Democrats carve through GOP suburbs to take House




Abby Finkenauer

Abby Finkenauer won in an Obama-Trump district and toppled a GOP incumbent. | Eileen Meslar/Telegraph Herald via AP

Elections

Democrats are on track to surpass the 23 districts they needed to flip to win back the House majority.

Democrats have won back control of the House of Representatives, slicing through Republican-held suburbs where President Donald Trump has proven toxic to undo a Republican majority once thought to be impervious until the next round of redistricting.

From Florida to Texas to Illinois, Republican incumbents who survived reelection in 2016 even as Trump lost their districts fell decisively to Democratic challengers who linked them to the president and attacked their votes on health care and taxes last year, delivering a check-and-balance message to the president.

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The results sprang from a fundamental realignment of the Republican Party, which has withdrawn from its old suburban bastions under Trump and established new strength in rural areas. The GOP base “has migrated from the country club to the country,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who once led the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The first flip of the night, in Northern Virginia, proved emblematic: Democrat Jennifer Wexton, a state senator, beat Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who won reelection in 2016 even as Trump lost badly in the district. The same trend saw Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen, Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman and more all lose in districts that Clinton carried, despite frustrating Democrats in past years with their ability to escape battleground challenges.

But Democrats also expanded their gains into some districts where Trump was strong. In Virginia, Democrats Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger toppled Republican Reps. Scott Taylor and Dave Brat in districts that backed the president in 2016, while Democrat Anthony Brindisi won in a red-trending upstate New York district. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, two Democratic women in Iowa, flipped districts that former President Barack Obama carried twice before Trump stormed to victory there in 2016, as did New Yorkers Max Rose and Antonio Delgado.

A handful of red-leaning districts are still too close to call. In South Carolina, Democrat Joe Cunningham holds a slight lead over Republican Katie Arrington, who unseated Rep. Mark Sanford in a primary earlier this year. And in Utah, Democrat Ben McAdams is holding steady over GOP Rep. Mia Love in a heavily Republican district, where Sen.-elect Mitt Romney aired TV ads urging supporters to back Love as well.

One upset victory came out of Oklahoma, where Democrat Kendra Horn, a former congressional aide, knocked out GOP Rep. Steve Russell. Trump won this Oklahoma City-based seat by 13 points in 2016.

Republicans held off one of the Democrats’ best-known candidates, Amy McGrath. The former fighter pilot lost to GOP Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky, after raising nearly $8 million in her unsuccessful bid to unseat the three-term congressman. But it was not enough to keep the House.

The GOP went into the night hoping enough voters would differentiate between the president and local representatives to preserve their majority. But the battlefield of competitive seats grew too large to manage, including dozens of Republicans districts that have never seen close campaigns before, as restless voters and a flood of Democratic money and organizing pushed Democrats closer to their goal this fall.

But overall, midterm voters, driven by two years of Trump’s presidency, are “checking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when it comes to the president,” said Ken Spain, a former National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.

Democrats put together a historic slate of candidates that could radically alter the composition of Congress next year. Democrats nominated 180 female candidates and at least 133 people of color and 158 people running for office for the first time in primaries around the country.

Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota will become the first Muslim women to serve in Congress. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first Native American women elected to the House. At 29 years old, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. And Ayanna Pressley will be the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.

“There’s a generational and demographic change that’s coming to Congress,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic consultant who once led EMILY’s List, the pro-abortion rights group. “They’re going to be impatient and want to make change quickly.”

The wave of female Democratic candidates was powered by largely suburban voters, particularly women, moved to deliver judgment on Trump’s presidency by booting Republican House members. That suburban wave could expand rapidly once returns flow in from California, where Democrats targeted seven districts that Clinton won in 2016.

Battle-tested incumbents, like Curbelo and Coffman, worked to distance themselves from Trump, surviving tough elections before. But promising to “stand up to Trump” in TV ads wasn’t enough for these vulnerable members, who fell victim to voters who wanted to send a message to the president and his party.

In a sign of the broad battlefield, the suburban Republicans in trouble include many who have never waged tough campaigns before, like the Texas pair of John Culberson and Pete Sessions, whose once-reliable districts supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sessions lost to Democrat Colin Allred, while Culberson trails Democrat Lizzie Fletcher.

“I expect we’ll see a swing to the Democrats in the suburbs to put up guardrails on President Trump,” said Davis. “The natural propensity is to put a check on the president, rather than give him a blank check, and that’s where voters’ minds are right now.”

Trump won in 2016 by making inroads into blue-collar, predominately white congressional districts that appreciated his brash style and populist message. But House Democrats forced a reset this year, winning back seats in Iowa, upstate New York, Michigan and more.

“To truly be a national party, it’s not enough to just win the suburbs,” said Ian Russell, the former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We need to win back voters who supported Democrats in the past, but swung to Trump in 2016. This cycle we have a number of opportunities to do that. ”

Democrats are also defending two open seats in Minnesota where Obama won in 2008 and 2012 but Trump won by double digits in 2016 — the best opportunities for Republicans to flip Democratic districts on Tuesday. Republican Pete Stauber clawed back one of the those seats for the GOP late on election night, underlining the flip side of the political realignment that shook the House.

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