Democrats see path to House majority that cuts through the suburbs

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Democrats see a path to winning control the House of Representatives cutting through suburban districts, from the outskirts of Las Vegas to the periphery of Chicago to the land outside of Philadelphia,

Voters in suburbs are usually wealthier and better educated than in other districts. And among them are many married, college-educated female voters who are emerging as an influential voting bloc since the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats need 23 seats to take control of the House. And of the 23 Republican-held congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, most are in the suburbs.

Some Democrats are staking out the center

Donald Trump struggled to win the suburbs during his presidential campaign. It was also the suburban areas of Virginia that helped put Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam over the top in that state's race last year.

As a measure of how important some races in GOP-held districts are to the opposition party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized one of the party's own candidates in suburban Houston in an attempt to influence the race toward the committee's favorite to take on Republican Rep. John Culberson.

Many of the Democratic candidates in these suburban contests have similar threads running through their platforms and résumés. A lot of them are first-time contenders, several have said Trump's election inspired them to run. There are many veterans and small business owners. Additionally, a significant number are women.

And the messaging of at least some of the candidates has a relatively centrist tone.

They are running on platforms that include strong support for women's rights and LGBTQ rights, but several of them also emphasize their support for the Second Amendment while they call for "commonsense" gun laws, such as universal background checks, a ban of bump stocks and keeping guns out of the hand of domestic abusers.

Many of the candidates want to protect the border and amend Obamacare. Another common theme is that the Republican tax cut will help the wealthy while hurting states with significant state or local taxes.

The model of going progressive on some issues and more centrist on others worked successfully for Democrat Conor Lamb, who won Pennsylvania's special election in March in a suburban Pittsburgh district that Trump had carried by 20 points.

In some suburbs, 'purple people'

Chrissy Houlahan, a veteran who's worked in the business community, is the Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District, which sits outside of Philadelphia.

She describes the voters in her area as a "sort of purple people."

"I believe there is a false choice that has been given to people -- particularly in communities like mine -- where you kind of vote for the red guy or the Republican because you're looking for protection of business and the markets or you're voting for the blue person because you care about social issues," she told ABC News.

"You don't have to choose. You can be a person who believes in both business and social justice," Houlahan said.

Sean Casten, who won the Democratic primary in November to take on longtime GOP Rep. Peter Roskam in Illinois' 6th Congressional District in suburban Chicago, acknowledged he is liberal on some issues and centrist on others.

"There are issues like choice issues that I'm as far left as they come. There are issues like markets and national security where I'm pretty centrist. Whatever the letter is after my name is what it is," Casten, a clean-energy executive, told ABC News.

Like Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Casten in Illinois, other Democrats like Susie Lee running in suburban Las Vegas, Elissa Slotkin vying for a congressional seat outside Lansing, Michigan, and Dean Phillips in the Minneapolis suburbs are expected to need Republican voters to cross over and vote for them if they want victory in November.

As Casten said of his primary campaign, "We were running a campaign to expand and reach out to the whole electorate." He beat two Democratic women who were favored by party members. Illinois has an open primary system.

"If there is ever a time to steal players and put them on your team, this is the time. This is the same strategy we'll use in the general," he said.

And neither Casten nor Houlahan would commit to voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker, but they also didn't rule it out. Both said they would need to think about who got their vote and consider all the candidates for the position.

Republicans think their tax cut will play well

Meanwhile, Republicans believe their recent tax cut will play well in these suburban races, noting that many of their incumbents -- such as Roskam in Illinois, Barbara Comstock in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington D.C., and Jason Lewis in the Minneapolis suburbs -- have strong ties to their districts.

GOP strategists also argue the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party won't tolerate the more centrist candidates in their party.

"There's only been a few Democratic primaries thus far, and the progressive wing has dominated the internal battle. The activist wing is hell-bent on supporting candidates who back single-payer health care, sanctuary cities and repealing the GOP tax cuts. There's no room for any moderation in today's Democratic Party," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt in a statement to ABC News.

But Democrats downplay those concerns.

"Not every candidate will get the same enthusiasm from the base, or necessarily even want it. But there is a broad consensus that core progressive and American values are under attack, and that a new majority in Congress is the only hope to check an out-of-control president," said Jesse Lee, the vice president of communications for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a group that advocates for progressive causes.

Democrats' first-time candidates both face risks and carry advantages

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, said Democrats are "smartly casting a wide net" in their quest to take back the lower chamber of Congress.

And he noted there are advantages and disadvantages for these first-time candidates and their more moderate stances.

"If you're a candidate like this you can essentially say anything because there's not necessarily a paper trail backing up what your previous stances have been," Kondik said.

But he also pointed out with these candidates that "they either may make mistakes because they're not used to the pressure of a campaign or they have things in their background that may not have come out because they may not have been vetted yet."

The party is also spending in these areas.

In early March, the House Majority PAC, a Democratic outside spending group, announced it had reserved ad buys worth $43 million in 33 markets. A lot of those buys are in ad markets where suburban seats are in play -- like Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston.

"You've got a lot of Republicans who haven't faced tough challenges in a long time, in some cases in over a decade. And the ground has shifted beneath their feet," said Jeb Fain, the communications director for House Majority PAC.

Houlahan argues that voters are looking for civility.

"We're looking desperately for sanity," Houlahan said. "And we're looking desperately for people who are not screaming at each other from the left and the right, at least in my community, and I'm really hopeful we'll have that opportunity in 2018."

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