Fueled by antipathy toward Donald Trump and high expectations about the party’s fortunes in the 2018 midterms, Democrats are lining up to run for House seats, creating crowded primary fields in some of the most competitive races in the country.
In California this week, Vietnam-era veteran Paul Kerr, who’s never run for political office, jumped into the race to take on seven-term GOP Rep. Darrell Issa — the richest member of Congress. Kerr, a real estate investor and a Navy veteran, is the third challenger to date seeking to defeat Issa, the high-profile former chair of the House Oversight Committee who barely survived a 2016 challenge.
Issa is considered the most vulnerable of seven California GOP House members representing districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But his colleagues have even more contenders to worry about.
Eight challengers have lined up to take Central Valley Republican Jeff Denham. An equal number have jumped into the fray against embattled San Diego-area Rep. Duncan Hunter, the focus of a Justice Department criminal investigation regarding his alleged use of campaign funds to pay for family expenses.
Controversial Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, recently in the headlines for his own dealings with Russia, has seven Democrats contesting his re-election. Rep. Steve Knight of Palmdale has six.
A coast away in New Jersey, Democrats — sometimes hard pressed to find candidates willing to take on entrenched Republican incumbents — also have a glut of willing challengers this year in two of its five Republican-held districts. Those districts, which include many New York City bedroom communities, are wealthy and well-educated. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the Central Jersey-based 7th District, while Trump won the North Jersey-based 11th by a slim margin.
“It’s 100 percent a testament to the grassroots energy that’s showed up at town halls and events’’ across the country, says Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is pounding out press releases highlighting vulnerable GOP incumbents. In 2018, the big difference is “not only the number — it’s the quality of these challengers,’’ he said. “Trump is obviously a part of it — and so is health care.”
Democratic strategist Garry South, who advised presidential campaigns for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, says the enthusiasm is especially revved-up because “Democrats need only 24 seats nationally to flip to get control of the House’’ — and more than a quarter of those may be in California.
History is on their side, he argues: Over the last 20 cycles in the first term of a presidency, Republican or Democratic, “the average number flipped has been 23 seats.”
In New Jersey, Mike DuHaime, a veteran Republican strategist who helped lead both of Gov. Chris Christie’s successful gubernatorial campaigns as well as his unsuccessful presidential campaign, acknowledges the GOP has some tough work ahead.
“It feels very much the reverse of what 2010 was on the Republican side,” said DuHaime, who’s been hired by incumbent GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. “There was just an energy on the Republican side after President Obama got elected and I feel the same energy now on the left.”
Frelinghuysen has for 24 years been the epitome of a safe incumbent. With ancestral roots in state politics that stretch to the colonial era — a New Jersey town is named after the family’s progenitor, and a Newark thoroughfare bears the family name — Frelinghuysen has not faced a serious electoral challenge in his entire congressional tenure.
In fact, when liberal filmmaker Michael Moore in 2000 sought to demonstrate the lack of competitive congressional seats, he looked to Frelinghuysen’s district. The filmmaker unsuccessfully tried to get a ficus tree on the ballot against the congressman, who is an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
But now constituents are holding protests at Frelinghuysen’s office, some organized by a grassroots group called NJ 11th for Change. They’re clamoring for him to hold a town hall meeting, which he has refused to do.
It’s a similar story in the Central Jersey-based 7th. Democrats say they’re surprised at just how many Democrats want a shot at GOP Rep. Leonard Lance.
Joey Novick, a progressive activist who lives in the district, organized a candidate forum in which five candidates or potential candidates showed up. Novick said he hadn’t heard about anyone seeking to challenge Lance at this point in 2015.
“That is sort of the interesting magic about this year,” he said.
Three Democratic candidates have already declared — bank executive Linda Weber, teacher Lisa Mandelblatt and attorney Scott Salmon. And there are at least four other people exploring a run, including social worker Peter Jacob, who ran against Lance in 2016 and got 43 percent of the vote.
“Nobody took this district seriously. We showed up. Our campaign showed up. We knew what was at stake in 2016,” Jacob said. “People have realized there’s blood in the water now. That’s the phrase everybody is using.”
South says that GOP candidates across the country now find themselves hobbled by “a horribly unpopular GOP president whose approval ratings are in the 30s, and a demoralized GOP base. And midterms are always a referendum on who controls the White House.”.
Even so, conservative author Jim Lacy, a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention from California, says Democrats — even in solidly blue California — shouldn’t get too cocky about their chances. He contends that the crowded Democratic primaries are a “good thing for Republicans,’’ because Democrats will train their fire on each other, leaving the eventual nominees bloodied and bruised going into the fall general election.
“Democratic Party politics are just as cutthroat, if not more, than the Republicans in the state recently,’’ Lacy noted.
More primary candidates also increase the likelihood that simmering intraparty divisions between progressives and moderates will spill into the open.
“The more challengers, the greater the chance the wrong challenger advances to the general,’’ says Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow and a former aide to California GOP Gov. Pete Wilson. “You’re talking about a bunch of people competing for 40 percent of the vote. So it raises the chance you’ll end up with a ‘Chelsea Handler’ Democrat,’’ his description of someone who’s too liberal or unsuited to the local electorate.
“All politics are local, especially in House races — and Democrats have been learning this in special elections,’’ Whalen said. “It’s not about having someone running against Donald Trump as it is having someone who’s the right local fit. You have to tailor the candidate to the district.”