Rebelling Republican Suburbs Offer Democrats Path to House Control
Posted December 18, 2017 9:27 p.m. EST
HOUSTON — As she sat with a glass of sauvignon blanc waiting for a women-focused Democratic fundraiser to begin, Nancy Sharp let loose in a Texas-seasoned drawl why she and so many other onetime supporters of the Bush family were abandoning the Republicans.
“Have you ever heard of a stupider and trashier man than the president of the United States?” asked Sharp, an interior designer who lives not far from the elegant condominium where about 75 women gathered this month to help House candidate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. “Calling a U.S. senator ‘Pocahontas’ in front of God and everyone!”
If Democrats are to claim the House majority next year, their path back to power will go through places like the Huntingdon, a 34-floor high-rise in the River Oaks section of Houston that was once home to Enron’s Kenneth L. Lay, has no fewer than five valets on a busy night and sits in the district of Rep. John Culberson, a veteran Republican who may be in for the race of his life.
The mounting backlash to President Donald Trump that is threatening his party’s control of Congress is no longer confined just to swing districts on either coast. Officials in both parties believe that Republican control of the House is now in grave jeopardy because a group of districts that are historically Republican or had been trending that way before the 2016 election are slipping away.
Much attention has been paid to the handful of seats in New York, New Jersey and California that are represented by Republicans but voted for Hillary Clinton last year. But even with district lines drawn to favor Republicans in many states, the swelling antipathy toward Trump threatens to breach the party’s defenses and stretch the congressional battlefield beyond the dimensions Republicans and Democrats anticipated a year ago.
“There’s no illusion about the storm that’s coming,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., invoking last month’s governor’s races and last week’s Senate special election. “If you had any doubts, they were wiped away after New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama.”
From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican districts filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats, some of them nonwhite, who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Trump. “If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who as a member of Congress in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House. “The president’s conduct has basically given voters this permission slip to go against the Republicans.”
Congressional Republicans are scrambling to fortify their defenses.
On Wednesday, the last five leaders of the House Republican campaign arm privately addressed Republican lawmakers, outlining the sort of suburban districts most at risk and imploring members to contribute to their colleagues. Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York said it had been aimed at dozens of lawmakers elected since 2010 who had never faced a Democratic wave.
“The general tenor was: This is not a year like most of you have seen, because you’ve not seen wind in your face,” said Reynolds, who led the House campaign committee in 2006.
While Trump has seemed eager to engage in the midterm races, it is unclear where he would campaign and unlikely his presence would help Republicans in many imperiled districts. Already, his unpopularity is luring candidates into races once considered long shots. Democrats need 24 seats to take back the House.
In October, Mayor Ben McAdams of Salt Lake County, a Democrat, announced a bid to oust Rep. Mia Love in Utah, a conservative state stocked with educated Mormon voters who view Trump with disdain. In early December, Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, a Democrat, kicked off a campaign against Rep. Andy Barr, about 40 percent of whose electorate is in Lexington, home to the University of Kentucky.
Outside Philadelphia, Scott Wallace, a lawyer and philanthropist whose grandfather was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president, is exploring a challenge to Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in a traditional haven for white-collar Republicans, people who have spoken with Wallace said. And P.G. Sittenfeld, a Cincinnati City Council member who briefly ran for Senate last year, is being recruited by House Democrats to challenge Rep. Steve Chabot in a district that mixes African-Americans and urban and suburban whites.
“It has all the trappings of a winnable seat if the climate cooperates,” Sittenfeld said.
Should that climate worsen, Republicans say, lawmakers not previously thought to be at risk could be endangered, like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, who is facing a former state Senate leader.
Beyond the biggest blue states, perhaps two dozen red-hued districts with significant suburban populations could be winnable for Democrats in a banner year, including those held by Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dave Reichert of Washington state; Ted Budd and Robert Pittenger of North Carolina; and Kevin Yoder of Kansas.
The suburban revolt, which began in a handful of little-noticed special elections and then exploded last month in governor’s and state House races in Virginia, was on display again Tuesday in Alabama, where Doug Jones, a Democrat, claimed a stunning Senate win thanks to African-Americans and upscale whites. While few Republicans next year will be as toxic as his opponent, Roy S. Moore, Jones’ performance suggests wealthy voters in even traditionally conservative areas are willing to support Democrats. Precinct margins in the well-manicured Mountain Brook enclave outside Birmingham, Alabama, for example, swung by more than 50 percentage points from last year’s presidential election.
“I’m fired up because of our whole country. Nothing is going right,” Fanay Register, a Jones supporter, said outside the Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook on Tuesday. She said she wished Trump “could keep his mouth shut.”
What alarms Republicans is that charges of sexual misconduct, which undermined Moore and linger over Trump, are engulfing lawmakers and are bound to lead to more resignations, more special elections and a further galvanizing of female voters.
“The overwhelming challenge we have is with college-educated, suburban women,” said Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist who previously ran her party’s House campaign arm. “And their resistance mostly has to do with their feelings about President Trump.”
Heartening Republicans is that the anti-Trump activism is also setting off internecine Democratic fights, creating messy primaries and leftward pressure on candidates to back measures like single-payer health care and impeaching the president.
In Culberson’s district, for example, Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer, outraised the incumbent in the last fundraising period — but so did one of her Democratic rivals, Alex Triantaphyllis. While Wallace has drawn the interest of national Democrats in Pennsylvania, he would have to contend in the primary with Rachel Reddick, a Navy veteran.
And Gray was not the first to enter his Kentucky race: He will face Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot who said she had raised more than $1 million. Incensed by Gray’s entry, McGrath said she had considered running as an independent — a prospect that could cripple Democrats’ chances — before opting to “continue within the Democratic Party.” In an interview, Gray, a wealthy former construction executive, appeared to be looking past the primary to the general election. Hesaid he had detected a climate of fear and frustration in the district, attributing it in part to Trump.
“There’s an anxiousness,” Gray said, “and a sense that things just aren’t right.”
Trump won Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District handily, while Gray carried it in a losing Senate campaign the same year. But private Democratic polling found Gray entering the race with a lead over Barr, built on his stature as a well-liked mayor.
At a campaign stop this month in Winchester, a town outside Lexington, Gray voiced discomfort with Trump in measured terms, saying he would work with the president on issues like infrastructure despite disliking his style. “Clearly, the president has been divisive,” he said, “and we can do without a lot of the Twitters.”
Republicans still believe the fundamentals of the district favor Barr: A lawyer from a prominent local family, he has been re-elected twice with support encompassing country-club Republicans around Lexington and Trump-aligned rural conservatives.
But Robert Blizzard, a pollster who advises Barr, offered a stern assessment of the national political environment: “If there are Republicans who are not taking this seriously,” he said, “they will get swept out.”
Democrats have dreamed for years of peeling away the rings around major cities, separating suburban voters who favor conservative tax and economic policies from a Republican Party that also champions harder-right positions on abortion, guns and gay rights. So far, that effort has gained Democrats few seats.
Ian Russell, a former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the group’s research in the 2014 and 2016 elections found suburban voters inching away from Republicans, but too slowly to flip many seats.
The new president, Russell said, has accelerated things: “They were Republicans for fiscal reasons, and Trump has alienated them from the party they used to belong to.”
It is not hard to find such voters in the Illinois district of Rep. Peter Roskam, which favored Clinton by 7 points and has a median income over $90,000.
Roskam is bracing for perhaps his most difficult race since his first election to the House in 2006.
Seven Democrats are jockeying to challenge Roskam in the western suburbs of Chicago, and they have largely gravitated toward a single message. Kelly Mazeski, a planning commissioner in Barrington Hills and a leading Democratic contender, rebuked Roskam for his positions on health care and taxes, but for one transgression most of all.
“Most of the time, I talk about Peter Roskam — that’s who my opponent is,” Mazeski said. “But to be clear, his voting record is 97 percent of the Trump agenda.”
That rebuke resonates with voters like Pat Robinson, a retired teacher inclined to vote for a Democrat in 2018 but waiting to see who will emerge as the nominee. Robinson, who said she voted for Clinton last year as the “lesser of two evils,” said she would not reward a lawmaker allied with the White House.
“He’s certainly following Trump’s platform, and I can’t go along with that at all,” Robinson said of Roskam. In Culberson’s Houston district, which Clinton narrowly carried, the ingredients seem right for an upset.
He has not hired a full-time campaign manager, and some supporters worry he does not fully realize the threat. Asked at a fundraiser this year if he was besieged with angry calls, Culberson suggested he was not, a comment that left some attendees flabbergasted, according to a Republican present.
His seat, parts of which were once represented by George H.W. Bush, reflects modern-day Houston, an amalgam of upper-crust whites and a growing minority community that speaks 80 languages.
“The Republican Party has become more and more unrecognizable,” Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive, said over coffee in a strip mall with restaurants offering Mongolian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mediterranean cuisine.
Pannill Fletcher noted that just three of Texas’ 36 House members are women.
“Women are ready and demanding a seat at the table,” she said in an interview at her campaign headquarters.
Nearby, one of her volunteers, a Brown University graduate and lawyer by training, spoke with even more urgency.
“I cannot bear what is going on right now in government,” said Norri Leder, saying of Trump: “I find him completely offensive and unethical and slimy.”
And, Leder said, her Republican husband feels the same way.