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Words and Deeds Can Come Back to Haunt Incumbents in Tight Races

Yoder, McCaskill and others face attacks on past votes, policy positions

Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., now finds himself in a “Tilts Democratic” race in Kansas’ 3rd District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., now finds himself in a “Tilts Democratic” race in Kansas’ 3rd District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Incumbency comes with benefits, but in a throw-the-bums-out kind of year, it also offers sitting lawmakers one potential major disadvantage on the campaign trail: a voting record on Capitol Hill.

Political opponents can, and do, weaponize one vote, one position on a hot-button policy such as health care, tax or immigration. They might target a pattern of partisanship or, more importantly this year, support for an unpopular president.

The rhetoric and attacks in some of the most competitive races for the House and Senate reveal just how much a position can haunt an incumbent, such as Rep. Kevin Yoder, a four-term Republican struggling to keep his grip on Kansas’ 3rd District.

The same is true for Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat whose positions on border security and the 2017 tax overhaul, and her opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, have become fodder for her Republican opponent, Josh Hawley.

Lawmakers’ records leave them vulnerable to charges of voting against their constituents’ best interests, flip-flopping, taking inconsistent positions or trying to move to the left or the right when running for re-election or seeking higher office.

In 2010, Democrats’ votes in support of that year’s health care overhaul cost many their seats and their party the majority in the House.

“It was a flashpoint for Republicans and tea party activists to rally around,” said GOP operative Doug Heye, who worked in House leadership and for the Republican National Committee.

This cycle, there may not be a sole vote that dooms big numbers of incumbents, though in the final weeks some senators’ votes on Kavanaugh may prove pivotal.

Instead it’s mostly about how they handle the scarlet letter T — the drag of President Donald Trump, who remains hugely popular among his party’s base and despised outside of it.

Watch: What Surprised Roll Call’s Politics Team This Midterm Season (So Far)

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Pivot moves

Just a month ago, Yoder’s race against Democrat Sharice Davids was rated a Toss-up” by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Now just over three weeks until Election Day, it’s a “Tilts Democratic” race.

Yoder, as chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, has outsize influence over the purse strings of agencies tasked with enforcing U.S. borders and immigration policy. This year, given the Trump administration’s controversial policies, especially on detaining minors, that perch hasn’t been much of a selling point for Yoder in the suburban Kansas City district.

Under pressure from the president and from his fellow Republicans, Yoder flip-flopped recently on a Democrat-backed provision in a Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that would have made it easier to gain entry to the United States for asylum-seekers who assert they are escaping domestic violence or gangs in their homelands.

“I’ve known Kevin Yoder since he was a college student, and he’s been part of the fabric out here forever,” said Burdett A. Loomis, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “I think a lot of us are surprised that he’s in quite the difficulty that he is.”

When it comes to immigration matters, Loomis added: “He’s kind of thrashing around.”

Though Yoder ultimately came down on the side of most Republicans on the asylum matter, his voting pattern shows an effort this year to distance himself from the president, according to CQ Vote Watch, a tool that tracks lawmakers’ votes on bills where the administration takes a clear position.

This year, he has voted with Trump’s agenda 82.1 percent of the time, compared to 94 percent last year.

“Certainly, it demonstrates that he’s trying to pivot,” Loomis said. “What ordinarily would be an advantage, being an Appropriations chair, now he is stuck with often defending Trump’s policies, even though he’s clearly ambivalent.”

The president factors prominently in the race, but he’s not the only figure to drag Yoder down with female Republicans and independents. The state’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, Kris Kobach, is akin to “Dracula” in that district, Loomis said, because “he’s willing to suck the fiscal blood out of the state” by renewing former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, and he opposes a Medicaid expansion. 

Kobach takes a hard-line, Trumpesque approach to immigration and other controversial matters, and he gained national attention as vice chairman of the president’s short-lived voter fraud commission, which critics called a thinly veiled effort of voter suppression.

A slight embrace

Heye, the GOP operative, got an on-the-ground feel for how McCaskill’s vote against last year’s tax overhaul has become a rallying point for her opponent. He vacationed in Lake of the Ozarks over the Labor Day weekend and recalled constant ads on a music app hitting McCaskill for her vote.

“Every commercial break — regardless of whether it was the Tom Petty channel or Johnny Cash or some Top 40 — every actual commercial would be anti-McCaskill,” Heye said. “Quite often it would be an ad that hit her for voting against the growing economy by voting against the tax bill. I didn’t hear those ads four times. I heard them 40 times.”

Still, it may not resonate with voters, according to Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, who has followed the race.

“I suspect that the average Missourian’s life was not changed by their tax cut, even if they appreciated them,” Squire said.

More recently, Republicans have attacked McCaskill for her votes on immigration and border security, Squire added, “but she has responded with a strong commercial featuring border agents touting her support for them and border security.”

This year, McCaskill’s votes in support of Trump’s agenda have gone up slightly, from 58 percent in 2017 to 65.8 percent so far in 2018, CQ data show. Her voting in support of the Democratic line this year also went down from last year’s 82 percent to 62.5 percent this year.

“For years McCaskill has worked to convey the image of a moderate who can work with both sides,” Squire said. “So, I am sure she is comfortable with higher presidential support scores than most of her Democratic Party colleagues.”

Tough sales job

Rep. Tom MacArthur illustrates a more common problem for lawmakers who voted on the tax overhaul. The New Jersey Republican voted for it, and that isn’t selling well in his district.

Neither was his amendment dealing with pre-existing conditions, which aimed at setting the stage for House Republicans to repeal the 2010 health care law. His provision could have allowed insurance companies to charge higher rates to people with pre-existing conditions, though MacArthur has said on the campaign trail that it would have protected such patients.

“The road to the Democratic majority in the House runs through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California,” said Israel “Izzy” Klein, a Democratic lobbyist with the Klein/Johnson Group, and a former communications director for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York.

In MacArthur’s district in the high-property-tax state, homeowners now face new caps on how much state and local taxes they can write off on their federal returns because of the tax law.

In that district, “I don’t know how you have a member of Congress who supported that tax law and supports the repeal of the [health care law],” said Klein, a native of New Jersey.

Overall, “the tax bill won’t have been much of a winner for Republicans,” said Vanessa Williamson, a fellow in governance studies at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “The bill did create some very specific risks for certain Republicans: those running for re-election in relatively high-tax states.”

Some Republicans — including House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, also of New Jersey — voted against it for that reason. He didn’t win much favor with his party’s leadership.

But even as MacArthur bolstered his standing with GOP leaders with both the tax vote and his effort to revive the health care repeal-and-replace effort, those may turn out to be deal-breakers with his constituents.

Red-state moderates

Two sitting Democratic House members who are aiming for Senate seats dramatically increased their frequency in voting with the administration’s preferences on legislation this year.

Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who represents a Phoenix-area district, voted with the Trump administration’s position 76.7 percent of the time this year, up from 45 percent in 2017, according to a CQ tabulation. She faces another House incumbent, Republican Martha McSally, in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake

Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is looking to unseat GOP Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, has voted with the president 63.3 percent of the time this year, up from 28 percent last year, according to CQ data.

Their opponents’ patterns have remained consistent over this Congress. McSally voted with Trump’s position on 97 percent of votes in 2017 and 100 percent of votes in 2018.

Heller was at 95 percent in 2017 and 95.8 percent this year.

Some of the votes in which Sinema and Rosen sided with Trump included a bill to authorize money to beef up school safety and a measure to expand Medicare and Medicaid’s coverage of opioid addiction treatment.

Wes Gullett, a deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid who runs OH Strategic Communications in Phoenix, said Sinema has voted in Congress consistently as a relatively moderate Democrat.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, now that she’s running in a red state, voting with the president a little more frequently is a political calculation, but it is not inconsistent in the way she has behaved in her congressional career,” Gullett said.

Rosen’s uptick in presidential support this election year, by contrast, surprises Eric Herzik, who chairs the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Rosen has campaigned focusing on health care, gun control and opposition to Trump, he said. And she has attacked Heller for voting to take away protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

The flip side is that Heller’s ads “cherry pick” Rosen’s votes from her one term in Congress, particularly on immigration, Herzik said.

Votes matter more

Colorado Republican Mike Coffman is trying to keep Trump out of his campaign for a sixth term representing suburban Denver. But even though the congressman has no problem airing his grievances with the commander in chief, Democrats have a way to associate the two: his voting pattern.

He has voted with the president’s position 96.7 percent of the time this year, up from 94 percent in 2017, according to CQ.

His campaign manager, Tyler Sandberg, said such tabulations can draw misleading conclusions, especially given Coffman’s opposition to high-profile matters such as repealing and replacing the health care law and the so-called Muslim ban that the administration put in place to curb immigration from specific countries.

“On the really big issues, big bills with serious ramifications, Coffman has been largely opposed to the Trump agenda,” Sandberg said.

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

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