Several Democrats have already announced they will run for the House again in 2020 after losing by 4 points or less in their first-ever campaigns last cycle.
Four of those candidates — Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, Ammar Campa-Najjar, Nate McMurray and J.D. Scholten — say they know more now about how to run, and feel there’s unfinished business that merits a sequel.
“You ever seen the movie ‘Rocky’?” said McMurray, who lost to Rep. Chris Collins by less than half a percentage point in New York’s 27th District. “I felt like Rocky. I was the total underdog. We had the largest partisan swing for a first-time candidate in the country, and we still lost. Just like Rocky lost.”
Last November, Democrats ousted 30 GOP incumbents and gained a net of 40 seats to take a commanding House majority. But even as the so-called blue wave washed over the country, 21 Republican incumbents squeaked out Election Day victories by 5 points or less.
Another Republican, Iowa Rep. Steve King had become something of a hermit in the final week before the election, quietly rebuffing national media inquiries over his history of racist comments and behavior. King squeaked out a 3-point victory over Scholten. He’d been reelected to his 4th District seat by 23 points two years earlier.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis wasn’t swimming against the same kind of negative PR, but with the state’s largest university, the state capital of Springfield and the suburbs of St. Louis, his 13th District represented a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats.
CNN even prematurely called the race for Londrigan on election night, then reversed that projection when it became apparent Davis might overtake her.
Londrigan ultimately lost by less than a percentage point point. Campa-Najjar lost to Hunter by 3 points in California’s 50th District.
Out of time
Londrigan, McMurray and Campa-Najjar each believe they would have won if they just had a little more of that most elusive commodity that — unless you’re Marty McFly or John Connor — no human has yet conquered: time.
“We kind of just ran out of time,” Campa-Najjar said. “We were taking on decades’ worth of establishment power, whether it was the Hunters or Steve King or Collins. We had two years to turn around, in our case, a 40-year dynasty. Now we have more runway. Now we can finish stronger by starting stronger.”
Hunter’s father, Duncan Hunter Sr., represented San Diego County from 1981 until his retirement in 2009, when his son succeeded him.
McMurray, who launched his second bid against Collins earlier this month, said his “biggest regret” was that he didn’t start running before December 2017.
While Londrigan, Campa-Najjar, and Scholten each kicked off their 2018 campaigns earlier than McMurray, they still spent most of the cycle playing catch-up against incumbents who had long-established donor lists, name recognition, armies of volunteer door-knockers and experienced professional campaign staff.
“Starting off, when you’re a first-time candidate, you’re building everything from the ground up. There’s a huge learning curve,” Londrigan said.
McMurray admitted he didn’t recognize, perhaps until it was too late, how important it is to court potential donors.
“I was just so green. I thought you could run for Congress the way you run for mayor of a small town,” he said. “Like, I drove around in a car with T-shirts, and I shook hands.”
When he first started campaigning through his upstate New York district, McMurray said, he had never even heard of “call time,” the crucial four(ish)-hour time block each work day that congressional candidates — even longtime members of Congress — are expected to dedicate on the phone with potential donors.
“I didn’t have any idea how that was done or how to get donor lists,” McMurray said.
This time around, the added experience as well as the continuity from 2018 could provide a boost to the repeat challengers.
Londrigan, for example, kicked off her 2020 campaign armed with a list of more than 40,000 individual donors from last cycle and 2,000 volunteers, “people who are fired up and ready to go on Day One,” she said.
Help from the DCCC
There’s also help coming from Washington.
In January, Collins, Davis, Hunter and King were on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of initial targets for 2020. Last time, only Davis made the initial list.
Londrigan had the closest relationship with the DCCC in 2018, being added to the Red to Blue program just two days after her Democratic primary victory that March. McMurray, by contrast, didn’t receive official backing from the DCCC until October.
That support for Londrigan doesn’t appear to have waned.
On one of her first days as the new chairwoman of the DCCC, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos said publicly last December that she hoped Londrigan would run again. The women’s fathers were longtime friends. Londrigan’s father died this past winter.
Republicans have hammered Londrigan for accepting help from the DCCC, which they said went against her pledge to refuse corporate PAC money because the committee accepts money from PACs. Davis is continuing those attacks this year, but Londrigan has shot back, saying she can’t help it if people from outside the district want to support her.
McMurray and the DCCC got off to a rocky start last cycle, with the candidate accusing the committee of neglecting his campaign. The committee later pointed out it sank $100,000 into his race.
“Everyone thinks when you’re running for office, a team of people is going to come in from D.C. like ‘Men in Black’ and say, ‘We’re going to make sure you know how to do this.’ But you’re really running for office by yourself,” McMurray said.
This time, McMurray has hired a campaign finance adviser, a new consulting group and a digital media firm, all recommended by the DCCC.
“I am light years ahead, and that’s in part because of the support of the DCCC,” he said.
In Iowa, Scholten has struck a more defiant tone.
“I feel the way the national party wants certain races to be run is not necessarily in line with how I run it,” he said. “When you move the needle 24 points, you assume that you did something right. And so if they want to come on board with what we’re doing, I’d be happy to have them. But at the end of the day, I’m running my race.”
The 2020 Trump bump?
Campa-Najjar, Londrigan, McMurray and Scholten are rechallenging Republican incumbents in districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016.
Trump carried New York’s 27th District by 24 points in 2016. Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential contest, and touted himself to CQ Roll Call as the president’s “No. 1 supporter in Congress.”
Ashley Phelps, a spokeswoman for Davis’ campaign, said her boss would benefit from Trump being at the top of the ticket in 2020 instead of Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor who lost reelection last cycle by 16 points.
In his race last year against Campa-Najjar and again in this cycle, Hunter has staked his political identity on many of the president’s most ardently fought battlegrounds: border security, immigration and a nearly unconditional support for military personnel.
Hunter, who faces trial in January on campaign finance corruption charges, used inflammatory ads and mailers last cycle to smear Campa-Najjar as a terrorist sympathizer. He has continued with the same rhetoric this cycle. Democrats have denounced the attacks as racist.
“All the values and principles that [Hunter] runs on and that he has consistently run on throughout his career resonate particularly well with a district that cares about those same values,” Hunter campaign spokesman Michael Harrison said.
King’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Crowded GOP primaries
The Democratic challengers in all four districts are well-positioned to emerge from their primaries, but Davis is the only incumbent on the GOP side without an opponent in the primary so far.
Republican leaders in Washington — who usually go out of their way to ensure vulnerable incumbents have congressional achievements to run on — have stripped King, Hunter and Collins of their committee memberships as their legal and reputational battles play out.
King already faces three Republican opponents in Iowa’s 4th District, including state Sen. Randy Feenstra.
In January, The New York Times published racist comments King made to the newspaper regarding the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist.” King has said he was misquoted.
Scholten had been considering running for Senate, but he told CQ Roll Call he had unfinished business in the 4th District.
“It would be hard to run for Senate and watch Steve King get reelected,” he said. “I’m trying to cut off the oxygen of his message.”
Hunter will stand trial on charges of campaign finance violations on Jan. 14 — just weeks before California’s top-two primary in March, where all candidates run on one ballot, regardless of party, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general.
That Hunter still defeated Campa-Najjar despite his legal struggles speaks to his district’s Republican lean and his strength with the party base, strength he’ll need to fend off primary challengers in 2020, his spokesman told Roll Call.
“In 2018, a lot of Republicans lost in California without the legal situation that Mr. Hunter was still facing,” Harrison said.
Campa-Najjar billed his potential rematch with Hunter and Scholten’s race against King as a “referendum” on “the soul of our country.”
Though Collins loaned his campaign $500,000 in June, the New York Republican has not announced whether he is running again as he awaits his February 2020 trial on charges including securities fraud and insider trading. Three Republicans have already declared bids to challenge him in the primary.
While Campa-Najjar said he doesn’t care who he faces in a general election — “My preference is that I win,” he said — Scholten and McMurray indicated they would relish rematches instead of campaigning against someone new.
“I hope it’s Collins because I can’t stand him,” McMurray said.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.