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The Survivors: Three Republicans in Clinton Districts Hang On

A combination of individual brands and attacks on Democratic challengers helped them win

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., won re-election last week as his fellow Republicans in the suburbs lost. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., won re-election last week as his fellow Republicans in the suburbs lost. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Editor’s note: At the time of this story’s publication, The Associated Press had called the race for California’s 21st District for Republican incumbent David Valadao. A final count later revealed that Valadao had in fact lost to Democrat TJ Cox by 862 votes. Also at time of publication, the race for Texas’ 23rd District was still too close to call. The AP later called the election for Republican incumbent Will Hurd, who joined John Katko and Brian Fitzpatrick as the only GOP midterm survivors in Clinton districts. 

House Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016 were largely washed away in the Democratic wave last week — but three managed to hang on.

GOP Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and David Valadao all won their races on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press (though Valadao’s margin has narrowed with votes still being counted).

Some Democrats argue a few Republicans were going to slip through the cracks and prevail no matter what. The races were still close, but why did these particular Republicans win when their colleagues couldn’t?

A combination of well-established brands in their districts and Democratic challengers who were vulnerable to an onslaught of GOP attacks made for a winning formula, according to operatives involved in the races.

But the question for these Republicans is whether that formula can help them do it again.

“Races have become much more national,” Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, a former chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, said this week, reflecting on Republican losses. 

“This whole idea that you can have a individual brand that can protect you in bad times — it’s not obsolete, but it’s clearly dated,” he said.

Building a brand 

GOP leaders advised Republicans ahead of last week’s election to localize their races. But that wasn’t enough to help most Republicans in the suburbs, where opposition to President Donald Trump fueled Democratic gains.

Localizing activity can’t just happen when an election’s coming up, said Katko consultant Bob Honold, who also oversaw the National Republican Congressional Committee’s outside spending in Fitzpatrick’s race.

“Creating their own brands separate of their party’s brand was imperative and detached them from the suburban blue wave,” Honold said. “That’s not something you can simply do during campaign time.”

Part of that effort includes earning media attention for bipartisan accomplishments. 

“Those headlines become the building block for campaign mailers, digital and TV ads,” he said.

Republicans touted Valadao, Katko and Fitzpatrick as examples of lawmakers who fostered that reputation.

Clinton carried Valadao’s Central Valley district in California by the largest margin: 15 points. She took Katko’s central New York District, which includes Syracuse by 3 points. Had the new boundaries for Fitzpatrick’s district in the Philadelphia suburbs been in place in 2016, Clinton would have carried it by 2 points.

Clinton’s margin made these Republicans natural Democratic targets. So the lawmakers continued to stress their work on local issues.

Valadao is known for focusing on access and regulations. He’s currently leading businessman TJ Cox by 2 points, although the AP projected on election night that Valadao would win.

Katko, a former prosecutor, highlighted his work combating the opioid epidemic. One television spot featured a Democratic woman whose son died of an overdose voicing her support for the GOP congressman. Katko defeated Dana Balter, a visiting professor, by 6 points.

Fitzpatrick, whose brother previously held the seat, also focused on opioids. He said Wednesday that his willingness to work with Democrats helped him defeat wealthy Democrat Scott Wallace by 3 points.

“It’s hard to say,” Fitzpatrick said when asked why he survived when so many of his colleagues in suburban districts lost. “We worked really hard, and we stood true to our belief in bipartisanship and the Problem Solvers [Caucus].”

These lawmakers did have mixed records when it came to supporting their party and the president’s priorities. Fitzpatrick and Katko voted against the GOP bill to repeal much of the 2010 health care law. All three supported the Republican tax overhaul.

Fitzpatrick supported his party’s priorities 75 percent of the time and Trump’s priorities 85 percent of the time this Congress, according to CQ Vote Watch. Katko had a party unity score of 85 percent and a presidential support score of 89 percent. Valadao had higher scores, backing his party’s priorities 92 percent of the time and Trump’s priorities 100 percent of the time.

On the attack

All three Republicans also went on offense. One Democratic strategist acknowledged that Katko was able to define Balter, who was not the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first choice in the primary. Balter instead had the support of local Democrats.

“By the time she was responding, we were on to a new line of attack,” Honold said. Katko’s ads featured people from the district criticizing Balter, including several women. His closing ad featured five constituents, included two women Democrats, saying Balter was not from the district and too extreme. 

Valadao also attempted to paint his opponent, Cox, as a carpetbagger. Cox was originally running in a nearby district but decided to run against Valadao instead. The campaign attempted to counter Cox’s focus on health care by launching ads highlighting Cox’s ties to a senior care facility that violated health and safety codes. 

Both Katko and Valadao outspent their opponents even as GOP incumbents across the country were being overwhelmed by Democratic money. Katko spent $2.3 million to Balter’s spent $1.7 million. And Valadao spent $2.4 million to Cox’s $2.3 million.

These two districts also attracted less outside money than other competitive races.

The DCCC didn’t spend in Valadao’s race, while the NRCC spent nearly $420,000. House Majority PAC, a Democratic Super PAC, spent $257,000, while its GOP counterpart, the Congressional Leadership Fund, didn’t spend on television but did have a field office in the district.

One Democratic strategist suggested Democrats should spend earlier in Valadao’s race because it is so Democratic, and not put as much stock in initial polling that showed a difficult race.

In Katko’s race, CLF spent $400,000, while House Majority PAC spent $1.3 million. The DCCC also did not spend in Katko’s race, but the NRCC spent nearly $789,000.

Fitzpatrick’s contest attracted more outside money, in part because of Wallace’s ability to self-fund. Wallace spent $11.8 million throughout his primary and the general election, while Fitzpatrick spent $2.8 million. 

The DCCC spent $665,000 on the race, while the NRCC spent $3.5 million. House Majority PAC did not spend in the contest, while CLF spent $4.7 million.

Despite coming up short in a blockbuster year for Democrats, they’re still eyeing these Republicans as future targets. One strategist said Fitzpatrick looked especially vulnerable, noting that Wallace came closer to defeating Fitzpatrick than his 2016 opponent, who lost to Fitzpatrick by 9 points.

“I think that we just have to keep knocking on the door until it opens,” the strategist said.

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