Democrats Prep for Battle, Not Surfing a Blue Wave
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats still optimistic about winning control of the House in the fall elections, but worried it'll be more seat-to-seat combat than any blue wave, got a shot in the arm on Tuesday when several of their stronger candidates won contested primaries.
In a Houston, Texas, district that Hillary Clinton carried, Lizzie Fletcher turned back a Bernie Sanders-type liberal, and is given an even chance of defeating a relatively weak Republican incumbent, John Culberson. Another preferred candidate of the national Democrats, 35-year-old Colin Allred, easily won in a North Dallas district represented by a vulnerable Republican incumbent, House Rules Committee chair Pete Sessions. Allred is a civil rights lawyer and former professional football player. Washington Democrats were pleased with the outcome in several other Texas House primaries.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, it was same story: Clarke Tucker, a moderate state legislator whose candidacy the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sought even before this year, won handily and is given a real chance against incumbent French Hill.
It was in Lexington, Kentucky, however, where the Democrats who're actively looking to women and veterans may have gotten their 2018 poster candidate: Amy McGrath, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and combat pilot. The Democratic establishment had successfully recruited former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray for the primary. He was a good candidate, but McGrath ran a dazzling campaign, and could well defeat incumbent Republican Andy Barr in November.
Another high was Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic legislative leader who won her party’s nomination for governor of Georgia. To become the first African-American woman to hold that position in the state, she'll face a tough battle against either of the two right-wing Republicans who're in a runoff, but the contest will generate excitement and enthusiasm.
Some analysts, based on the Democrats' virtual sweep of contested special elections this year, and polls and turnout suggesting greater intensity among their voters, still expect a blue wave or huge win in November. But adding to the importance of Tuesday’s victories, there is some developing caution.
Mark Gersh, the premier Democratic House expert for almost four decades, thinks the party will win control of the House but barely. As of today, he foresees a range of 215 to 222 seats after the election, tilting a bit to the higher side; it takes 218 for a majority. He has long track record of both caution and prescience.
There are several factors. One, President Donald Trump's favorability has bumped up, indicating he might help in places and not be as much of a drag in the tightest contests.
The Democrats’ left wing, which generates voter enthusiasm, may cost the party some seats where Republican incumbents are vulnerable. Last week in an Omaha, Nebraska, district, a left-wing challenger, running on a single-payer health-care system, edged out a more moderate Democrat who party leaders thought could win in November.
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Scott Wallace, a self-styled liberal progressive and the wealthy grandson of Henry Wallace, who was vice president under FDR, easily won. He upset Rachel Reddick, a former naval officer, whom the national party had rated a stronger general-election candidate in the Philadelphia suburb. Both these seats now lean Republican.
Overall, Republicans are hoping to rally what had been a dispirited core by hyping threats — however idle — that a Democratic Congress would impeach Trump and pass a government-run health-care system.
And Democrats still haven't sorted out a few contests in California’s June 5 primary, where the top two finishers, no matter what their party, run in the general election. With multiple Democrats running, and one other Republican contesting endangered Republican incumbent Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the Democrats fear they could get shut out of the November election they should win. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the very liberal California state party are backing different candidates. In several other districts, there's fear among party strategists that the best candidate won't emerge.
In general, Democrats have been pleased with the primaries this year, though over half of them are still to be held. In most of the Pennsylvania contests last week, the stronger candidate won, mostly women. Helped by this and a state court decision that redrew the congressional lines, Democrats now realistically expect to score a net gain of three to four seats in the Keystone State.
This is one of several states, including California, New York, New Jersey and Florida, where four or five Republican-held seats are in play, the most likely pickups in suburban districts. But to get to 218 or more, Democrats have to pick off seats in about every region, including in districts that Trump won handily.
If it's close, and there is no wave, Trump's standing in the fall may be crucial. The president's approval rating has inched up in recent weeks to the low 40s from the high 30s. That's still, by any historical yardstick, mediocre, and events over the next five and a half months could just as easily work against, as for, him.
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