Q: What is the purpose of partybuilding in areas that probably won't support the party in the near future?
A: It has a trickle-down effect on neighboring districts; it presents a stronger vision of the party as a national force; and if you abandon a district in 2014, it's that much more unlikely that it's going to flip sides at some point before, say, 2034.
Here at DKE (and formerly at SSP), we tend to focus on swingier districts (PVIs of +/- 2, say) when discussing the topic of congressional elections. As an approach, this makes sense: the path to Speaker Pelosi (v2.0) more likely runs through David Valadao's CA-21 (D+1.3) than it does through, say, Kevin Brady's TX-08 (a laughably red R+28.1). On the other hand, the last time the Democrats held the House--and in every time before that--it was through a diverse national coalition of northern liberals, southern conservatives, and everything in between. Sure, 218 blue seats can probably be figured out without needing to spend resources in any non-swing districts; however, that's not a good way to build a longstanding majority coalition. Plus, it's just not as much fun.
In this diary, I want to look at where we may be able to pick off some less-obvious seats, or at least lay seeds for the future. Team Blue currently only holds four seats with a PVI redder than R+8.0 (Barrow, McIntyre, Rahall, Matheson); by my count, that number was at least quadrupled as recently as 2009, though I can't seem to find an exact dataset. My point is this: it's both fascinating and potentially useful to look at the less obvious targets for 2014. Howard Dean may not be leading the DNC anymore, but that shouldn't mean the death of something resembling a fifty state strategy.
This list is constrained to seats with a PVI greater than R+8.0. My methodology is pretty opaque--I looked at the available data to try and come up with a good list of some seats that, given the right conditions, could switch from R to D in 2014. Also note that % and "points" are interchangeable here; that is, "Romney got 55% more than Obama" = "Romney got 55 more points than Obama" = O+55=R.
As mentioned in the title, this is part one of a series (mainly because this is a lot of prose to digest at once). Please feel free to argue about any districts you think would fall under this category but aren't mentioned here; even if I plan to write about them in the future, the community's thoughts on this sort of a project are always productive! For now, though, I present to you my thoughts...
|District||Incumbent||PVI||Romney margin||Cong. margin ('12)||Fun fact|
|AR-02||Tim Griffin, retiring||R+8.4||11.8||15.7||Gov. Mike Beebe (D) got 66% here in 2010|
|GA-01||Jack Kingston, retiring||R+8.3||12.9||26.0||Kingston overperformed Romney by 7.1% in 2012|
|IN-08||Larry Bucshon||R+8.1||18.8||10.3||Obama's performance decreased by 16.3 points from '08 to '12|
|ND-AL||Kevin Cramer||R+10.2||19.8||13.2||In 2012, now-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp ran ahead of Obama by 11.3%|
|WV-02||Shelley M. Capito, retiring||R+11.0||22.0||39.6||Capito's '12 performance beat McCain's 08 spread by 15.1%, third most among all Republican representatives|
Before the infamous Arkansas dummymander, this seat was held by the impressively progressive Vic Snyder (D). Since he retired in 2010, though, it's been held by the odious Griffin, a notable player in the US Attorneys firing scandal. He won election in the 2010 wave with 58%, and was reelected last year with just over 55%. Now, though, Griffin is choosing to retire for unknown reasons, leaving this Little Rock-centered district open.
Although Griffin's victory in 2012 was fairly sizable, there are a number of caveats attached to that campaign. For one, the Democratic candidate was the underfunded and underwhelming Herb Rule, who ran a bare bones campaign that didn't pick up until the waning months of the cycle. Griffin, with over six times the cash that Rule had, won reelection by 15.7% during a year in which Democratic enthusiasm in Arkansas was, shall we say, non-existent. (Note: I have never been to Arkansas, but considering that Romney trounced Obama here and Rule's campaign never really showed signs of life, I'll make this somewhat safe assumption.) In any case, we already have a somewhat solid candidate lined up for next year, so we're at least saved from a lackluster campaign in the mold of Rule's.
In a non-presidential year, when the state's hatred/distaste/whatever for Obama won't be as strong, this seat should make for a fairly tantalizing target. Okay, that's true about most of the seats on this list, but come on: we're talking about Arkansas here! The state maintains its ancestral ability to elect Democrats statewide, which means that getting the local levels back to blue shouldn't be that hard, right? What's more, the current AR-02 gave Governor Mike Beebe (D) a whopping 66% in his 2010 reelection! Even Blanche Lincoln managed to only lose AR-02 by 11.6% in the general election that same year. And Obama, well on his way to getting creamed in Arkansas in 2008, still got 44.3% in this district. We lost this seat in the middle of a particularly bad wave, which was unfortunate, but that doesn't mean it's lost forever. The Republicans won't have the advantage of incumbency here next November, and we could see a landscape closer to 2010, when Griffin--again, in the middle of a scorching Republican wave--only won with 57.9% of the vote. The Democratic Party is weakened in the south, but it should be at an advantage in an off-year, especially with competitive gubernatorial and senatorial races driving typically depressed Democratic turnout from the top of the ticket.
Kingston's been about as entrenched as a GOP incumbent in the South can be: he's been in office since 1992 and has never won by fewer than fifteen points (and that was in his first campaign). Good thing, then, that he's retiring this year to run for Senate! While a Kingston nomination at the statewide level could portend certain doom for Democrats in this very red district, there's no reason to think that he's more favored than any of the other eight hundred candidates in the senatorial primary; therefore, let's proceed as if turnout here will be fairly normal, for a midterm.
Although Kingston won this district with a whopping 63% in 2012, that number betrays the true lean of this district. He overperformed the same-party presidential vote in his district by 7.1%, 48th highest among all contested seats (the national average was 1.8%). You don't need that figure to tell you that Kingston's dominant victories owed more to his popularity than to the tilt of the district, but I think that it's a handy stat to have around anyway. Now, I'm not saying that he's like Jim Matheson--that is, if Matheson retired the Democrats would almost certainly lose UT-04, where he overperformed Obama by 18.6%. On the other hand, Obama only fell off by 2.3% from 2008 to 2012 in this district, a bit better than the national average and somewhat in line with Georgia's statewide presidential preferences.
What all this means is that, despite GA-01's fierce Republicanism at the congressional level over the past two decades, it's pretty unspectacular in the context of Georgia politics. Its PVI is slightly more Republican than the state as a whole (R+8.3, as opposed to R+6), and is thus easily the bluest R-held district in Georgia. If we are going to compete in Georgia over the next generation, we will need a number of things to go our way: minority turnout needs to go up; Georgia needs strong Democratic statewide elected officials to increase turnout among all Democrats (paging Michelle Nunn...); and there need to be prominent elected officials that don't just come from the Atlanta area. All of these plans are in progress, but a next step needs to be taken. The Republican gerrymander won't make matters easy, but if we can hold John Barrow's GA-12, which is the same PVI as GA-01, then we can certainly at least compete in GA-01. It won't be easy--but, then again, that's the point of this list!
Of all the congressional districts in the country, non-Utah division, IN-08 had the fourth largest tumble from 2008 to 2012 when it came to presidential performance. Obama got 48.1% of the vote here in 2008; in 2012, only 39.6%. That sort of distaste for the president is hard to overcome, but as Jim Matheson and Nick Rahall--whose districts score higher in this metric--can attest to, it's not always fatal. Plus, there's a good argument to be made that IN-08's status as a Republican stronghold can be short-lived. Sure, Bucshon's had an easy go of it during the historically bad environments of 2010 and 2012; but what if local trends can be finagled to match better times such as 2008, when Brad Ellsworth was reelected with over 64% of the vote (while the district gave John McCain about 50% of the vote)? The new IN-08 contains 88% of the old IN-08, so the partisan composition of the district is more or less the same.
Clearly--and bear with me for this sentence, please--the good people of IN-08 are willing to give their votes to whoever does a better job convincing them that they are the best representative for the district at that point in time. Okay, so Obama's agenda wasn't for them. We had the bad fortune of an open seat here in 2010, when Brad Ellsworth ran for Senate, so the red wave wiped out local Democratic fortunes without Team Blue having put up much of a fight. Obama got 48.1% here in 2008! That's really good! Sure, that wasn't sustained, but it means that the true lean of the district is probably somewhere in the middle. Do you think those same voters are going to thank Bucshon for his vote to prolong the shutdown?
There aren't many Dem-held districts where Obama got less than 47% of the vote in 2012 (only the normal five, actually), but one of the points of this article is to argue that we shouldn't just accept this as the new status quo. There is enough Democratic support buried in IN-08 for a Democratic representative. Bucshon isn't particularly popular and he hasn't been around long enough to turn himself into an established local brand. We want here what we want everywhere else: a moderate candidate with a bang-up turnout operation. In IN-08, however, turning that formula into success won't be as hard as in other similar districts.
The path to victory in North Dakota is a relatively simple one: look at what Heidi Heitkamp did last year and copy it! But seriously, while Heitkamp's campaign was historically good and unlikely to be replicated in its awesomeness any time that soon, its ultimate success does show us that there's still a way for Democrats to win statewide (as, obviously, both the Senate and House races are) in North Dakota. One big difference between the 2014 congressional race and the 2012 senatorial race is that the latter was an open seat, while Kevin Cramer, who was just elected to succeed the odious Rick Berg last year, is expected to run for reelection.
A few things working for the Democrats in North Dakota in 2014: I'm not sure Obama has a negative downballot effect in the Peace Garden (huh?) State, but he certainly doesn't have much of a positive effect. Sure, Heitkamp won amid the increased turnout atmosphere of a presidential election, but Obama's statewide performance fell from 44.6% in 2008 to 38.9% in 2012 so whatever Heitkamp did right, it didn't include turning out more Democrats. In fact, most of Heitkamp's victory almost certainly came from independents and Republicans, two groups (if I'm not mistaken) that will be more likely than Democrats to turn out next November. A hypothetical challenger to Cramer will need all the Democrats he or she can get, of course, but we shouldn't expect a Democratic re-taking of this seat to come without some significant crossover support. Cramer voted in favor of the bill to reopen the government, so attacking him from this angle won't work, but there's still plenty that a Democrat could take issue with.
It's hard, in many of these cases, to argue that the Democrats should retake a seat that was theirs just a few years ago. In the case of North Dakota, though, it really does just feel like an issue of refocusing the debate. Earl Pomeroy was elected (and reelected) to the House during every presidential election from 1992-2008, and the Democratic presidential candidate won the state exactly none of those times. Romney's 19.8% victory in 2012 was greater than McCain's 8.7% victory in 2008, but even Romney's margin pales in comparison to both of George W. Bush's performances in 2000 and 2004 (in which he won the state by 28% and 27%, respectively). A poor presidential result is clearly not fatal here. Ticket splitting is increasingly a thing of the past, but we can't blame gerrymandering or anything close to that in this case. Instead, the main issue seems to be the fact that the Democratic Party--here as well as in other Republican-inclined districts--is ceding the seat based on its poor presidential result. That, my friends, is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it will do nothing to help our quest to retake the House. If the Democratic Party is serious about building a lasting foundation in the House, it will look to this seat as one in which the stats don't quite line up, but can and should be seriously contested nonetheless.
O, West Virginia! Did you know that Gore lost the Mountain State by only 6.32%, less than Virginia (8.04%) or Colorado (8.36%)? And that it was the only state south of the Mason Dixon Line to vote for Dukakis in 1988? And that it is one of six states that voted for Clinton/Gore in both 1992 and 1996 but hasn't given its electoral votes to Democrat since? Not to dwell on the past too much, but it's incredible that that same state is now one of the most GOP-friendly out there on the presidential level--Romney won the state with 62% of the vote, his fifth largest margin in the country. This Republican dominance extended to the congressional level as well in 2012: Capito won a seventh term with 70% of the vote while Romney carried WV-02 with 60%. Capito's ten point overperformance shouldn't surprise us too much--and, what's more, WV-02 was actually Obama's best district in West Virginia.
On the other hand, Romney's best district in West Virginia was WV-03, where Nick Rahall (D) won reelection with 54% of the vote. Furthermore, West Virginia has a remarkable history of continuing to elect Democrats to statewide office: the governor, both senators, the secretary of state, the state treasurer, the state auditor, and the commissioner of agriculture are all Democrats who were elected in 2012. Incredible, really. I don't have numbers on how WV-02 voted in all these races, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was pretty solidly blue, especially after two cycles of being the most Democratic congressional seat at the presidential level.
As has been mentioned--because it's really important!--Capito, because she's fairly moderate and quite popular, has always overperformed the top of the ticket. The problem with this in 2014 is that WV-02 is open because Capito is running for Senate. If she wins the nomination, as seems likely, she'll probably have good down-ballot Republican coattails in her old district. Still, though, fighting a hard losing battle in this seat next year is of the utmost importance, for two reasons: it's unlikely that Capito's successor will be as popular as she has been; and the presidential downballot effect in 2016 won't be as negative as it has been during Obama's two elections, especially if Clinton is the nominee. Although this diary isn't meant to focus on candidates, it bears noting that we already have a really solid Democrat running for this seat next year. The best case scenario here is that Casey runs hard next year, comes close and shows that this seat is winnable, and then is able to win under possibly more favorable conditions in 2016. That may seem like small consolation for 2014, but this type of strategy is essential if we want to build the party in soem tougher areas going forward.