ANALYSIS — When it comes to losing candidates, not all retreads are created equal.
Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released its initial “Red to Blue” list of contenders in seats the party is looking to flip, including a crop of House candidates who lost in 2022. Republicans pounced, comparing the Democrats to “week-old crusty lasagna.” It’s a great line, but a loss does not necessarily mean a candidate was weak, nor does it preclude a candidate from winning in the future.
Republicans should know this, considering Iowa Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks lost congressional races in 2008, 2010 and 2014 before winning in 2020. Michigan Republican John James lost two U.S. Senate races before getting elected to the House in 2022. California Republican David Valadao lost reelection in 2018 and came back to win two years later.
This cycle, Republicans are backing a two-time loser in New Mexico. Yvette Herrell lost in 2018, won in 2020, and lost reelection in 2022. She’s the likely nominee once again in the 2nd District, where she’s challenging Democratic Rep. Gabe Vasquez.
That’s just to name a few. The bottom line is that Congress is filled with losers.
So instead of dismissing losing candidates out of hand, it can be helpful to measure their previous performance.
For example, Colorado Democrat Adam Frisch lost to GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert by 546 votes in 2022. But he outperformed a typical Democratic candidate in the 3rd District by 4.2 points, according to Inside Elections’ Vote Above Replacement, or VAR. Will Rollins lost to GOP Rep. Ken Calvert in California’s 41st District, but outperformed a typical Democratic candidate by 1.2 points, according to VAR. Kristen Engel (0.2 VAR) of Arizona’s 6th and Monica Tranel (0.1) of Montana, who lost in 2022 and also made this year’s DCCC list, narrowly outperformed a typical Democrat as well.
VAR measures the strength of a congressional candidate relative to a typical candidate from their party in the same district. That initial benchmark is derived using Inside Elections’ Baseline, which captures a congressional district’s political performance by combining all federal and state election results over the past four election cycles into a single score. VAR is the difference between a candidate’s share of the vote and their party’s Baseline. A higher VAR indicates a strong performance relative to expectations.
A handful of candidates on the Red to Blue list underperformed a typical Democrat last cycle, according to VAR, including Adam Gray (-0.6) in California’s 13th, Rudy Salas (-3.5) in California’s 22nd, Tony Vargas (-0.5) in Nebraska’s 2nd, Christina Bohannan (-1.1) in Iowa’s 1st and Josh Riley (-1.8) in New York’s 19th.
Picking sides in Oregon primary
The most intriguing name on the DCCC’s initial list was Janelle Bynum in Oregon’s 5th District, since she’s locked in a competitive primary with 2022 nominee Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson for the right to face GOP Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer.
Many Democrats, including Rep. Kurt Schrader, thought the 2022 race was a lost cause after Schrader lost the primary to McLeod-Skinner. But she ended up losing to Chavez-DeRemer by just 2.1 points without financial help in the campaign’s final weeks from the party or friendly outside groups.
The prevailing narrative was that McLeod-Skinner couldn’t win the seat because she was to the left of Schrader, who had a moderate reputation. But, according to VAR, McLeod-Skinner outperformed a typical Democrat narrowly, with a score of 0.6.
Democratic strategists are attracted to Bynum’s resume, considering she defeated Chavez-DeRemer in races for the state House in 2016 and 2018, and see her work to secure endorsements from the congressional delegation as a demonstration of support.
McLeod-Skinner’s final chances of keeping the DCCC and EMILY’s List — which endorsed Bynum last week — on the sidelines for the primary disappeared when Willamette Week published a story in early January with allegations that she abused a campaign aide during the 2022 race. McLeod-Skinner denies the allegations in the article.
But all of the latest news doesn’t mean McLeod-Skinner can’t or won’t win the May 21 primary. The DCCC’s Red to Blue list signals to donors who the committee believes is the strongest candidate in a particular race and does not guarantee spending by the committee.
Recently filed campaign finance disclosures show Bynum finished 2023 neck-and-neck with McLeod-Skinner in cash-on-hand, $233,000 to $242,000. But she starts the race behind because of McLeod-Skinner’s residual name identification. A mid-November poll of the likely Democratic primary voters by RMG Research for U.S. Term Limits showed McLeod-Skinner at 41 percent followed by Bynum (8 percent) and Peterson (4 percent).
Meanwhile, Chavez-DeRemer had $1.6 million in her campaign account at the end of the year.
The Willamette Valley-Central Oregon district went for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020, 53-44 percent, but the GOP gubernatorial nominee won in 2022, 47-43 percent. Inside Elections rates the race in November as a Toss-up.
Democrats need a net gain of five seats to win back the majority, and probably need to win seats like Oregon’s 5th to get there. That’s why Democrats are being proactive and getting involved in the primary and believe it’s a place where a fresh face will help the party get to 218 seats.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.