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2020 strategy: If you can’t beat ’em — move

Pete Sessions becomes third Republican ex-member to try comeback in different district

Former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions is one of three Republicans making comeback bids to the House from a different district. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions is one of three Republicans making comeback bids to the House from a different district. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions on Thursday became the third former Republican congressman to announce a 2020 comeback bid in a different district from the one he previously served, joining Darrell Issa of California and Bobby Schilling, who once represented Illinois and now is running in Iowa. 

Sessions represented suburban Dallas for 22 years, but lost his bid for a 12th term in Texas’ 32nd District to Democrat Colin Allred by nearly 7 points last November.

Now he’s touting his roots as a Waco native and running in the more reliably red 17th District where Rep. Bill Flores has joined five other House Republicans from Texas in opting against reelection, a phenomenon some have branded a GOP “Texodus.”

“My goal is to work together to restore the Republican majority in the House and maintain our control of the Senate and White House,” Sessions said in a statement ahead of an official campaign announcement Thursday afternoon. 

[If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and run somewhere else]

There is ample evidence that candidates who switch districts — and even states — can win elections, and Sessions, Issa and Schilling hope to join those ranks.

Issa represented coastal San Diego County — most recently California’s 49th District — for 18 years before retiring in January. After a nomination to work in the Trump’ administration stalled in the Senate, the former House Oversight chairman decided last week to join the crowded primary field for California’s 50th District, whose GOP incumbent Duncan Hunter faces trial in January on charges of embezzling $250,000 in campaign cash.

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Schilling, who represented Illinois’ 17th District for one term from 2011 to 2013, is one the top Republican candidates so far in Iowa’s 2nd District, a prime pickup opportunity for the GOP with Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack retiring. Of the 31 districts held by Democrats that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, Loebsack’s seat is the only one without a Democratic incumbent on the 2020 ballot.

“This is a district that, in 2010, should have been won,” Schilling told CQ Roll Call in August. “And it is going to be won in 2020.”

The Sessions switch

Rumors had swirled for months that Sessions might try to mount a comeback in his old 32nd District despite the recent leftward turn of suburban voters there. In addition to Allred’s win last year, the district backed Hillary Clinton by roughly 2 points in 2016.

Allred, a former NFL player and civil rights lawyer, has already established himself as a rising star in the Democratic Party. He was elected class co-president by his fellow freshman Democrats, a strong indicator that he’s on track for a party leadership position.

[For Colin Allred, Major League dreams are close to coming true]

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race 2020 race for the 32nd District Leans Democratic.

In contrast, the race for Texas’ 17th District is rated Solid Republican. Trump carried the district — which includes parts of Austin and its northeast suburbs and extends out into a rural expanse surrounding the Austin-Dallas-Houston triangle — by about 18 points in 2016.

Sessions joins retired Marine and Iraq War veteran Trent Sutton in the Republican primary. Rick Kennedy, the 2018 Democratic nominee who lost to Flores by 16 points last year, is running again.

The politics of ‘carpetbagging’

Sessions, Schilling and Issa are certain to face accusations from other candidates that they are no more than johnny-come-latelys who smelled political opportunity in another district and followed their noses.

Republicans and Democrats in California’s 50th District have already begun pounding Issa for quitting his old seat in 2018 before it fell to Democrat Mike Levin, and running in the more politically favorable 50th.

“The 50th isn’t my sloppy seconds,” Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar said.

It’s unclear whether such attacks from other candidates will have any detrimental effect on the campaigns of Sessions, Issa and Schilling.

Three House Democrats — Reps. Susie Lee of Nevada, Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Ed Case of Hawaii — won races in new districts last year after previously running or serving in others.

Before he became West Virginia’s attorney general in 2013 (and an unsuccessful GOP Senate nominee in 2018), Republican Patrick Morrisey lost a 2000 GOP primary in New Jersey’s 7th District.

And let’s not forget that Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney is a former one-term governor from Massachusetts.

[Mitt Romney not criticizing Nancy Pelosi’s handling of potential Trump impeachment over Ukraine call]

“No one cares about carpetbagging,” said John Thomas, a veteran GOP strategist in California. “As just a general political science question, the carpetbagging charge has not been effective in about 10 years.”

That calculus changes, though, if the carpetbagging message about an opponent is paired with evidence that the candidate’s values do not match those of voters in the new district.

“If it’s combined with ‘He’s not a good fit for the district,’ then yes,” that can be effective negative messaging, Thomas said.

[To run or not to run again? Failed 2018 candidates weigh 2020 options]

Besides the three former GOP congressmen, other candidates have also crossed district lines to run next year. 

Democrat Hiral Tipernini is vying for Arizona’s 6th District after losing both a special election and a general election in the nearby 8th District last year to Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko. And one of Issa’s opponents in California’s 50th District, Republican Carl DeMaio, is making his second bid for the House. The former San Diego City councilmember ran for the 52nd District in 2014. 

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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