidential-year turnout. 

But in these three districts, which didn’t look like they’d be competitive at the beginning of the cycle, Republican candidates are facing tougher paths to election largely because of their own faults.