Category Archives: 2020 Battlegrounds

Analyses of closely contested districts for the House of Representatives. Find interviews with candidates in these districts under “Candidate Interviews”

THE 2018 MIDTERMS CONTINUE: NORTH CAROLINA’S 9TH

The 2018 midterms will finally end next month. North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District will hold a special election on September 10 for a seat that should have been decided in November 2018. Those election results were thrown out by the state’s election board due to allegations of election fraud against McCrae Dowless, a member of Republican candidate Mark Harris’s campaign staff. He was charged with improperly collecting absentee ballots, forging signatures on absentee ballots and changing or filling in votes.

The District is traditionally Republican — No Democrat has won there since 1962 and Trump carried it by 12%. It runs from southeast Charlotte eastward through more rural and majority black counties. Union County, which includes the exurbs of Charlotte, was Harris’s stronghold. He won by 20% (over 17,000 votes) in Union County which allowed him to lose both Mecklenburg County (home to Charlotte) as well as the more rural and less populated Districts to the east and still win the election.

In the (invalidated) 2018 election, Republican Mark Harris beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by just 905 votes.  Such a close election was bound to set off a competitive rematch. And so it has: Cook Political Report and Inside Elections have the race rated a “Toss Up” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball has it as “Leans Republican”.

Dan McCready, a marine veteran and renewable energy businessman, is again the Democratic nominee. He ran unopposed in the primary and is running as a moderate — disavowing some of the party’s more progressive figures and vowing not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker in the 2018 race. On the Republican side is Dan Bishop, a state senator most famous for sponsoring the controversial “bathroom bill” to require transgender people to use public bathrooms that align with the sex indicated on their birth certificates.  Also on the ballot: Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott and Green Party candidate Allen Smith.

Polling has been scarce and hasn’t told us much about who is leading. The only external poll in the race found Bishop with a 46% to 42% lead over McCready. This poll, though, was taken back in May and found 10% of voters were undecided and had a 5.2% margin of error. The only other poll is from McCready’s camp and had the two candidates tied at 46% with 8% of voters and a 4.6% margin of error. These two polls don’t give us much indication of a favorite. They both show a tight race and have margins of error and enough undecided voters that the race could go either way.

The current polling doesn’t tell us much about who is winning. So, what other indicators do we have?

Good Signs for Democrat Dan McCready:

  • McCready had no primary opponent. Primaries can cause intraparty schisms and drain candidates’ bank accounts, hurting them in the general election. McCready was able to glide through the primary season while his opponent, Dan Bishop, was battling it out with fellow Republicans.
  • McCready has been campaigning for nearly 28 consecutive months. He announced his 2018 campaign in May of 2017. His opponent, on the other hand, has been running for 5. McCready has had ample time to get his name recognition up, meet voters and spread his message.
  • McCready has dominated Bishop in fundraising. As of July 30, McCready had outraised his opponent $3.4 million to $1.2 million. McCready also had $1.8 million left in the bank compared to Bishop’s $340 thousand. As I wrote in a previous post, candidate fundraising in the general election usually doesn’t actually change the race that much. But it will allow McCready to stay on the air through election day, which could tip the scales in a very tight race. More importantly, though, it is an indicator of grassroots support and heightened enthusiasm.
  • The district has an urban(ish) core and lots of black voters. The district did vote for Trump by 12 points in 2018, but is the archetypal district that is swinging towards Democrats. It comprises a good portion of southeast Charlotte and its suburbs, meaning there are likely plenty of suburban voters — the kind we saw swing towards Democrats in 2018, handing them the House. And while the district stretches eastward into rural counties, these counties have high proportions of black voters, a core Democratic constituency.
  • Lastly (and in my opinion an underrated factor) is that Democrats did not commit election fraud. The Republican in 2018 received national bad press for tainting the election process, something Americans on both sides of the aisle view as sacrosanct. It’s not hard to imagine this recent Republican betrayal driving Democrats to turn out and Republicans to stay home.

Good Signs for Republican Dan Bishop:

  • This is historically a Republican leaning District. Both Trump and Romney carried it by 12 points. No Democrat has won the seat since 1962. A 12 point swing in three years is a huge jump and a lot of things would have to go wrong for Bishop and right for McCready for it to happen.
  • 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. They won the House popular vote by 8.6% and netted 41 House seats. But that may have passed. And if the national mood of the country is not as friendly for Democrats, it will be tough for them to win in a district that Trump carried by 12%. According to FiveThirtyEight’s 2020 poll aggregator, Democrats are currently leading in the generic ballot by about 6%. Special elections, though, are hard to predict and don’t always align with the national environment. But the possibility of a less Democratic national mood is a good sign for Bishop.
  • Outside spending is heavily weighted in Bishop’s favor. While McCready has dominated in direct campaign contributions, Bishop has the weight of the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund behind him. The two groups have reserved around $3.8 million in ad spots through election day. The DCCC pledged to spend $2 million on the race. The $1.8 million gap effectively neutralizes McCready’s advantage in campaign fundraising and may even be more effective because outside groups are often more amenable to drafting negative ads.
  • This is an off-year election and off year elections have lower turnout. Generally, low turnout elections benefit Republicans because their base of older white voters are more likely to turn out than younger minority voters who lead Democratic.
  • Dan Bishop avoided a runoff in the Republican primary, allowing the general election to happen in September rather than in November. Charlotte’s municipal elections take place in November and will likely turn out Democratic voters in the city. Bishop will benefit from the lack of overlap between the municipal and congressional elections.

The winner of this seat is not going to affect the current House power balance. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans effectively hold 1991There is a vacancy in NC-03 due to the death of Representative Walter Jones, but this is a heavily Republican district and expected to elect a Republican in the September special election. After this election the House balance will be either 236-199 or 235-200 — an insignificant difference. More importantly, the winner will have the incumbency advantage in 2020 and a good chance of holding onto the seat. Depending on how close the House race is next year, one extra seat could be meaningful.

And perhaps even more importantly, the results will tell us a few things about the current national environment. If McCready wins the election — or even if he loses but the race is much tighter than Trump’s 12-point margin — Democrats can breathe a bit easier. This would mean that the blue wave of 2018 has not completely receded and may stay through 2020. On the other hand, if Republicans again carry the seat by close to 12 points, they may have a better shot at winning back the House than the generic ballot indicates.

Lastly, the election is a testing ground for the parties’ 2020 messaging. Dan Bishop has been attacking Democrats as socialists, focusing his jabs against progressives like Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Bernie Sanders. McCready has run as a moderate — distancing himself from those same progressive figures and party leaders like Nancy Pelosi. His campaign slogan is “country over party”.

We are one month from election day and the race is up in the air. The polls show a tight race and no other indicators show a clear frontrunner. So, without any clear indicators, I’m moving from clear, hard data to opaque, soft guesswork. The previous Republican’s dabbling with election fraud caused this special election and left the district without congressional representation for nine months. This betrayal of America’s most fundamental institution — free and fair elections — leaves voters with a bad taste.

The election is still up in the air, but election fraud is, understandably, not popular. This could cause Republicans to stay home and drive Democrats to the ballot box. Election fraud is not a good look for Republicans and could give McCready the win in this traditionally Republican district. 

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: GEORGIA 7TH

This is the fourth “2020 Battlegrounds” post, where I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race. 

District: Georgia 7th
Current Representative: Rob Woodall (Not running for reelection)
Cook 2020 Projection:  Toss Up
Sabato 2020 Projection: Toss Up

OVERVIEW OF STATE & DISTRICT
In 2018, Georgia’s 7th congressional district was the closest House election in the entire nation2Excluding NC-09, which, due to election fraud, did not have a winner in 2018. Republican Rob Woodall snuck past Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by just 419 votes out of over 280,000. The closest 2018 district is, unsurprisingly, setting up to be a battleground in 2020. The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate the district a “Toss Up”, Democrats and Republican candidates are piling into their primaries and the DCCC and RNCC are both poised to shovel money towards their eventual candidate.

In recent presidential elections, Georgia has been solidly Republican. It voted by 5% for McCain in 2008, 8% for Romney in 2012 and 5% for Trump in 2016. It has, however, trended Democratic, relative to the nation, in recent elections. It voted about 7% more Republican than the nation (in the two-party vote) in 2000, but only about 4% more Republican in 2016. Also bolstering Democratic hopes in Georgia are its relatively recent history of voting for Democratic presidential candidates. The state gave its electoral votes to Bill Clinton in 1992. It also voted Democratic to elect Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976 and stuck with him in his brutal 1980 defeat in which he only carried only six states.

This Democratic streak lasted even longer in State election. As recently as 2002, Democrats had a state government trifecta, meaning they held the State House, State Senate and Governorship. By 2005, though, all three had flipped to Republican control and have been red since. Georgia has a Democratic governor from 1872 until 2003. But the state’s conservative character solidified around the turn of the century — the last Democrat elected Governor was Roy Barnes in 1998 and the last Democrat elected to the Senate was Zell Miller in 2000. No Democrat has been elected for statewide office since 2006.

Georgia is a part of the “Sunbelt” — the southern portion of the U.S. stretching from North Carolina to Southern California. Like most sunbelt states, Georgia has seen a boom in population since the 1950s and 60s, largely concentrated around Atlanta, the state’s urban center. Thirty one percent of the state is black, and as the state continues to diversify and grow Democrats think they can flip take back the historically blue state. Their challenge for Democrats will be the overwhelmingly Republican rural parts of the state. Atlanta and Savannah (and a few other liberal pockets) are deep blue, but the majority of the state’s territory is rural, conservative and heavily Republican.

The 2018 Gubernatorial race pitting Democrat Stacey Abrams against Republican Brian Kemp was one of the most closely watched elections in 2018. Abrams lost by about 1.5%, boosting Democratic claims that Georgia is within reach.  

Zooming in on GA-07, we see a classic 2018 battleground: a suburban, diverse district with lots of college educated whites that is anchored by a nearby metropolitan center. The district comprises two counties — Gwinnett and Forsyth — in the outer northeast of Atlanta. Gwinnett is the more Democratic of the two counties and makes up about ¾ of the district’s votes. Forsyth, though, with its whiter and wealthier constituency, tilts heavily Republican, helping tug the district rightward into battleground status. Since the 1994 Republican wave election, GA-07 has been in Republicans hands. It was retooled”, according to the Wall Street Journal, after the 2010 Census. Others consider this “retooling”, which changed the composition of the district to include more of the conservative Forsyth County, a nefarious gerrymander to keep the district red.

Demographics 
Data: Daily Kos

The district is more diverse, educated and wealthy than the nation as a whole. The core Republican demographic — non-college whites — make up only 31% of the district relative to 45% of the nation. The district is also heavily Black (21%) and Asian (11%) relative to the nation, which is 12% black and 4% Asian. The district is slightly under representative of Latinos, however, which make up 9% of the district compared to 11% of the country.

Again, the district is well educated and affluent, with 40% of the population over 25 holding a bachelor’s degree and the median household bringing in $70,000 per year. Gwinnett County accounts for most of this diversity. According to the 2010 Census, Forsyth is about 81% white, while Gwinnett is 55% white. Keep in mind that Gwinnett County makes up 82% of the district’s population while Forsyth only accounts for 18%.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY

Presidency

Data: Daily Kos

The District has been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, voting for McCain, Romney and Trump. However, the 21% margin of 2008 and 22% margin of 2012 fell to 6% in 2016: a 15% swing from 2008 to 2016. This shift is even more clear if you look at the Republican margin relative to the national popular vote. The national popular vote was led by the Democrat in all three years. Relative to the national popular vote, the Republican presidential candidate in GA-07 led by 28% in 2008, 26% in 2012 and 8% in 2018. This is a 20-point shift — only 2% of which occurred between 2008 and 2012. The other 18% happened between 2012 and 2016, indicating heavy shift away from Trump and the modern republican party.  

House
Data: Daily Kos

The district’s House elections shifted similarly leftward in recent years. One important difference, though, is that the district largely continued to support their 2016 Republican House candidate even while they jumped ship in the presidential election. Then, in 2018, the Democratic shift caught up in the House, and the district became much more competitive.

Looking at the GA-07 vs. Nat’l House Popular Vote column, we see that the district was 26% more Republican than the nation in 2012, 25% in 2014, 20% in 2016, and 9% in 2018. The big shift here happened between 2016 and 2018. Contrast this to the presidential election where the shift occurred between 2012 and 2016. This means that in 2016, a number of voters switched R to D in the presidential election but remained loyal to their R House candidate. Then, in 2018, this lingering loyalty collapsed and the Rob Woodall, the Republican House candidate, barely edged out a win. One likely explanation is that voters distinguished their local representative, Rob Woodall, from Trump and the national party in 2016, but by the 2018 this distinction largely disappeared and voters tied Woodall to the more unpopular Trump, dragging his numbers down.  

What Happened in 2018
Republican Incumbent Rob Woodall, who was first elected in 2010 faced little competition in his primary. He did have a token challenger in Tea Party Republican and conservative podcaster, Shane Hazel, but he never caught on. Woodall won the primary with 72%.

The Democrats, however, faced a packed 6-way race that culminated in dramatic personal attacks. The three biggest fundraisers were 1) Carolyn Bourdeaux, a Georgia State professor and previous director of the Georgia State Senate and Budget Evaluation Office 2) Ethan Pham, an attorney and Vietnamese immigrant and 3) David Kim, who founded a tutoring company, C2 Education.

These three were relatively moderate candidates. None ran on the new-left platform of Medicare for All, $15 Minimum Wage and Free Public College. And on primary day, no candidate reached the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff.  Bourdeaux and Kim, who received 27% and 26% of the vote respectively, proceeded to the runoff. Pham came in third with 18%, and the self-named “MOST Progressive Democrat in the Race!”, Kathleen Allen, came in 5th with 11%.  The runoff, though, is when the real drama started.

Kim and Bourdeaux’s policy platforms were near identical: strengthen the ACA, expand Medicaid, pass some form of gun control, pro-choice, etc. etc. etc. They did differ on policy emphasis — Bourdeaux ran on health care, equal pay for men and women, abortion rights and paid family leave while Kim put immigration out front. Neither candidate was vocally supportive of electing Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House — Kim opposed her and Bourdeaux was unsure.

So, while they largely agreed on policy, they attacked each other in more personal ways. Bourdeaux took a swing at Kim for not voting in the 2016 presidential election: “It is a big jump to go from never having voted to running for the U.S. Congress.” Kim responded by saying this attack was anti-immigrant,  “When Carolyn Bourdeaux attacks me, she is attacking millions of first-generation immigrants and minorities who have not felt welcome in the process.” For his part, Kim called out Bourdeaux for helping Georgia Republicans cut funding for education and health care during her time in the Georgia Senate’s budget office.

The antipathy culminated during early voting with Kim accusing Bourdeaux and her campaign in voter suppression in a Twitter video: “The vile philosophy of voter suppression reared its ugly head when one of my opponents [Bourdeaux’s] operatives falsely accused Korean translators of illegally campaigning at a polling site.” He said that the translators were there just to help non-English speaking voters and that Democrats should not be “perpetuating the tactics out of the Old South’s Jim Crow playbook.”

Bourdeaux responded, “The Jim Crow era was marked by extreme violence and systemic racism in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests. To compare these tactics to Kim’s volunteers being asked by election officials to move a few feet is disturbing & offensive.” She then went on offense, saying Kim’s video “reflects a complete lack of understanding of the history of Jim Crow, a disrespect for the men & women who gave their lives for expanded voting rights and an ignorance of real modern voter suppression in the form of voter ID laws & challenges to the Voting Rights Act.”

And the inter-Democratic squabbling continued! Kathleen Allen, the “MOST Progressive Democrat in the Race” makes another appearance. In a since deleted Facebook post, Allen criticized both candidates for not being progressive enough.

Here’s a bit of the post that focuses on Kim: 

The big takeaway is that Allen refuses to endorse Bordeaux or Kim. She will, however, be voting for Bordeaux because Kim is “simply an oligarch.”

The Democratic brawl ended on election day, July 24. Bourdeaux bested Kim by 4%, exactly 600 votes. Kim carried the more diverse Gwinnett county 6,598 to 6,556 (a 0.4% margin), but Bourdeaux won Forsyth 1,392 to 750 (a 30% margin). The night of his loss, Kim quickly congratulated and pledged to support Bourdeaux in the coming general election.

The catfight, though, left Bourdeaux bruised. Intra-party resentment surely lingered after the contentious primary and as of July 4, Bourdeaux had spent $750,000 — leaving just $98,000 in the bank.

Republican nominee Rob Woodall ended the second quarter with $529,000. According to the left-leaning elections website The Daily Kos, “Republicans have privately fretted that Rep. Rob Woodall hasn’t taken his race against Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux seriously.” He seemed to think that the district was locked in for the Republican. Take a look at the lede to an Atlanta Journal Constitution article from October 20:

Until the final weeks of the campaign, the only polling had been conducted in early August and had shown Bordeaux with a 46-44 lead over Woodall. This did not seem to shake Woodall, as he didn’t run any television advertisements through September or almost all of October. Woodall’s complacency came from primary vote totals and an internal poll showing him with a 27 point lead over Bordeaux. The pollster, though, has a history of bias in favor of Republicans and in their pollster ratings, elections website FiveThirtyEight gives them a C-. In fact another survey conducted at the same time gave Woodall a much weaker six point lead. It wasn’t until  Democratic Super Pac Independence USA, dropped over a million dollars to run an ad in the last week of the campaign that Woodall seemed to lose some of his unwarranted confidence.

He finally put up his first tv spot four days before the election. And this last-minute scramble was enough to keep Woodall in his seat. The final tally had Woodall leading Bourdeaux by just 419 votes. Initially, Bourdeaux refused to concede and requested a recount. In the end, though, the recount added 14 votes to Woodall’s totals, ending the race and pushing Bourdeaux to concede.   

2018 Data

Data: NYTimes
 

Democrats did about 20 points better in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties in 2018 than in 2016. They managed to flip more diverse Gwinnett from 9% Republican to 11% Democratic. In Forsyth, they shrunk the massive 57% Republican gap to 36%.

Perhaps most astounding is that there was only a 3% drop in turnout from the 2016 presidential year. Out of the 290,000 voters in 2016, a net of only about 8,000 stayed home in 2018. This unusually engaged midterm electorate was due to 1) The same political fervor that was present nationwide and 2) A particularly high-profile gubernatorial election at the top of the ticket.

The race for governor between Democrat Stacy Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp was one of the most watched election in 2018. Abrams is one of three 2018 Democratic nominees — along with Beto O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida — who became national political celebrities despite their eventual loss.

This popularity brought Abrams with __ points of winning the governorship. She, in fact, won more votes in the Seventh District than her Republican counterpart Brian Kemp. She carried the district by about 1.5%. And the district’s turnout in Abrams’ election was almost identical to the turnout in the House race, meaning that a net of about 2,000 more voters split their ticket Abrams and Woodall than for Kemp and Bourdeaux. This extra 2,000 vote cost Bourdeaux the election and pushed Woodall over the top.

According to data analytics firm, Catalyst, which did an extensive dive into the gubernatorial election, three things in particular helped Abrams get so close to victory. But while each of these factors helped Bourdeaux downticket, it was not enough to win.

  1. The high turnout election — with more young voters and people of color — made the electorate look more like a presidential year which helps Democrats.
  2. 2016’s third party voters swung to Abrams.
  3. Modeled “middle-voters”, who are more likely to swing between parties went to Trump by 12% and Abrams by 1% in 2018.

Below is a map that shows how divided the district is between Republican Forsyth and Democratic Gwinnett county.



2020 UPDATE
Rob Woodall announced early this year that he was not running for re-election in 2020. This decision — probably due to his distaste for campaigning and fundraising, worry about losing in 2020 and nudging from the party who believed he was a liability — put the Republican nomination up for grabs. Renee Unterman, the Georgia State Senator who introduced Georgia’s (in)famous anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” in the State Senate, is running. Home Depot executive, Lynn Homrich, who began her campaign with an add attacking national Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar, is running.

On the Democratic side, Carolyn Bourdeaux is taking another crack at the seat. Her Q1 fundraising haul of $350,000  make her a favorite for the party nomination. However, first time candidate, Nabilah Islam, raised over $100,000, an impressive number for a political neophyte. She is a child of refugees and a woman of color running on a Bernie-esque platform of Medicare for All, Free Public College, etc. etc. etc. (Read my interview with her here!). Also, State Representative Brenda Lopez Romero, who represents a portion of Gwinnett county, is also running.

The animosity that we saw in 2018 between Kim and Bourdeaux has not yet flared between any Democratic candidates. But it is still very early. With such high stakes and such different candidates, fiery rhetoric would be unsurprising.

On the Republican side, things have already gotten heated. Unterman wasted no time in attacking Homrich for recently moving to the district from a rich Atlanta suburb.



The 2020 election will be high-stakes, expensive and exciting. 419 votes out of 280,000 is a small enough margin that almost anything, even some bad weather, could have tipped the district. The national mood, Donald Trump’s popularity, and the presidential election will hang over the race, so it’s impossible to know which party has the advantage this far out. There is still nine months to go and a lot of news cycles until the presumed primary date of March 3, so anything could happen.

LESSON FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

  • Contentious primaries can damage candidates to the point of costing them an election. The primary cost Carolyn Bourdeaux over $600,000 and almost certainly left bad blood among Democrats. This drained bank account and dampened enthusiasm could have cost her 419 votes. It’s likely that Bourdeaux would have won the election absent such a bruising primary.

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: NEBRASKA 2ND

This is the third post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race. 

District: Nebraska 2nd
Current Representative: Don Bacon
Cook 2020 Projection: Leans Republican
Sabato 2020 Projection: Toss Up 

OVERVIEW OF STATE & DISTRICT
Nebraska — crimson red and socially conservative — will host one of the most competitive elections for the 2020 House. Squeezed onto its eastern border is the second congressional district, Nebraska Democrats’ only real shot at federal representation.

Because Nebraska splits its presidential electoral votes by congressional district (one of only two states, along with Maine, to do so), the second district is often a target of presidential campaigns. Barack Obama’s campaign manager said Omaha was his “personal favorite target”. In a close presidential election, this one electoral vote could be the tiebreaker — pushing one candidate from 269 electoral college votes to the 270 needed to win. Obama is the only presidential candidate to successfully isolate one of the Nebraska’s electoral votes since the state adopted the Congressional District Method in 1992. In fact, this is the only electoral vote any Democrat has received from Nebraska since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in his 486-52 electoral blowout in 1962. Before that it was FDR in 1936.

Today, the governor and entire federal delegation are Republican. Of the current executive office holders, only one, the District 2 Public Service Commissioner, ran as a Democrat. Nebraska Democrats know that most of the state is out of reach. If they are to win federal representation, their hope is in district two.

The district is centered around Omaha and comprises all of Douglas County and a portion of Sarpy County. Obama’s 2008 victory spurred a Republican redistricting (or gerrymander) of the second district in 2011. They replaced the more liberal city of Bellevue and the Offutt Air Force Base in eastern Sarpy with the more rural, conservative suburbs of western Sarpy. And while this partisan redistricting did help them hold onto the congressional seat in 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018, there was a lapse in 2014 when Democrat Brad Ashford ousted Republican Terry Lee. A more ruthless Republican party could have gerrymandered the district to give themselves a 96% chance of victory, but that would likely have been struck down in court.

Democrats know it’s going to be a battle if they want to take the district from Republicans. A former director for the state Democratic Party explained the party dynamic in Nebraska to Politico: “Republicans have been very successful in defining Democrats culturally and socially in Nebraska.” “They’ve defined us as snowflakey, that we want to raise taxes and redistribute wealth.”

Demographics
Data: Daily Kos

Eighty two percent of Nebraska’s Second District’s residents are white, compared to 70% of the country. This translates to small black (9%) and Latino (5%) populations, two core demographic groups for the Democratic Party. The district is also well educated — 39% have bachelors compared with 31% of the country. And the district’s high density reflects that it is centered around Omaha City. White, suburban and well educated — NE-02 looks like the districts that has been trending blue and were crucial to Democrats flipping the House in 2018.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY

Presidency

House

Data: Daily Kos

 

Obama carried the district in 2008 by 1.2%, but Romney flipped it in 2012 with a healthy 7.1% margin. The district swung back about 5% in 2012, with Trump only carrying it by 2.2%. Like many suburban, educated districts, NE-02 voters liked Romney in 2012 but swung away from the Trump’s rhetoric and disposition in 2016. And while this swing may not have been enough to tip the district to Democrats, it brought them within about 2%.

The trend is different, though, when looking at House results. While the races have been consistently tight, there is no obvious trend toward one party. In 2014, moderate Democrat Brad Ashford won the district by 3.3% with the district voting 9% more Democratic than the nation overall (measured by the House Popular Vote). Ashford lost the next year to Republican Don Bacon as the district voted in line with the country — favoring the Republican by about 1%. In 2018, Don Bacon won re-election by 2% over proud progressive Kara Eastman — with NE-02 voting 11% more Republican than the nation as a whole.  

What Happened in 2018
Heading into the 2018 midterms, incumbent Republican Don Bacon did not face a primary challenger. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Primary, Kara Eastman and Brad Ashford were running one of the most contentious primaries in the nation.

Eastman, the founder of a local nonprofit and political unknown before the election cycle, ran as (to employ the overused but useful term) an unapologetic progressive. Her platform echoed that of the Bernie Sanders campaign — Medicare for All, free public college for families making under $125,000, a $15 federal minimum wage. Her theory of how to flip the district: turn out the Democratic base and low propensity voters. People do not cross party lines, so don’t waste time and money reaching out to moderate Republicans.

Brad Ashford was the Democratic establishment’s man. He represented the district from 2015 to 2016, but lost the 2016 election against Donald (Don) Bacon. The Party thought that he could appeal to and swing moderate Republicans and independents. Back in his days in the Nebraska Legislature where he served from 1987 to 1995 and 2007 to 2015, he, in fact, was a Republican. He flipped to the Democratic Party in 2010 and then registered as an Independent in 2013. Unlike Eastman, he said Medicare for All was politically infeasible, instead supporting incremental steps like a public option to buy into Medicare. He did not want to fully repeal the Republican tax bill, wanted to slowly raise the minimum wage, reaching $15 by 2026 and highlighted his “ability to find solutions…consensus building instead of partisan politics.”  

The primary was a contest between two wings of the party: the moderate, bipartisan, reach across the aisle, incrementalist wing and the progressive, appeal to the base, big idea, practicality out the window wing.   

Perhaps unsurprisingly (but maddeningly for some), the Democratic Party’s committee to elect House members, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), weighed in on Ashford’s behalf. Eastman says that after weeks of the DCCC telling here they were unlikely to intervene, the committee put Ashford on its Red to Blue program. The program signals to donors who to give to and is a de-facto endorsement. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (then mayor of South Bend, Indiana) supported and fundraised for Ashford. He implied that Eastman was not electable, saying “If you’re a committed progressive, you want to support the most committed progressive who can win”. Meanwhile, the state party and Douglas County Democratic Parties remained officially neutral, scuffled about under the table support for Ashford and a contentious debate over party officials endorsing candidates. 

But while tension grew, it never spilled over into visible animosity between Ashford and Eastman. The primary race was focused more on policy and leadership style. Neither candidate drafted negative ads or hit the opposition too hard. The most contentious part of their debates centered on their different vision for healthcare.

As of the March 31, the last filing deadline before the May 15 primary, Ashford had outraised Eastman $535,000 to $320,000. Nobody really expected that Eastman had much of a shot — on election day, the betting website PredictIt had Ashford as a 90% favorite. But, in an election night that shocked media and election watchers across the nation, Eastman defeated Ashford by about 3%.

Progressives celebrated; strategic Democrats grumbled; Republicans cheered;. Election forecasting site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote “the NRCC got what it wanted and the DCCC didn’t.” The Crystal Ball changed NE-02’s rating from “Toss Up” to “Leans Republican”, apparently agreeing with the committees that Eastman was a less formidable challenger than Ashford.

Eastman received a call from Senator Bernie Sanders the night of her primary victory, helping solidify the narrative that she’s in the Sander’s wing of the party. But the party establishment came around, as did Brad Ashford, giving her their endorsements and placing her on the “Red to Blue list.  

The general campaign was, to put it bluntly, less exciting than the Democratic primary. Eastman continued to broadcast her progressive message and Don Bacon ran as a typical Republican. He emphasized tax cuts and his fight against ‘government takeover of healthcare’, he opposed abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger and, according to FiveThirtyEight, had voted in line with Trump 98% of the time. He argued that Eastman was too extreme for Nebraska’s Second District, saying “These views would work well in San Francisco or New York City but not Omaha.”

Bacon received much more support from the Republican establishment than Eastman did from Democrats. The Congressional Leadership Fund (A Super PAC affiliated with previous Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) spent $1,397,000 on the race, mostly on ads attacking Eastman and the ‘liberal elite. A particularly…um…interesting ad attacked her for studying to be a sex therapist and her college band “Pieces of Fuck”: “While Eastman was dropping F-bombs, Don Bacon was serving in the air force.” Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC (Nancy Pelosi’s PAC) invested $0 and the DCCC contributed $90,000 to a media buy, a paltry sum compared to Republicans nearly $1.5 million. But there was still plenty of money to go around — Eastman pulled $2.6 million, out-raising Bacon by about $10,000. An impressive feat for a first-time candidate in a competitive race against an incumbent.

In the end, though, it was not enough. Going into the election, FiveThirtyEight gave Bacon a 4/7 and Eastman a 3/7 shot at winning the election. Bacon prevailed with a slim 2% margin, defeating Eastman 51% to 49%.

It’s impossible to know if a different, less polarizing candidate could have tipped the scale in Democrats favor. But that’s what election analyst Nathaniel Rakich argued the day after Eastman won the primary, writing that “Ashford would have probably bought Democrats a few extra percentage points” and that “There’s plenty of evidence that candidates closer to the ideological poles do worse than moderate ones.” But Eastman’s team would likely contest this, pointing out that some more gung-ho support from the Democratic establishment could have closed the 2% gap.

2018 Data

Data: NYTimes

Turnout was high for a midterm year, dropping only about 11% from the 2016 presidential race. Eastman was likely correct in her assessment that the Democratic base would turn out. The problem for her, though, is that the Republican base turned out too.

If Eastman’s theory that an unabashed progressive would improve Democratic turnout more than Republican’s, her numbers would have improved more in Douglas Country than in Sarpy County, given that the pool of Democrats is larger in the former. This didn’t happen. Bacon improved upon his 2016 margins in both the more Democratic Douglas County and the more Republican Sarpy County — closing the Democratic lead in Douglas from 3.8% to 3% and widening the Republican advantage in Sarpy from 25.1% to 26%.

Gubernatorial results in Douglas County also run against Eastman’s theory. The Democratic candidate, Bob Krist, campaigned as a moderate focused on bipartisan issues. He won Douglas with 108,235 votes to his opponent’s 96,120 — a margin of 6%. His vote total was about 3,000 greater than Eastman’s and his margin was about 3% wider. It looks like about 3,000 voters in Douglas County voted for Krist and not for Eastman. Perhaps a more moderate candidate like Brad Ashford could have won over these voters and closed the gap.  

 Finally, relative to the National House Popular Vote, 2018 was a particularly bad year for NE-02 Democrats. The district voted 10.6% more Republican than the nation. Compare this to 0.4% more Republican in 2016, 9% more Democratic in 2014 and 2.8% more Republican in 2012. 2018 featured a heavy swing toward the Republican relative to the national environment. It could have been Eastman’s style; it could have been national Democratic antipathy; it could have been baked in by partisanship. We’ll never know for sure, but the upcoming 2020 race will be illuminating.

2020 UPDATE
The 2020 primary will again feature Eastman and Ashford. This time, though, Eastman’s opponent is Ann Ashford, a local “attorney, human resources professional, and healthcare leader” and the wife of Brad Ashford. Like her husband, Ms. Ashford is a recent convert to the Democratic party, making the switch in 2016 because “they truly became the big tent party”. Though her website doesn’t have a policy platform, it looks like she will be running as a moderate, telling The Omaha World Herald, “I think that today’s environment has become so splintered because everybody says, ‘I’m going to fight,’ and I don’t understand that.” “If we continue to fight, we’re going to see the same non-results that we see today.”

If she does run as a consensus seeking moderate, the race may have a similar dynamic to that of 2018. Democratic primary voters will again have to decide which candidate best represents their values and which has a better chance of winning the general. And, if these are in conflict, which priority outweighs the other. In 2018 primary voters voted against the national party’s practicality, but Eastman’s 2018 loss may have changed the calculus for some voters.

Another possible boost for Ashford is the state Democratic Party’s decision to switch from a presidential caucus system to a primary. Presidential primaries draw out a more moderate constituency than caucuses, as only the most invested voters (who are often the most partisan) show up for an hours long caucus. And as these primary voters would also be voting on down ballot races, notably NE-02. This more moderate voting pool could tip Ashford over the edge in a close primary.

Incumbent Don Bacon has also filed for re-election and, as of now, does not face a primary challenge. That means that while Democrats are tussling and spending their money in the primary, Representative Bacon will be stockpiling his cash. If the Democratic primary is expensive and contentious, Bacon will enter the general election with a bruised opponent and a full bank account.

The first quarter fundraising numbers, which report fundraising through March 31, look best for Bacon. He raised $371,000 and has $296,000 Cash on Hand. Eastman raised only $40,000 and has $72,000 cash on hand. Ann Ashford raised $36,000 with $24,000 cash on hand. Fundraising is only one sign of support and its importance is generally overstated, but the Democratic numbers don’t show either candidate pulling away or point to much voter enthusiasm.  Below is a chart comparing NE-02 fundraising to the rest of the 2020 battleground districts.

Data: FEC

The national parties both have their eyes on NE-02. The DCCC named it among its top targets for 2019-2020” and the NRCC put it on its “Patriot Program”, indicating that both parties will likely be giving their candidate significant support come the general election.  The NRCC has already started going after Bacon’s possible opponents, attacking Eastman for supporting “AOC’s cow ban” and calling Ashford’s fundraising haul a “LOL-inducing 36k”.  

This trollish behavior indicates that the NRCC knows Representative Bacon is in danger. But they may be getting ahead of themselves. Before the general, there is a year’s worth of Democratic primary that will be another insightful peek into the Democratic Party — exposing the Party’s priorities, divisions and the message it will deliver to 2020 voters.  

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

The Party Still (Usually) Decides
Of the 41 Congressional primary candidates the DCCC endorsed in 2018, only 2 lost their primaries — a success rate of 95%. Compare this to two prominent progressive groups, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, who had primary success rates of 37% and 31%, respectively. The DCCC’s candidates also had a much better track record in general elections, winning 46% compared to Our Revolution’s 14% and Justice Democrats’ 5% success rates. Notably, the two Congressional candidates — Kara Eastman from NE-02 and Dana Balter from NY-24 — who snuck by the DCCC in the primaries both lost their general election. The big caveat here is that the DCCC usually endorses the strongest candidate in the field while Our Revolution and Justice Democrats are more likely to endorse candidates who align with their policy objectives even if their path to victory looks more challenging.

Demographics Are Not Always Destiny
NE-02 is a wealthy, suburban, white community. It looks like the archetypal district that has been steadily trending blue in recent years. But recent elections show that NE-02 has bounced around, not showing a clear drift towards either party. Maybe that’s because Eastman was too liberal, maybe it’s because Bacon is especially popular, maybe Trump is popular in the district. No matter the reason, it’s safe to say that just because a district’s demographics look like it should be trending towards one party does not mean it always will.

Structural Changes Deserve Attention
Nebraska Democrats’ decision to change the Presidential nomination process from a caucus to a primary could determine close down ballot elections. Other upcoming structural changes like the upcoming census and corresponding redistricting will change how the 435 House seats are apportioned among the 50 states and how they are divided within those states. States with a growing population (California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas)  will likely gain seats while states with a shrinking or stagnant population (Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia) may lose seats. These changes will alter both the composition of the House of Representatives and the distribution of Electoral College votes and deserve more attention.

 

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: TEXAS 24TH

This is the second post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where (almost) every other week I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race.

Candidate interviews are the newest addition to ESY! For each battleground district, I will interview as many declared & potential candidates as possible. You can find the transcripts (both complete transcripts and ones condensed to just the highlights) under the “Battleground District” tab. Go read my interview with Jan McDowell, the TX-24 Democratic candidate for 2020 and was the 
Party’s nominee in 2018.

District: Texas 24th
Current Representative: Kenny Marchant
Projected District Margin: 0.0%->3The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s net approval rating at 4:09am EST on March 12 was -11.7. (Calculation (3.1 +8.6) – (11.7) + 0 = 0%)
Cook 2020 Projection: Toss Up
Sabato 2020 Projection: Leans Republican

Texas has been Republican territory for a long time. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Carter in 1976, over 40 years ago. The last Democratic governor to win was Ann Richards in 1990. And while Texas is probably still out of reach for the 2020 presidential election, Democrats hope that the state’s quick population growth and diversity will tip a few districts in their favor. 2018 featured the dramatic Beto O’Rourke versus Ted Cruz senate race. O’Rourke outperformed Texas’s partisan lean by 10 points by running up margins and turnout in urban areas. His near-success had more to do with winning over Republican leaning white voters than with harnessing the state’s growing diversity.  

O’Rourke’s urban margins contributed to Democrats successfully flipping TX-32 and TX-07. He carried them by 11% and 7%, respectively. And Democrats are hoping to squeeze even more from the state in 2020. Six of 33 seats that the DCCC4The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is the main campaign arm for House Democrats is targeting on their “Red to Blue” list are in Texas. Five of these seats — TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-24 and TX-31 —are in or near the state’s major urban areas — Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

If Democrats are able to win these seats it will be an astounding turnaround in eight years. In 2012, Romney took these seats by 20%, 22%, 25%, 22% and 21% respectively. Trump’s poor margins in 2016 — 9%, 10, 8%, 9%, 10% — show clear leftward movement.

Texas 24 is an educated, diverse, wealthy suburban district — the archetype of the district that flocked to Romney in 2012 and ran from Trump in 2016. The swing away from Republicans in 2016 and 2018 wasn’t enough to flip the seat, but things look different for 2020.  The 2018 race was much closer than expected. FiveThirtyEight projected a 13.8% margin, but the real gap was 3.1%. Things look tenuous for Republicans, especially with coming demographic changes.

Demographics

Data: Daily Kos

Texas  is more diverse and educated than the country overall. Thirty seven percent of the district is non-white and 32% are white college graduates. The key Republican voting bloc — non-college whites — account for only 31% of the population.

Coming demographic change looks troubling for Republicans. Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties all expect to grow by about 1.5 million by 205058%, 66% and 160%  over their current populations. A majority of this growth is going to be non-white, pushing the district, and state as a whole, towards Democrats. And unless Republicans broaden their appeal to non-white voters, TX-24 is destined to turn blue. The only question will be how quickly Democrats can flip it.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
Texas 24th has been a reliable seat for Republicans since the 2003 Texas redistricting. Democrats lost six Texas seats in the 2004 election, including the 24th District which had been re-drawn by the Republican State Legislature to include more Republican leaning suburbs around Dallas instead of more liberal Forth Worth/Arlington areas. The abrupt turn away from Republicans is clearly a Trump driven phenomenon. Mitt Romney won the district by 22%, a 4% greater margin than McCain; Kenny Marchant won re-election in 2014 by 33%, a 7-point greater margin than in 2012. And then in 2016, Trump won the district by just 6% — dragging Marchant’s margin down to half of what it was in 2014.

Presidency

House

Data: Daily Kos

What Happened in 2018
Nobody expected the race to be close in 2018. The four democrats running in the primary had never held elected office. Jan McDowell, the Democratic nominee in 2016, had lost by over 17% in 2016. McDowell was5I couldn’t decide between past and present tense here. Everyone is still alive, don’t worry. a 64-year-old CPA. Tod Allen was a 38-year-old teacher. John Biggan was a 34-year-old researcher at University of Texas. And lastly, Josh Imhoff was a 47-year-old attorney who slid in at the last minute…filing for candidacy on the last possible day. The candidates were pretty standard 2018 Democrats,  running on the ACA and a moldable version of Medicare for All, bipartisanship and opposition to the Republican tax bill and immigration policy.

McDowell won 52% of the primary vote, just barely avoiding a run-off. Turnout in the Democratic primary was astoundingly low — 3.5% of the district’s population. And this may not be a flawless metric, but the runner-up, John Biggan, has 244 Twitter followers. All this to say, it wasn’t a star-studded Democratic primary.

The Republican field wasn’t too impressive. Kenny Marchant had one competitor, Jonathan Davidson, who said his primary focus in office would be “to obtain access to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court”. Which…a bit of campaign advice here…may be a bit too niche for a political platform. Marchant won with a 75-25 percent victory.

Jan McDowell ran an inoffensive general campaign, emphasizing standard Democratic policies — gun control, protecting social security, women’s rights, etc. While McDowell says she mostly agrees with the left wing of the party on policy, the more radical proposals were not the forefront of her 2018 campaign.  Her primary attack on Marchant for being an absent representative. As she said, he was a “professional ghost”. And her closing argument on Twitter was her support for pre-existing conditionsopposition to the Republican tax bill and support for birthright citizenship.  

On more controversial policies — Abolish Ice and Medicare for All — she found middle ground.  She believes in Medicare for All, but would support a different policy that had similar outcomes. She did not explicitly endorse Abolish Ice, instead writing “I believe that it is the policies that should be changed, whether or not a given agency is eliminated.”

In my interview with her, though, she clarified that she is a progressive.  “I’m pretty far left”, “if people are for Medicare For All, and I’m sitting in Congress and there’s a vote on that, I’m a yes.” “When I listen to AOC’s (Alexandia Ocasio Cortez’s) positions on things I find very little that I disagree with”. She clarified that while she may agree on the policy substance, doesn’t “always agree with her [AOC’s] method or her approach.”

Her campaign was bare bones, as the DCCC refused to give any assistance. She raised only $108,000 and $103,000 of it was individual contributions. She did not have much institutional support. McDowell operated mostly on Facebook and Twitter, running very few television ads, showing her shoestring budget. Her modest videos show that some more money could give her a boost.

Kenny Marchant, the Republican incumbent since 2005, was well funded. He went into the campaign with a $1.6 million war chest. He raised another 1.1 million — about 850k from PACs and 250k from individual donors — giving him about a $2.5 million lead over McDowell. He ran as a conservative Republican — touting on his campaign’s homepage his ranking as the 3rd most conservative House member. He’s a Tea-Party Republican. He vote’s with Trump 94.1% of the time. He supports tax cuts, the Second Amendment and is pro-life. All together, he’s a pretty standard6read: dull Republican. His website has three pages — “Home” ‘About Kenny” and “Contribute”. His social media is painfully boring.

So…the underfunded Democrat and milquetoast Republican face off! And McDowell came within ~3% of Marchant, shocking everyone and bringing the district into the 2020 spotlight.

The 3% margin, however, is perhaps less impressive when Beto O’Rourke carried the district by 3.5%. This could be trouble for Democrats in 2020 if they are unable to find an up-ballot candidate inspiring enough to drive turnout like Beto did last year.

2018 Data

Data: Census, Texas Gov’t

The marginal improvement across the district’s three counties were almost identical. In each county7I’m only referring to the portions of the counties that lie in the twenty-fourth district, McDowell closed the margin by about 15%. This may be suprizing considering that minorities constitute just 31% of Tarrant County’s population but make up a majority, 57%, of Dallas. Usually more minority voters translate to better Democratic margins. But, remember that O’Rourke’s improvement over Clinton’s came largely from white voters, meaning that they were not necessarily a drag on his performance relative to 2016. And while McDowell’s supporters differed from O’Rourke’s in some ways, she likely benefited from a similar combination of high democratic enthusiasm and large numbers of white flippers.

But Beto, and by extension McDowell, did not fully harness the state’s growing diversity and Hispanic population. If they had, maybe they could have pushed past their republican opponents. So, while this likely hurt them in 2018, it is a hopeful sign for Democrats that they have room to improve and new voters to target in the upcoming election.  

2020 UPDATE
Cook political rated TX-24 as a “Toss Up”, drawing national attention to the district and probably a few new democratic contenders. Jan McDowell already announced her 2020 campaign. It will be interesting to see if being a third time candidate helps or hurts her. While her name recognition and tenacity may give her a boost, it could drive away voters who think she has missed or shot or that just isn’t a winning candidate. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already attacked her as a “perennial losing candidate”.
But this time, McDowell will have to worry as much about the primary as the general. Ideologically, there is still room to her left, and in terms of campaign strategy, there is room for a more polished and prolific fundraiser. Enter: Kim Olson, the Democratic candidate for Apgricicultre Commissioner in 2018. Her announcement (but maybe not officially announcement?) has stirred up some internal fighting on the Democratic side after McDowell posted an aggressive attack on Facebook.
Janemarie Clark, McDowell’s Communications Director, then went on to tell a story about a supposed backroom meeting where Olson claimed to have support from “national powers that be” and that “everyone else just needed to stand aside”. Weird stuff. Who knows if this really happened, but the #drama is interesting nonetheless.


One more important tidbit on Olson. She beat McDowell’s margins by about 2% in a bid for Agriculture Commissioner last year, boosting her claim that she might be a more electable candidate than McDowell. And while Olson hasn’t officially declared her candidacy or filed with the FEC, her cryptic hinting at a run makes it seem inevitable.

Two other candidates (along with McDowell) have filed as candidates with the FEC. One is Will Fisher, a lawyer who ran for the TX-26 Democratic nomination last cycle and lost8Candidate interview coming next week!. The other is Crystal Lee Fletcher, who filed on March 26.  She is a seemingly unknown lawyer with no campaign website (that I could find) and the most information available on her is from the State Bar of Texas. The field is sure to continue to grow on the Democratic side due to its newly won status as a swing seat. According to McDowell, there are around eight candidates planning to run, whether or not they have officially declared or filed with the FEC.

Regardless of who wins the primary, they will have more institutional support than McDowell did in 2018. Of the districts that Sabato or Cook rate as a “Toss Up” for 2020, only four — NY-11, OK-05, SC-01 and TX-24 — received no financial support from the DCCC in 2018.  This new cash source and attack dog might be enough to tip a district over the edge. Even $90,000, the smallest amount that the DCCC contributed to any of these races in 2018, would nearly doubly McDowell’s fundraising numbers from last year.
Data: Open Secrets

On the Republican side, Marchant has the seat locked down. He was uncontested in 2014 and 2016 and won his 2018 primary by about 50 points. He is the only Republican officially running so far and will likely smash any competition with his incumbency and $1.5 million war chest.

Marchant told the Texas Tribune, regarding his campaign, “It is more cautious. It is more contemplative”. “I think, in my case, we’re going back and examining every precinct and discovering who turned out, who didn’t turn out, who turned out we didn’t expect to turn out, and we’re finding that the Beto effect was very, very prominent.” “Our campaign will start maybe six months earlier.”

Marchant is right to re-think his strategy. He is going to have to broaden his appeal and slow the Republican hemorrhaging of educated, suburban white voters. As with everything in politics these days, it will likely come down to Trump. The president is relatively unpopular in Texas (he had a -11% net approval in 2018 according to Pew) and even more unpopular among educated, urban voters like those in TX-24.  If Marchant can safely distance himself from the president’s most erratic behavior and policies without losing the Republican base, he will have a better shot at keeping his seat. But if Democrats can pin Marchant to Trump, he may be in for a rough election. Democrats have already begun this strategy, blaming Marchant for the unpopular government shutdown.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

There Are Always Surprises
Every election has a few big surprises. In 2018 TX-24, along with SC-01, OK-05 and NY-11 were some of the biggest. Democrats were able to pick up the latter three and learn that Texas 24 was competitive because they competed in races that seemed like longshots. The parties should compete across the map.  They will win some surprise districts and see which districts may be competitive or winnable down the road. 

Up-Ballot Candidate Matter
Beto O’Rourke was a big reason this district came within striking distance for Democrats. His popularity in urban areas and ability to flip white, college educated voters trickled down to voters in House races across Texas. If Democrats choose a similarly popular candidate as their presidential nominee (maybe even O’Rourke himself) in 2020 it would help down-ballot House candidates across the map. The nominee, though, would have to reach into the mid-fifties in the popular vote percentage for his or her coattails to be significant. While it is more difficult to find a presidential nominee with the support that O’Rourke had in 2018, the parties may have more luck with Senate candidates. If either party can recruit inspiring, popular candidates for any up-ballot race, it will pull some House candidates over the line and bring others onto their radar for future elections.

Texas Is A Big Deal
Texas will probably be the biggest battleground of 2020. National Democrats have their eye on five flappable Texas seats, TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-23, TX-24 and TX-31, and Republicans are looking to win back two they lost in TX-32 and TX-07. All of these, except TX-23 which spans across Southwest Texas, are the classic suburban, well-educated white, districts that Democrat’s had success with in 2018. All these elections, along with a Senate race and O’Rourke as a potential presidential nominee, have brought Texas into the national spotlight up and down the ballot.


Now that you’re invested in the drama, go read my candidate interview with Jan McDowell! You can read the full, extended interview or the condensed version. Next week I will interview Democratic candidates Will Fisher and (hopefully) Kim Olson.

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: ARKANSAS 2ND

This is the first post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where every other week one closely contested 2020 House district is highlighted. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the District and its Demographics 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what the district can reveal about the broader 2020 race for the House. 

The district selection formula, fully explained and updated in POST 1: Housekeeping, needs a tweak. The old formula looked for the district that would have closest to 50% Republican vote. The new formula will find the district that would have the smallest percentage margin between the Republican and Democratic candidate. This post, however, uses the original formula, and favors Republicans.

DISTRICT & DEMOGRAPHIC OVERVIEW

District: Arkansas 2nd
Current Representative:
French Hill (R)
Projected Republican Vote Percentage: 50.0%.9The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s approval rating at 8:37am on February 24 was 42.7%. Calculation: (52.1 +5.2 + 42.7)/2 + 0  = 50.0.

Republicans have Arkansas locked down. They have a state government trifecta10When one party holds the Governorship, State Senate and State House and control the state’s entire congressional delegation.11Two Senators and four Representative Trump’s approval has ticked up from 50% to 53% in the state —overcoming Montana, Idaho and Oklahoma to become the 10th Trumpiest state.  

The Second Congressional District could give Democrats hope. The district houses Little Rock and much of its surrounding population density, making it the only truly urban part of the state. The district has six counties: Pulaski County is home to Little Rock and North Little Rock — giving it most of the district’s density. Saline County, Perry County and Faulkner County make up the rest of the Little Rock Metro Area. Conway County, Van Buren County and White County have distant exurbs and are heavily rural. As with most metro areas, the city core is dark blue and, moving outward, quickly turns purple and red.

Demographics

Data from Daily Kos

Arkansas Second District stands out from the suburban battlegrounds of 2018, like GA-06 and VA-07, that were better educated12% with Bachelors —  GA-06: 61%, VA-07: 39% and wealthier13MHI — GA-06: $74,000, VA-07: $87,000 MHI. Democrats, who struggle with white working-class voters, have their work cut out if they are going to win in such a white, poor and uneducated district.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
AR-02 was held by a democrat from 1991 until the 2010 midterm “shellacking”, which pushed it into Republican hands. The Republican, U.S. Attorney Tim Griffen, left the seat open in 2014 when he pitched a successful bid for Lieutenant Governor. French Hill, the current AR-02 Representative, successfully won the seat in 2014 and again in 2016.

Data from Daily Kos

In 2018, Democrats thought a blue tsunami might be able to put a Democrat in this once reliably blue seat. But the 2018 wave didn’t make it to central Arkansas.  

What Happened in 2018
The Democratic primary was seen — as is everything in Democratic politics — as a Hillary-Bernie redux. Even as he distanced himself from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Clarke Tucker was the establishment favorite. Remarkably, nowhere in his campaign announcement did he mention he was a Democrat. Instead he emphasized his history with cancer14He said living through cancer and seeing the importance of healthcare was his impetus for running., and flexed his willingness to stand up to the “D.C. establishment”. His moderate policy positions, hesitation to denounce Trump, and bipartisan credentials drew attacks from the left and endorsements from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  

His primary opponents ran on the Bernie Sanders’ orthodoxy — Medicare for All $15 Dollar Minimum Wage, refusing PAC campaign contributions. Tucker, with his money, moderation and party endorsement, won in a landslide. His closest competitor was Gwen Combs, a schoolteacher who had criticized Tucker for his “money” and “privilege. She ran a whopping 38% behind Tucker.

French Hill, the Republican incumbent, didn’t face a primary challenger. His traditional15Read: Boring political upbringing — Vanderbilt graduate, Deputy Assistant Secretary for something or other,  CEO of a financial firm —won him the House seat in 2014. In his 2016 re-election, Hill ran 23% ahead of his Democratic opponent and 12% ahead of Trump, demonstrating his broad support and ability to win over Democrats and Trump-skeptical conservatives.  

The 2018 General election was unremarkable16With one big exception that we will get to later.. Tucker ran as an independent centrist willing to buck the Democratic party (even as the DCCC spent $450,000 on the race). Hill ran as tax-cutting, job-creating, fiscally responsible family man.

Both campaigns believed that Tucker’s support among black voters, who make up 20% of the district’s electorate, could tip the race. Tucker successfully recruited Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, to the stump with him on the campaign trail.

Then things got gross.

A  Super PAC called “Black Americans for the President’s Agenda”17Led by Vernon Robinson, a failed political candidate and confirmed weirdo (there are exceptions to my no-value-judgements rule.) released a radio ad18A similar ad from the same PAC in Mississippi’s Senate race received more national coverage in October in support of French Hill. It featuring women saying “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again” and “We can’t afford to let white Democrats take us back to the bad old days of race verdicts, life sentences and lynching’s when a white girl screams rape.”

Tucker tied Hill to the “disgraceful” ads; Hill condemned the ads as “appalling”. The political wheels continued to spin until election day three weeks later.

Recent Election Data
Hill beat Tucker 52%-46%, with a 16,000 vote margin. An R+1019According to FiveThirtyEight’s Partisan Lean Metric district in a D+9 year should have been a closer race. Why wasn’t it?

  • Hill is a popular incumbent. In his initial 2014 election, Hill won by only 8% in an environment20An R+10 District and a R+5.7 House Popular Vote that would project a 16% victory — falling 8% behind expectations. Things changed after two years in office. In 2016 he won by 23% in an environment21An R+10 District and a D+2.1 Presidential Popular Vote projecting an 8-point margin — beating expectations by 15%. In 2018 he won by 6% when the fundamentals22R+10 District and D+8.6 House Popular Vote gave him a 1% advantage — beating expectations by 5%. In an age where the incumbency advantage is weak, averaging just 2.7% for House Representatives, Hill’s consistent outperformance of the fundamentals make him a formidable opponent.
  • Tucker underperformed in Pulaski County. Tucker needed to win Pulaski by a huge margin to overcome the blood red nature of the other six counties.

The 21% margin he won with was far below what he needed. Nationally, the swing towards Democrats between 2016 and 201823I use the Presidential Popular Vote when available (2016) because it is a better measure of national environment than the House Popular Vote was 6%. The margin in Pulaski county only grew by only 2%. 

  • Democrats struggle in rural areas
    If Pulaski County had swung in line with the national mood, the popular vote gap would have tightened by about 7,000 votes — from 16,000 to 9,000. Tucker would still have needed to have improve among the remaining voters by 3.5%.  

Perhaps Democrats can learn from Conway County. The margin in this rural, poor, white, uneducated county was far and away the best outside of Pulaski. What is it that makes Democrats more appealing in this county than its rural siblings of Saline, Faulkner, White, Van Buren and Perry? If Democrats can figure out the answer and match their -23% margin in Conway in the other rural counties24While holding their margin in Pulaski, they could win. In this world, Tucker would have won by 1,000 votes. It’s unlikely, though, that Democrats will be able to improve to a 23% margin in counties where they are losing by 55%(White), 48%(Van Buren), 42%(Perry) and 40%(Saline).

Democrats cannot win AR-02 by appealing to rural voters or running up their margin in the metro area — they will have to do both. There are not enough voters in Little Rock to overcome abysmal margins in the rural areas and its unlikely they will improve their rural margins by 20-25%. Given the current divide between urban and rural voters, this will be a challenging task.

2020 UPDATE
If Republicans lose AR-02 in 2020, its game over. The Democrats will have the House. It was the 270th bluest district in 2018, which would have meant a 270-165 stranglehold by the Democrats. Barring a total Republican collapse, that is not going to happen. If the Democrats are to win here, it will likely be due to some demographic re-alignment that boosts their chances in AR-02, but hurts them elsewhere.

No candidates have officially announced that they are running in 2020. Tucker  has been silent on Facebook but active on Twitter. Hill hasn’t made any announcements. This is not surprising — we are still 21 months away from the election. In more competitive districts, though, candidates have already begun to announce. Keep up with all of the 2020 Battlegrounds25Once a district is covered on ESY, it will be followed through the election. using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE
Not All Suburbs Are Equal
The headline of the 2018 midterms was that suburban voters — particularly white, college-educated voters — abandoned Republicans. All cities and suburbs, however, are not the same. The suburbs where Republicans suffered losses are wealthier and better educated than Arkansas 2nd. Little Rock’s population of 200,000 also shows that the density of a city is crucial. The population of 200,000 — even with its dark blue nature — is overwhelmed by the white working-class suburbs and rural surroundings. Cities with larger populations will have better luck overcoming darker red suburbs and exurbs.

Progressive Power Is Overrated
The power of the moderate Democrat and the party endorsement was clear in Arkansas 2nd. Progressive candidates ran far behind Tucker and his more measured and careful policies.

This was also true nationally. The DCCC frequently endorses moderate and conservative candidates who are well-matched to their district. Progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, only endorse progressives. According to FiveThirtyEight, “In races where a party-endorsed candidate ran against a progressive-group-endorsed candidate (excluding any races where a candidate was endorsed by both sides), the party-endorsed candidate won 89 percent of the time.”

The Democratic party is not, as Trump declares, a Socialist party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and the progressive wing of the party receive outsized attention.  

Things Can Always Get Worse
The respectability of political discourse feels like it’s at an all-time low. But things can get worse. An ad claiming that Democrats will bring back lynching is, hopefully, the bottom of the barrel. We’ll have to make it through 2020 to find out.


Follow all of the 2020 Battleground Districts using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.

POST #1: Housekeeping

Election nerds, family, friends, interweb surfers of good fortune — welcome to Every Second Year.

This is a blog about power and how voters in the United States decide who gets to hold that power.

Specifically, it’s about the race for the 2020 United States House of Representatives — the 435 members who, according to the Constitution “shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States”. In need of a refresher on the three branches of government? Here’s a classic. It doesn’t quite replicate the genius of I’m Just a Bill, but sequels never do. The blog will have three parts:

1. (Almost) weekly posts, published on Sundays, using electoral history and trends to analyze the 2020 House Election broadly. These are labeled “The Big Picture”.

2. Bi-weekly ­(every other week) posts, without a set publishing day, looking deep into one race. These are labeled “2020 Battlegrounds”.

For each “Battleground” post, a formula picks out the district that would have the smallest percentage margin between the Republican and Democratic candidate if 1. the election were held now 26“Now” meaning whenever I start researching and writing, but no more than two weeks before a post is live. 2. polls were perfectly accurate and 3. every district swung perfectly in line with the national mood.

The formula isn’t perfect, but it will highlight a variety of competitive districts and give some spontaneity. It may point to a different district every week or stay on one for a few in a row; regardless, compelling stories will ensue.  

Big picture readers, feel free to skip the next paragraph — it goes through the details of the selection calculation.

Here is the formula: Average the 2020 congressional generic ballot margin 27Using FiveThirtyEight’s aggregator.28While congressional generic ballot polls are not available, I will use President Trump’s approval rating from FiveThirtyEight’s aggregator. with every congressional district’s two party margin in its 2018 House election.29Adjusted up 8.6% to account for the 2018 popular vote margin Factor in any incumbency advantage (2.7% as estimated by FiveThirtyEight).30Seats where an incumbent was beaten will be adjusted 5.2% to account for the previous incumbent’s 2.7% advantage The district which has the smallest margin will be the district de jour. If there is a tie, the district with the closer 2016 House result will be chosen.

3. Candidate interviews in the Battleground Districts. There will be both edited/condensed interviews with the most interesting parts of the conversations and extended interviews, which will include the messy, unedited parts. They have no publishing schedule. 

In addition to these weekly and biweekly posts, I occasionally write about other political topics: Presidential primaries, scandals, Cardi B’s views of the government shutdown. You know … the important stuff. These come without a schedule, when I have something to say and time to write.

Be warned: this is a policy-light blog. It was almost named “Horse Race House” to really lean into the non-policy angle. But that seemed a bit heavy handed. And how we choose our leaders is important! It matters for our country’s short-term policies and long-term survival.  Democracy is not predetermined. Societies can — and usually do — break down.

And on that light note, it’s time to wrap up.

In my second post, I quickly lay out the results of the 2018 fight for control of the House and look at the GOP’s chances to take back power in 2020. It’s up now! Go read it 🙂

I also want to give credit to the journalists and news outlets upon which I am building my writing style and analysis.

  • FiveThirtyEight — This is where I started and continue to learn about electoral politics. Much of my writing/analysis will emulate their style. My writing format— using lots of internal footnotes and plenty of links — will also come from them.
  • Nathaniel Rakich — His blog Baseballot gave me the idea to start one of my own. He showed that it’s okay to put your work out there before you’re an expert and to learn along the way.
  • The Washington Post’s “The Trailer”, Politico’s “Morning Score” and The Daily Kos’s “Morning Digest”  — These newsletters keep me up to date on the latest campaign and electoral news.

It’s a bit scary posting online these days. Once you put something out there … it’s really out there. There’s no turning back. You can pretty much count on someone having a screenshot of your most embarrassing online moment. So, Future Seth, if something on this blog comes back to haunt you, take this as Past Seth’s apology.

– Seth