That’s one of the key findings of an intensive report by Third Way, a center-left think tank that analyzed all 235 districts held by House Democrats to look at where the fault lines were not just for the House but also the Senate majority and the presidency in next year’s elections.
The result is a portrait of the Democratic coalition, from the rural edge of Kind’s western Wisconsin district to the inner-city neighborhoods of Tlaib’s Detroit-based district, that shows the path to victory at every level of power in Washington.
Kind, for example, sits in a district that flipped from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to backing Donald Trump in 2016, a year in which Wisconsin narrowly sided with the GOP nominee. And poor turnout in Tlaib’s hometown helped Trump put Michigan in his win column.
Even as Kind, 56, and Tlaib, 43, presumably cruise to reelection next year, the margins they run up might prove decisive to their states’ critical total of 26 electoral votes. They have the potential to help boost, or deflate, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, a sign of how Democrats need to push to get every vote possible next year.
“Just focusing on one thing is not going to be enough. You need all of it,” David de la Fuente, the author of the Third Way report, said in an interview.
He mapped out which seats are key to victories that will enable Democrats to retain the House majority as well as win back the Senate and the presidency.
In all, de la Fuente’s report focused on 99 House districts that had at least one of five attributes: the 43 freshman Democrats who flipped a Republican seat in 2018; any Democrat whose margin of victory last year was in single digits; the 31 districts that Trump won in 2016; any seat in a presidential battleground; and any seat in a state with a key Senate race.
Third Way, created in the “New Democrat” mold of Bill Clinton’s presidency, often clashes with more liberal activists over party ideology, but in this report the group has tried to illustrate the range of political geography Democrats need to focus their energy on to ensure a broad victory.
So, in this regard, Third Way places double the value on Tlaib, whose staunchly liberal positions would be out of place with the group’s moderate policy prescriptions. But her seat could prove critical to building turnout for the presidential race and to reelect Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), one of the few incumbent Democrats that Republicans want to target in a year the GOP will mostly be on defense.
Here’s why: In 2016, Tlaib’s district gave Hillary Clinton a margin of victory of almost 61 percentage points, which might seem staggering. But four years earlier, that district gave Obama a nearly 71-point margin.
Trump won Michigan by fewer than 11,000 votes, making that small drop in Detroit critical to Clinton’s defeat statewide.
Down in North Carolina, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D) has easily won for 15 years, but the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus has a district that might be key to tipping the state’s 15 electoral votes to Democrats.
Perhaps more importantly, Butterfield could help the Democratic nominee for the Senate race against Sen. Thom Tillis (R), a contest that could serve as a tipping point for control of the Senate.
Without a comprehensive effort, Democrats fear a new president would be stymied if Republicans still control the Senate, where the GOP could block or water down the Democratic agenda, similar to Obama’s second term.
“It determines whether Democrats can accomplish anything in 2021,” said Lanae Erickson, the group’s senior vice president and a policy expert.
Some obviously important Democratic seats are even more critical when looking up and down the ballot in their respective states. These are what de la Fuente calls “five point races”: freshman Democrats who narrowly won a GOP-held seat in 2018, running for reelection in districts that Trump won two years before, whose states will also be battlegrounds in the presidential and Senate contests.
There are eight “five-point” Democrats: Reps. Abby Finkenauer (Iowa), Cindy Axne (Iowa), Angie Craig (Minn.), Jared Golden (Maine), Elaine Luria (Va.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Abigail Spanberger (Va.), and Haley Stevens (Mich.).
Golden carries even more value because Maine allocates some of its electoral votes based on performance within congressional districts, allowing Trump to claim an extra vote for winning the northern Maine district despite losing narrowly statewide.
If Golden, a Marine veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan, can win next year by a sizable margin, he could secure the state for the Democratic nominee and also help knock off Sen. Susan Collins (R) in another critical race.
Some House Democrats understand the dynamics. “I think there’s a lot of updraft,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (Pa.).
In 2018, after state courts drew new districts, Scanlon won a competitive primary and coasted to a nearly 2-to-1 margin of victory in the general election. Republicans have no intention of fighting to regain that district, but Scanlon fully intends to run as robust a campaign as possible to drive up the turnout in suburban Delaware County and Philadelphia’s southern neighborhoods.
“It’s about the country. I ran thinking about the country,” she said, explaining her initial rationale for running was to provide a broad Democratic victory. “I think people are undercounting the passion in places like my district, particularly among women.”
But after the disappointment of 2016, many Democrats are afraid to be confident. They fear that Trump will win reelection by the narrowest of margins again, or that even if he loses, the new Democratic president will face a divided Congress that leaves the new agenda completely stalled.
Some are warning that it’s time for a broad focus, from the dairy farms outside Eau Claire to the heart of Detroit.
“Everything is so siloed in this town,” said Erickson, of Third Way. “There are voters that matter in each of these districts.”