In the days after Donald Trump shocked the political establishment with his presidential win, everyone heard about the places that former President Barack Obama had won that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had lost. They were counties in Rust Belt areas like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and upstate New York. People blamed her for her inability to connect with the Democratic base and win over blue-collar voters who liked Trump’s outsider message.
But in eight congressional districts around the country, Clinton won where Obama never was able to in either 2008 or 2012. These are the eight Republican members of Congress, who now have become prime targets for Democrats hoping to pick up 24 seats in the midterm elections to recapture the House:
Arizona’s 2nd district: Rep. Martha McSally
California’s 39th district: Rep. Ed Royce
California’s 45th district: Rep. Mimi Walters
California’s 48th district: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher
Kansas’ 3rd district: Rep. Kevin Yoder
New Jersey’s 7th district: Rep. Leonard Lance
Texas’ 7th district: Rep. John Culberson
Texas’ 32nd district: Rep. Pete Sessions
These districts largely encompass affluent, educated, suburban districts ― often with changing demographics ― where even Republican voters just didn’t care for Trump.
“A lot of Republicans just never accepted him,” said Dave Gilliard, a Rep. Mimi Walters campaign consultant, who cautioned against reading too much into the presidential election results for congressional races in 2018.
HuffPost reached out to all the offices of the members listed, many of whom did not reply.
These seats won’t be easy pick-ups. In Texas, for example, a Republican has represented the 7th congressional district ― which encompasses wealthy areas of Houston ― since 1967, when George H.W. Bush won. The former president still lives there today.
“These Republicans are some of the most battle-tested members of Congress when it comes to running in competitive races, and they have strong, personal brands back home in their districts. Democrats are getting ahead of themselves if they think primaries are going to be cakewalks for their anointed candidates,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Democrats say they have a few things working for them.
“These districts have undergone significant change and the House Republicans representing them have grown far out of touch with their constituents,” said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Frankly, many of these incumbents have not faced a serious challenge in a long time and they’re already making the type of unforced errors that could send them into early retirement. As we build the largest battlefield in a decade, there’s no question that these districts will be a top priority.”
Below is a look at some of what Democrats see as their strongest advantages.
First, of course, is Trump, whose approval rating is going down.
Carol Donovan, chair of the Democratic Party in Dallas County, where they’re looking to oust Sessions, said they’re working to tie the congressman to the president as much as possible.
“Pete Sessions has made the mistake of tying himself too closely to Trump, and Trump is going far down in popularity,” Donovan said.
Harley Rouda, a Democrat hoping to win in California’s 48th district, is already going after Rohrabacher by using Trump’s scandals. He recently called on the FBI to investigate “any and all connections, payments and relations between Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and the Russians.”
He keyed his attack on a comment made by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last year ― and recently reported ― that both Trump and Rohrabacher are on the payroll of Russian President Vladimir Putin. McCarthy’s office has said he was joking.
“Rohrabacher’s connections to Russia are bringing him lots of questions about his credibility as a congressman,” Rouda told HuffPost.
Rohrabacher ― who often breaks with his party on foreign policy ― said he isn’t in favor of “helping Russia,” but wants “a policy that’s best for the United States.”
“Whoever my Democratic opponent is, that Democratic opponent can explain why he’s for war with Russia,” he added. “He can explain why we shouldn’t be cooperating with Russia in defeating radical Islam. Why, when cooperation with Russia is so much better than belligerence for both of our countries, we would choose the path of belligerence.”
Gilliard acknowledged that Trump’s low approval rating is worrisome for GOP candidates, but he noted that some Republicans ― like his candidate, Walters ― still did fine in the 2016 election despite the distaste in California for Trump. In California’s 45th district, Trump lost to Clinton by 5 points, whereas Walters won by 18 points. Rohrabacher won by 17 points, even though Trump lost by 1.7 points.
“Whenever the person that’s the leader of your party is unpopular, you have to overcome that, and that makes it harder,” Gilliard said.
“It’s going to be a challenging year, there’s no question about that, for Republicans,” he added. “But I think it’s way overblown right now, the whole idea that it’s going to be some kind of wave for the Democrats ... These are districts that [Republicans] have been reelected in several times over and have historically voted for Republicans at every level, every other office other than this one presidential anomaly.”
SURGE IN DEMOCRATIC ENERGY
Since the election of Trump, more than a dozen resistance groups have formed in Orange County, which went for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1936. Rohrabacher, Royce and Walters’ districts are all part of the county, as is the one held by Rep. Darrell Issa (R), which is also a top target for Democrats in 2018.
Marian Bodnar’s story is common to what happened to many Democratic-leaning individuals around the country when they woke up and saw that Clinton had lost the election.
“I was never politically active myself,” said Bodnar, who is a music professor. “I followed the news all the time, but I was never involved in politics ... I was just so horrified at what was happening in the election cycle and when he got elected, I felt like I had to do something. I was aware of the Indivisible Guide, so I just started one for our area, and it took off from there.”
Bodnar now runs Indivisible CA-39, which organizes visits to Royce’s office once a week. They also write letters, emails and tweets, while pressing the congressman to hold town halls and rallies outside his office.
Fran Sdao, chairwoman of the Orange County Democratic Party, said they have 14 Democratic clubs around the county, but there are six more coming in the next month.
“My old club ― if we got 25, 30 people, we were celebrating. We’re [now] packing in 120. Our club’s biggest problem is finding venues large enough to hold them,” she said.
Jon Rosenthal, who started Indivisible To Flip Texas District 7, said he had no problem recruiting members to his organization, which was originally just meant to be “a support group for some sane people to speak with.”
“My personal story is I had been traumatized not only by the election of Donald Trump, but ever since his inauguration in January, it’s just been one outrageous, unbelievable thing after another,” he said.
This enthusiasm has also been reflected in Democrats’ recruitment efforts. Instead of having to go out and beg candidates to run during a midterm year, Democrats are facing an outpouring of interest amongst its base. And, officials stress, the quality of candidates is better than in the past.
“In terms of our candidates, oh my goodness! I spend so much of my time on this right now,” said Jo Holt, Democratic Party chairwoman in Pima County, Arizona. She said she has about 15 people who are “considering or seriously considering running,” and many of them are newcomers to politics.
“I think there are like, seven different candidates that have shown interest in running for [Culberson’s] seat in the primary, which is awesome,” said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party in Texas. “They’re all great, qualified, excited, energy candidates.”
Sessions, for example, didn’t even have to run against a Democratic candidate in 2016. But this year, he’s already drawn several challengers.
Gilliard said Democrats, right now, do have an advantage when it comes to enthusiasm. But he warned that the type of activism that they’re driving might not be right for these redder or swing districts.
“One thing they have done this year is they have a lot more action on their side as far as candidates stepping forward wanting to run for all these seats,” he admitted. “So in her [Walters’] case, you’ve got several candidates already vying to run, and in the past, in a district like this the Democrats may not have had a candidate until the final couple weeks before filing.”
“The problem they have in some of these districts is that the Democratic Party ― especially in California, but also nationally ― it’s moved sharply to the left in the last 12 months or so,” he added. “That is not going to help them win seats that Republicans have traditionally held.”
Every lawmaker in the eight Clinton districts voted for the GOP’s American Health Care Act, which repeals Obamacare. The only exception is Rep. Leonard Lance, who did, however, vote for a version when it was brought to one of his committees.
But even Lance, a self-described moderate, hasn’t been able to escape the taint of the legislation.
Catherine Riihimaki, a member of Indivisible Garden State Values, pointed to the fact that Lance has voted with the president 93.3 percent of the time, according to the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight.
“He basically is a Trump supporter,” Riihimaki said, arguing that his refusal to be a “check and balance on the president and the president’s agenda” is one of Lance’s biggest vulnerabilities.
A day after the vote in the House, the Cook Political Report changed its forecasts for 20 districts, “all reflecting enhanced opportunities for Democrats.” All eight of the Clinton districts went from “likely Republican” wins in 2018 to the less certain “lean Republican” category, underscoring the potential toxicity of the bill.
In Orange County, a recent poll found that more voters opposed the GOP health care bill than supported it. Even more people said they were against it when the question noted it was “strongly supported by President Trump.”
Nearly all the activists and Democratic officials in the eight districts who spoke with HuffPost cited health care as a key issue that’s energizing the base ― and one where they’re working to link the GOP members to Trump.
The few Republican lawmakers who have held town halls ― not just in these districts but around the country ― have had to face constituents angry about the GOP repeal attempts. Even Lance has had to take heat from his constituents over the bill.
“I want this repeal crap to stop,” one attendee told Lance, receiving cheers from the audience, at an April town hall.
In March, Culberson told a crowd at one of his town halls that the only way to fix Obamacare is to replace it. That comment was met with jeers from the rowdy audience.
Republicans who have declined to hold town halls for their constituents have still faced heat as well. When McSally decided not to hold a town hall, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who represents a nearby area, decided to “adopt” her district and held a public forum in her stead.
Democrats acknowledge that winning in Orange County won’t be easy. It’s long been known as “Reagan Country” and has been a bastion of conservative activism.
But activists there say they have a key advantage on their side: changing demographics.
In 1990, two-thirds of Orange County was white. Today, more than half the population is non-white, with Latinos making up the largest and fastest-growing demographic. Democrats have also significantly closed the voter registration gap with Republicans, narrowing it from 10 percentage points to 3.7 percentage points over the past four years, according to the Los Angeles Times. Nearly a third of voters are also registered as having no party preference, which Democrats hope to use to their advantage.
Jonathan Brown, a Democratic pollster based in California, recently released a survey finding that 46 percent of independent and third-party voters in the county favor a Democratic candidate in next year’s election, compared to just 21 percent who favor a Republican. Overall in the county’s four congressional districts currently represented by a GOP member, 44 percent prefer a Republican compared to 41 percent who want a Democrat.
In a statement, Brown said, “With a strong population of college-educated voters and a growing Latino population, Orange County looks to become a reliably Democratic county in the years to come if the major parties continue on their current trajectories.”
Rohrabacher said he wasn’t at all concerned about the changing demographics in the district, saying he was confident he’d win by a higher percentage than he did in the last election.
“Look, this is a very conservative district. ... The only difference that’s been made in the last few elections is we had a candidate in Donald Trump who alienated a segment of the Republican Party...because of his basically boisterous way of conducting his campaign,” the congressman said.
“This is the home of Ronald Reagan where propriety is something that really means a lot to the voters,” he added. “This was not a rejection and an acceptance of the Democratic Party. In fact, the Democratic Party has swung so far to the left in the last few months and been so obnoxious and I might say dismissive of the normal courtesies of our democratic process where you accept the person who’s been elected and not go off and try to obstruct them and try to spend your time resisting.”
Democrats are so eager about the possibility of winning Orange County that the DCCC has sent some of its senior staffers to be based there for the 2018 cycle.
“You cannot under-emphasize how determined the Democratic base is in turning up for elections in 2018 and building the voter registrations of Democrats in preparation for that vote,” Rouda said. “There’s just a kind of energy, and I see no abatement in it. I also don’t see Trump changing the way he does business that would calm people down.”
This story has been updated with comment from the NRCC.
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