Political News

How the economy is playing in five close House races

No election happens in a vacuum.

Posted Updated

Lydia DePillis
(CNN) — No election happens in a vacuum.

All of them play out against the backdrop of whatever's going on in the economy, and whether voters feel they have more jobs and better wages because of the party in power.

On the eve of the 2018 midterms, unemployment is at a nearly 50-year low and there are more jobs than unemployed people to fill them, which bodes well for the party in power. Still, wage growth has been slow, and the rising tide hasn't reached everyone: Only 38% of respondents to a Bankrate survey from October said their personal financial situations had improved over the two years Donald Trump has been President.

Voters typically don't respond to the economy in midterms as much as they do in presidential elections, but Trump has made this election into a referendum on the economic policies he and the Republican Party have implemented, from tax cuts to tariffs.

And here's the thing: The economy isn't a monolith. Conditions vary across congressional districts, many of which still have pockets of poverty even a decade into America's recovery from recession, and have industries that variably benefit or suffer from tax cuts, tariffs, and regulatory change.

On the whole, according to an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, close districts are in more diverse, faster-growing, and relatively healthy parts of the country — characteristics that more closely resemble safe Democratic seats than Republican ones.

That's why we're taking a look at five tight House races in five different states to see how local economic conditions are playing, as each candidate seeks to turn statistics to their advantage.

The Kentucky 6th

In some ways, Kentucky's 6th Congressional district is a microcosm of the whole state. It contains its second-largest city, Lexington, and the wealthy Thoroughbred country that surrounds it — as well as poor, rural counties still looking for their next economic driver now that the tobacco industry has shrunk to almost nothing.

Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, a political neophyte who leans heavily on her 24-year career as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, has tried to capture both realities in her campaign against three-term incumbent Andy Barr.

"We've had a strong recovery that started several years ago and has continued, but the working average people just aren't feeling it, they're having a tough time making ends meet," says Kentucky political consultant Kathy Groob. "That's the message I've been hearing from her."

McGrath put out a detailed, 30-page economic plan aimed at transitioning Kentucky's economy away from coal and towards renewable resources like solar energy and high-tech agriculture. It emphasizes federal investments in transportation and broadband, harkening back to New Deal-era electricity projects that brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

While distancing herself from party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, she hasn't shied away from taking progressive stances like supporting immigrants and a higher minimum wage. And at a time when Republican Governor Matt Bevin is trying to pare back the Medicaid expansion pushed through by his Democratic predecessor, McGrath promotes the creation of a public option under the Affordable Care Act — pointing out that as a member of the military, she had government-provided insurance for decades.

Republican incumbent Barr, meanwhile, has held up his success in bringing millions of dollars into the state for treating opioid addictions, which have ravaged the district's workforce. Although most of his television ads have either focused on his constituent service or slammed McGrath for her stances on abortion and funding for a border wall, his one video about the economy centers on tax cuts passed last year.

That's not much insulation for another big issue facing the district: The trade war. Central Kentucky had scaled up its bourbon production to supply the thirsty Chinese market, and has been hit hard by duties imposed in response to Trump's tariffs on aluminum and steel. Soybean farmers have been nearly locked out of the Chinese market as well.

Taking heat on tariffs from McGrath in their only debate, Barr said that he supported a bill that would give more trade powers to Congress. But that may not end up speaking louder than his joint appearance with President Trump in October in the district. "With Donald Trump and this congress, Kentuckians have found hope," Barr said.

The Texas 7th

Although it may just look like a 13-lane highway lined with glassy office parks that fade into sleepy, low-slung bungalows, Houston's 7th District is the nerve center of the oil industry.

Energy giants like BP and Shell call the corridor home, and their engineers and project managers live in some of the state's wealthiest neighborhoods surrounding their corporate homes. These voters tend to be conservative, but also very pro-trade — something that Texas has seen the good side of, exporting $264 billion worth of goods in 2017.

Oil and gas came roaring back from its two-year downturn and President Trump has done the industry many favors, but his brinksmanship on trade with Mexico and China have put Republican incumbent John Culberson in a tough enough spot that he skipped Trump's rally alongside Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Houston last month.

"Although they don't hold Culberson to blame for these trade issues," says University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus, "the fact that the party become a stand-in for these policies may mean that those voters vote for a Democratic candidate, especially in a competitive cycle."

And it is a competitive cycle. Democrats chose the relatively moderate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer who has supported progressive social causes but also inoculated herself against charges of being against the oil industry by representing some of its largest corporate members.

In a district with a growing population of elderly voters, Pannill Fletcher has hammered Culberson on his many votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act along with its protections for pre-existing conditions.

But the key to this election may actually be in the top of the bizarrely G-shaped Seventh — less affluent neighborhoods that have welcomed enough Hispanic residents that they make up nearly a third of the district. Culberson has supported a zero-tolerance immigration policy that would deport all undocumented immigrants. According to campaign finance filings, his largest individual donor is the GEO Group, a private prison contractor.

"There are newer residents in the district's western tail who are struggling in a competitive economy," Rottinghaus says. "They're more concerned about the minimum wage than tax cuts."

The Minnesota 1st

On paper, there aren't many places in America where the economy looks as healthy as in Minnesota's first congressional district, a double string of counties on the state's southern border that with few exceptions have an unemployment rate under 3%.

The district includes fast-growing cities like Mankato and Rochester, home to the elite Mayo Clinic and its nearly 35,000 employees.

But in the redder, more rural parts of the district, towns and counties have had a hard time hanging on to young people, meaning there are more jobs available than unemployed workers. Along with agriculture, the area has a large manufacturing presence, which according to an industry survey is still doing well financially but running into a growth ceiling because of the lack of labor.

"You have a changing economy, more and more consolidation of farms, workforce aging, residents leaving," says University of Minnesota political science professor Eric Ostermeier. "So even though the unemployment rate is very low, you have this insecurity taking place in certain pockets."

Along with being more socially conservative, Ostermeier says, that leaves rural residents open to arguments about illegal immigration and a modern economy that has left them behind.

Republican Jim Hagedorn, the son of a former Minnesota congressman who's on his third run for the seat, is using that to make a play for the agricultural vote in an effort to flip the seat, currently held by Democrat Tim Walz, who's running for governor. In an interview with the Winona Chamber of Commerce, Hagedorn said his mission in Washington would be to support farmers and rural communities, and expressed confidence that Trump's trade policies would eventually open up export markets for their crops.

Here again, Trump's trade policies may be more of a liability than an asset for the Republican. In a SurveyUSA poll of the district fielded in October, 53% of respondents said they disagreed with his tariffs, since farmers had ended up as collateral damage.

Hagedorn has tied himself to the President in other ways, appearing with him at a rally in Rochester and supporting his immigration policies, like a border wall with Mexico and and end to so-called "sanctuary cities" — despite the fact that immigrants are often the only new source of labor Minnesota has available.

His Democratic opponent Dan Feehan — an army combat veteran who became a schoolteacher and then a high-ranking Pentagon official under President Obama — has fended off false attacks that he favors "open borders," when he has only said he supports a path to citizenship for those living here already.

Feehan's support for universal health coverage, meanwhile, may help him in a district where 30% say healthcare is their top concern — especially in hospital-heavy Rochester. But Feehan is trying to cover his rural bases too, by saying he wants to promote investments in infrastructure, provide access to affordable secondary education in order to help people adapt to an evolving economy, and support renewable energies like wind and solar, which can be a lifeline for farmers when crops aren't paying the bills.

The Illinois 6th

Voters in Illinois' Republican-held 6th district have little reason to be upset with what President Trump has done for their personal finances. With a median income as high as any we've looked at so far, businesses in the wealthy suburbs west of Chicago saw hefty tax cuts — but the relatively moderate voters in this traditionally blue state are increasingly frustrated at Republicans closer to home, giving almost any credible Democrat an opening.

"Illinois is lagging behind the US, but locally, there is a very strong sense that state government is dysfunctional and to blame," says University of Illinois political science professor Brian Gaines. "National Republicans get some credit, and state-level politicians from both parties have failed."

Gaines says that incumbent Republican Representative Peter Roskam may suffer by association with Republican governor Bruce Rauner, who's the least popular state executive up for re-election this year, according to a poll by Morning Consult.

"If Roskam succeeds in making people think about taxes as they vote, I think he can win," Gaines added. "The big drag for him is the weakness of support for Trump in Chicago suburbs, the poor showing by Rauner at the top of the ticket, and a general 'time for a change' sentiment."

That's why the 6-term congressman is trying to tie his opponent, scientist and businessman Sean Casten, to the powerful Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on the stump and in campaign ads.

Roskam takes full credit for strong economic growth numbers, while distancing himself from President Trump, whose performance he rated as "good on the economy, jumbling on other issues" at a July debate.

Unlike some Republicans, who may have noted polling that shows Americans overall see their recent tax cuts as skewed to the wealthy, Roskam talks up the law frequently — although its cap on the deduction for state and local taxes reduces benefits for people in relatively high-tax Illinois.

Casten has private-sector cred, having co-founded a company with his father that used wasted heat from industrial facilities to generate power before he sold it in 2016. In the moderate, business-friendly district, he casts himself as practical and solutions-oriented, saying the tax cuts will exacerbate inequality and do nothing to move America towards modern industries that will buoy economic growth down the road.

But it doesn't sound like he's betting on that to carry the race.

"If you listen to him, he jumps from his personal expertise area of clean energy to generic Democratic issues like health care pretty fast," Gaines notes.

The Pennsylvania 1st

Most of Pennsylvania's first district, which was refashioned this year from most of the former 8th district, falls within Bucks County. But Bucks County itself contains multitudes.

The lower part, on the border with Trenton, New Jersey, is more industrial and traditionally Democratic — the home of a U.S. Steel plant called Fairless Works that has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Moving further north, the county gets more affluent and Republican, full of bedroom communities for people who work in Philadelphia or Princeton, New Jersey.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant working on several state house races this cycle, doesn't expect that pattern to change much in this race, which pits incumbent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick against Democratic challenger Scott Wallace in the newly drawn district, much of which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

"Lower Bucks would be prime to go for Wallace. Upper Bucks would be prime to go for Fitzpatrick," Nicholas says. "To me the big question is central Bucks — all those folks are Republican or Republican-leaning but really turned off by the President."

That's why Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, is trying to run in as anti-partisan a way as he can. He touts his membership in the Problem Solver's Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members who try to advance non-ideological policies. He voted against the GOP's failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act last fall and says he doesn't want to touch Medicare or Social Security. He's brought in a boatload of union endorsements as well as support from the US Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business.

Wallace talks a lot about economic inequality — though his biography puts him solidly in the top 1% of Americans, since he inherited millions from the sale of his grandfather's seed company to DuPont in the 1990s.

Now a professional philanthropist whose eponymous foundation has championed reproductive rights and environmental causes worldwide, Wallace's sharpest criticisms of Fitzpatrick have to do with his vote for the Republican tax cuts. According to an analysis by the Morning Call, Bucks County residents will likely lose more than the state average because of the tax bill's cap on the state and local tax deduction.

Fitzpatrick, tellingly, has leaned on the national economy -- as has Trump. "We needed to do something to jump-start this economy, and everybody's benefiting," he said at a candidate forum in October.

Copyright 2023 by Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.