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It’s a Good Year for Democratic Recruits — Just Not Everywhere

Despite a flood of candidates, not all districts have Democratic challengers yet

Democrats have had a tough time recruiting challengers to New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, who’s friendly with labor leaders in South Jersey. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Democrats have had a tough time recruiting challengers to New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, who’s friendly with labor leaders in South Jersey. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats are having a recruitment bonanza this year. Multiple, well-funded challengers are running in many of the party’s top-targeted House races.

But in a handful of seats on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s target list, the party still doesn’t have candidates they consider credible.

It’s still early, and those gaps probably wouldn’t stand out if not for the Democrats’ success elsewhere on the map. 

But slower recruitment in some of these districts that look winnable on paper could explain why they may be harder for Democrats to pick up than the recent presidential-performance numbers suggest.

Recruitment gaps? 

In many districts, there’s no shortage of Democratic candidates.

At least eight Democrats are running in New York’s 19th District, as well as in Virginia’s 10th District. Many are credible candidates. Both districts are rated Tilt Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales

But in at least six other districts on the DCCC’s January target list, the party doesn’t yet have someone it considers a viable candidate.

It’s only September of the off-year though. “The door hasn’t closed,” one Democratic ad maker said. “But it’s not wrong to say it’s starting to close.”

Democrats made an early target of New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo. But no credible Democrat is yet to take on the 12-term incumbent.

On paper, LoBiondo’s 2nd District seat could be competitive. President Donald Trump carried the district by less than 5 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Before that, President Barack Obama twice carried the South Jersey district by about 8 points. 

First elected in 1994, LoBiondo has proved tough to knock off. He won by 22 points last year against an underfunded Democratic challenger, and his 2018 race is currently rated Solid Republican.

The New Jersey Republican has carved out a moderate profile that may deter would-be challengers. So far this year, he’s supported the president on votes 70 percent of the time, compared to 94 percent for the average House GOP member, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. He voted against the Republican health care plan resurrected by his Garden State colleague Tom MacArthur.

And he’s made peace with South Jersey’s Democratic power brokers — so much so that labor leaders protect him.

By the presidential numbers, New York’s 24th District looks like a dream pickup opportunity for Democrats. But as of now, no one is giving sophomore GOP Rep. John Katko a serious run for his money. His race is rated Likely Republican

Hillary Clinton carried the district by nearly 4 points, while Obama did so by double digits twice. And yet, Katko won by 19 points in 2014 and again by 21 points last year.

He, too, has a more moderate profile. So far this year, Katko’s supported Trump on votes 79 percent of the time. That includes voting against the GOP health care bill. 

Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, another one of the 20 Republicans who voted against the health care measure, doesn’t have a viable challenger yet either in her Solid Republican race.

The numbers in her 3rd District aren’t quite as favorable to Democrats, although Obama won there in 2008. Herrera Beutler has a compelling family story that could deter some challengers. Her daughter was the first baby to survive childbirth without kidneys

And in New York’s 1st District, Democrats are without a credible announced challenger so far to sophomore Rep. Lee Zeldin. Trump (and Zeldin) did well in this Long Island district, but Democrats have continued to target Zeldin, most recently launching radio and digital ads against him for voting against legislation that included relief funds for Hurricane Harvey damage in Texas. 

The national party is talking to several candidates in Florida’s 18th District, which Trump carried by 9 points. But so far, recruitment against GOP Rep. Brian Mast has been slow. A freshman with a compelling personal story, Mast has been more outspoken than leadership on some environmental issues. His race is also rated Solid Republican.

To the south, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s district looks more competitive since Trump only carried it by less than 2 points. The eight-term congressman has supported the president on 100 percent of votes so far this year.

But ambitious Democrats in the area have flocked to the open 27th District, which shifted in the Democrats’ favor when GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement. This year’s hurricanes have also slowed recruitment in the region.

Preparing for a wave

Even seemingly tough incumbents can lose in a wave. And it’s the DCCC’s job to prepare for those scenarios. 

“Those watching politics in these districts who have a very high opinion of a member will tell the national party, ‘Oh this district is not winnable, this guy is tough,’” said Ian Russell, former deputy executive director and political director at the DCCC.  

“And they don’t realize the impact a wave will have in overcoming that,” Russell said, recalling the 2006 cycle, when some Republicans with high job-approval numbers went down. 

But that’s still asking candidates to take a gamble. Democrats must net 24 seats to win the majority, and even if they narrow that deficit, serving in the minority isn’t a compelling sell to prospective candidates.  

“The good names tend to not run because they’re too smart for their own good,” Russell said. 

Making that sell would be easier if the party had a better recent track record, one Democratic ad maker said, noting that recruitment would have gone even better had Democrat Jon Ossoff won in Georgia’s 6th District in June.

“The DCCC has put forth signals that this is a new day, but the reality is — regardless of saying we beat the spread in multiple elections — they haven’t won,” the ad maker said.

There’s still time

Pennsylvania’s 8th District sticks out as a suburban Philadelphia district without a credible challenger. But that’s about to change. A Navy veteran who’s done legal and advocacy work for domestic violence survivors is expected to announce soon.

And that’s just one example of how recruitment is ongoing in all of these districts, even if it seems slow by comparison when there are already seats, such as Pennsylvania’s 7th, with a handful of Democratic challengers.

“The DCCC has recruited incredible Democratic candidates with records of service as we work to build the largest battlefield in a decade, in areas that are shifting towards Democrats and those where President Trump performed well,” DCCC spokesman Tyler Law said. “And don’t forget, it’s still very early. That said, we don’t take anything for granted and we will continue to field candidates deep into the map.”

The current fundraising quarter ends Sept. 30, after which more candidates may enter races. Candidates often don’t announce in the middle or at the end of a reporting period to avoid being judged on an incomplete quarter. 

In one of the six seats Democrats gained last year, the party didn’t have a candidate until the day before the filing deadline. Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy declared her candidacy on June 23. Less than five months later, she knocked out 12-term Republican Rep. John L. Mica.

In Nevada, first-time candidate Jacky Rosen announced her candidacy just two months before the filing deadline. She went on to win the open 3rd District seat and is now running for Senate.

But one reason Murphy and Rosen got in was because they were assured they wouldn’t face competitive primaries. And it’s harder to make those promises so early in the cycle.

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