Last year, as a wave of special elections popped up, every smart Democrat wanted to focus on one seat. “Watch the special election for Tom Price’s seat in suburban Atlanta,” Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) said in an interview in February 2017.
That became the most expensive House race ever, about $50 million on all sides, and while Democrats lost, it was by a narrow margin in a wealthy suburban district the Republicans used to win easily. It led Democrats to believe their initial strategy of focusing on the suburbs gave them a path to the majority.
However, the more telling special elections might have been a handful in more rural districts President Trump won by overwhelming margins. Five special elections have been held for seats where Trump won 56 percent to 60 percent of the vote — in Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Arizona — and in each of those races the Democrat did much better than expected, winning one and getting very close in two others.
Maloney wrote an after-action review 14 months ago in which his central theme was to focus on the onetime Republican strongholds in the suburbs, where Democrats have been gaining ground, at the expense of the mostly rural districts, such as the one Conor Lamb won last month in Pennsylvania.
“It’s harder in places where it used to be easier, and it’s easier in places where it used to be harder,” he said Friday, explaining the rationale in his report.
Now, Maloney is among the Democrats suggesting that the 2018 field is dramatically larger than anyone could have guessed last year, including in some more rural spots that they once thought of ceding to Republicans.
“Every time somebody’s had a ballot in front of them, since Donald Trump was elected, we significantly outperformed,” Maloney said Friday. “Yeah, the baseline has clearly shifted, and that tide is lifting a lot of boats.”
The latest data point for the new baseline came Tuesday in a special election northwest of Phoenix, where no Democrat had reached 40 percent of the vote this century.
President Trump won 58.1 percent of the vote there in 2016, a margin of more than 20 points over Hillary Clinton.
Yet with no major financial support, a first-time candidate got 47 percent of the vote against a veteran Republican politician, a narrow GOP win that prompted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to deliver the latest version of a wake-up call.
‘You need to understand what’s happening,” McCarthy told House Republicans on Wednesday, the morning after another GOP candidate scrambled to narrowly win a special election in a district that tilts heavily conservative. “They’ve got money. They’ve got good candidates. They can speak well about issues. And they’re engaged.”
The numbers were almost identical to last month’s special election, in a southwestern Pennsylvania district where Democrats had not hit 40 percent in the past five elections, declining to field a candidate in 2014 and 2016.
Trump also got exactly 58.1 percent of the vote in the district in 2016 — but DLamb pulled off the upset and won there. Democrats now need just 23 seats to reclaim the majority.
In what other districts did Trump get 58.1 percent of the vote in 2016?
One is McCarthy’s 23rd Congressional District in California’s Central Valley, where the GOP leader regularly wins at least 70 percent of the vote and sometimes faces no Democratic opponent.
No, Democrats are not expecting to mount a strong challenge to McCarthy, but there is mounting evidence that if they had even a slightly above-average candidate, they could make the six-term representative break a sweat if they wanted to.
For Democrats, the first-tier districts remain roughly three dozen largely suburban and well-educated areas, but they’re now eyeing second- and third-tier races in case the wave is as big as some Democrats hope.
Maloney’s report focused on looking backward about past elections, so he could not predict the surge in Democratic turnout and how much Republicans in the suburbs would recoil from Trump. “What we didn’t have at that time, which we see now, is the response of the Democratic electorate,” he said.
In each of these races, Republicans spent heavily to make sure they defended what should be considered safe territory, bailing out several candidates who did not raise enough funds on their own.
But November presents a different challenge, as anywhere from 50 to 100 Republican seats will need to be defended, while only a handful of Democratic seats are expected to be up for grabs. The national GOP committees and super PACs will not be able to prop up Republican candidates the same way they have in the special elections.
It’s left some Republicans wondering who has heard the wake-up call.
“There is a wave out there that I do see coming, and I think to deny that is an unwise position to take,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R). His northwest New York district favored Trump by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016, but President Obama nearly won it in 2012.
Reed has known he has to run hard for more than a year, and he believes most of his colleagues know it could be a very bad year — but some don’t seem to be preparing.
“I think some react to it differently. And from my perspective, I hope all members recognize we have to run hard,” he said.
There are almost 90 districts held by Republicans where Trump got a smaller share of the vote than in Reed’s, places that Democrats never dreamed of competing in a year ago.
To be sure, Maloney is not expecting to win that many seats, particularly those in some deeply rural districts. But he is increasingly confident that the political environment could not be better for Democrats in the original target areas.
“It spells doom for a certain layer of Republicans, in the kind of suburban districts that are offended by the president,” he said.