Trump-District Democrats Vital to Party Keeping House Majority

  • Of 31 Democrats in districts Trump won, eight are in NY and NJ
  • Watch early campaign funding strength in reports due April 15

To maintain their fragile House majority in the 2020 election, Democrats will need to convince ticket-splitting voters to stick with their members of Congress in districts that supported President Donald Trump in 2016 — and may do so again.

Of the House districts that went for Trump, 31 are represented by Democrats, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That includes 22 freshmen, and 20 of them wrested districts away from Republican control in the 2018 election.

If they lose the “Trump D” cohort, they lose control.

“You can’t preserve the Democratic majority by losing new Democrats who flipped Republican districts,” former Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2012 and 2014 elections, said in an interview.

Over the next 18 months, BGOV will be monitoring the political and policy performance of the House Democrats who won over Trump voters. Important dynamics that could affect reelections include their legislative accomplishments; votes on which they break with the party’s more liberal wing; campaign fundraising; the caliber of challengers recruited to run against them; and the strength of the Democratic presidential nominee with whom they’ll share a ballot.

Democrats now control 235 seats in the House, 17 more than a bare majority in the 435-seat chamber.

There are just three Republicans representing districts that voted Democratic for president in 2016.

Both parties plan to devote attention and resources to the potentially pivotal “Trump D” group.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, included all 31 among 55 Democratic-held districts it has identified as “offensive targets.”

“Good luck to the 31 Democrats currently representing districts President Trump won in 2016 who will have to defend their party’s dangerous, socialist ideas like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All,” NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams said in an e-mail.

The DCCC included 26 of the 31 Trump Democrats on its list of 44 “Frontline” Democrats it anticipates will have the most competitive races in 2020. It didn’t include five veteran Democrats including DCCC chairwoman Cheri Bustos (Ill.), who was the only Democrat from a pro-Trump district elected or re-elected in 2018 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“I know a little thing about winning in tough districts,” Bustos said on CNN April 9.

The Trump-district Democrats represent constituencies from Nevada to Maine, including four districts apiece from New York and New Jersey, three from Iowa, and two each from Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Most of the districts have income and education levels higher than the national median.

First-term Rep. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), for instance, represents a well-educated district in metropolitan New York City where the median household income is $112,000 per year, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The list also includes first-term Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.), who serves a vast and mostly rural district, bigger than most U.S. states, where the median income is under $43,000 per year.

As the Republican Party seeks to wed Trump-district Democrats to their party’s more controversial policies and personalities, look for them to brandish their political independence. Some already have cast party-bucking votes.

In the January speaker’s election at the start of the 116th Congress, of the 15 Democrats who voted for someone other than Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) or voted “present,” 11 are from pro-Trump districts. In February, during House consideration of legislation to expand gun-background checks (H.R. 8), most of the Trump-district Democrats aligned with Republicans on a procedural vote that would have required the Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a firearm.

Democratic leaders could help swing-district members by not forcing “very, very tough, no-win votes,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University who was Tennessee chief of staff to Bart Gordon, a moderate Democrat who represented a Republican-trending district from 1985 to 2011.

Syler recalled that in June 2009, the Democratic-led House narrowly passed “cap-and-trade” legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions with the support of some Democrats from Republican-leaning districts. But the Democratic-led Senate didn’t have the votes to advance it and never took the measure up, endangering vulnerable House members with a politically difficult vote but no legislative accomplishment.

A wild card for the “Trump D” incumbents: Will they be able to count on ticket-splitting if their voters want to stick with Trump?

The current 34 ticket-splitting districts is a comparatively low number. There were 83 such districts after the 2008 election, and 148 after the 1988 election, according to Vital Statistics on Congress.

Syler said that when Gordon succeeded Al Gore in the House, his predecessor said to “work like hell, and tell people about it.”

Israel, the former DCCC chief, said Trump-district Democrats should keep their focus local: Establishing responsive constituent-service operations and focusing on district-specific concerns.

“If you are in a Trump district and you’re talking about impeachment when your constituents are talking about the price of soy, you’re going to lose,” Israel said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com