Ex-Lawmakers Ousted in 2018 Fight to Get Back to Capitol Hill

  • Political environment remains difficult for GOP after midterms
  • Pete Sessions, Darrell Issa moved to more-Republican districts

Seven former Republican congressmen are seeking redemption for their unceremonious 2018 exits, but a handful of them face the prospect of a second-straight defeat.

Pete Sessions in Texas and Darrell Issa in California are likely to win after jumping into districts that lean more Republican than the ones they left — Sessions was defeated and Issa opted to retire rather than face a difficult re-election. The five others face rematches in a political environment that again favors Democrats.

Strategists said the combination of President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and baggage from the candidates’ past tenure made them skeptical that more than a couple of the five would make it back to Capitol Hill.

Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant and former Republican National Committee political director, said the history of higher Democratic turnout in presidential years will work against these former members, though it’s also possible some who voted for Trump stayed home in 2018. And he said the president, who trails in battleground state polls across the country, could drag down Republicans who might otherwise have a better shot.

“Every Republican, whether they served in Congress or not, is being tagged by Democrats as a Trump Republican, even if you’re really not,” DuHaime said. “In some districts that could help, but in a competitive district probably not.”

Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images
Pete Sessions (R-Texas) waves to reporters as he departs the Capitol on Dec. 22, 2018, after losing re-election.

Replaying 2018

The Cook Political Report rates each of the five rematches as competitive: former Reps. Karen Handel in Georgia and David Young in Iowa are in contests rated Lean Democratic, while Claudia Tenney in New York, David Valadao in California, and Scott Taylor in Virginia are in Toss-ups.

For Handel, Young, Tenney, and Taylor, 2020 looks a lot like 2018.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) is criticizing Taylor for a fraudulent petition-signing scandal from their first race that has led to the indictment of three former Taylor campaign staffers, the most recent coming last month. Both again are seeking to persuade independent voters in the military-heavy Virginia Beach area.

Health care is again a major issue in Young’s race in Iowa’s 3rd District, based in Des Moines, and Handel’s race in Georgia’s 6th, in the Atlanta suburbs.

Reps. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) unseated them in 2018 by only 2 and 1 percentage points, respectively, but both appear to have the edge in the final two weeks.

Georgia strategists said Handel is far from an ideal candidate for the district, which has trended away from Republicans — Trump won by 1.5 points in 2016 after Mitt Romney carried it by 23 points. McBath has targeted Handel’s anti-abortion stance and support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which were both issues in the 2018 race.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Karen Handel (R) campaigns with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy during her successful 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th District.

Axne has also hit Young for his vote to repeal the ACA, saying in a recent ad that he’s shown he won’t actually vote to protect preexisting conditions. Democratic campaign strategist Ian Russell said that’s the biggest negative for any Republican who lost in 2018.

“Whether you’re in a suburban district or rural, it doesn’t matter where you’re running,” Russell said. “Now Trump’s numbers are worse and that baggage is probably heavier because we’re in a global pandemic. I’m not smart enough to see how it makes sense.”

Russell said Trump will likely win New York’s 22nd District again, but so will Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D). Binghamton University political science professor Jon Krasno said Tenney’s reputation as a “far-right conservative” won’t appeal to the more moderate Republicans she needs to ultimately win.

The Likely Comeback

All but Valadao are in districts Trump carried in 2016, but he may have the best chance at a comeback. Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.) won by 862 votes and has since been entangled in financial issues regarding his businesses, including tax liens and missed debt payments.

California Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said the Central Valley district’s history of low-turnout and crossover voting could be the reason Valadao succeeds while other comeback bids fall short. He added that Valadao is well-known in the district and was only narrowly booted in a blue wave.

“Valadao was always very popular in the state Assembly, and he’s a pretty known commodity,” Stutzman said. “And then TJ Cox is an exceptionally bad candidate.”

Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo said Cox won in 2018 thanks to a higher turnout rate and White Democrats who usually vote against Latino Democratic candidates. Trujillo said Valadao has a “legitimate shot” now after Cox’s scandals and with the potential for Valadao to win a majority of the Latino vote.

A Spanish-language ad airing in California’s 21st District by ex-Rep. David Valdao’s (R) campaign.

The ‘Smart Members’

The two most likely to return to Congress are Sessions and Issa.

Issa moved inland from his former coastal district to launch his campaign before indicted Republican Duncan Hunter had resigned. Democrats targeted California’s 50th, but Stutzman said it’s still a Republican district and Cook rates it as a likely GOP hold. An ABC San Diego poll in September found Issa leading by 1 point against Ammar Campa-Najjar (D), who lost in 2018 by more than 3 points.

“It’ll probably be closer than it ever has been, but I’ll be surprised if Issa doesn’t win that seat,” Stutzman said.

Sessions, a former chairman of the Rules Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, is set to replace retiring Rep. Bill Flores (R-T.X.) in a more solidly Republican district based in Waco than the Dallas-area one he held for 11 terms before losing re-election.

Russell said as opposed to Handel, who is “just hoping for a different result” despite the same circumstances, Sessions made a smarter move.

“I’ll give credit where credit is due to Darrell Issa and Pete Sessions,” Russell said. “The smart members are the ones looking for a way back to Congress through other districts.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Samantha Handler in Washington at shandler@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Heather Rothman at hrothman@bgov.com