House Democrats Tout Women Challengers in Year of Trump

The party hopes to capitalize on the Republican’s unpopularity with women.

Monica Vernon (center) won the Democratic nomination in Iowa's 1st District on Tuesday.
Courtesy of Monica Vernon for Congress
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
June 8, 2016, 8 p.m.

Mon­ica Ver­non’s primary vic­tory Tues­day in Iowa is the start of what could be a de­fin­ing trend in House battle­grounds this cycle: Demo­crat­ic wo­men can­did­ates.

Half of the 30 high­lighted can­did­ates in the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s list of tar­geted races are fe­male—a po­ten­tial ad­vant­age as Demo­crats run with the first wo­man pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee of a ma­jor polit­ic­al party and against a Re­pub­lic­an White House con­tender deeply un­pop­u­lar with wo­men.

“There couldn’t be a clear­er con­trast between what Don­ald Trump and Re­pub­lic­ans are say­ing and what our Demo­crat­ic wo­men can­did­ates are say­ing,” said Stephanie Schriock, pres­id­ent of EMILY’s List, which helps elect Demo­crat­ic wo­men who sup­port abor­tion rights.

After Ver­non’s nom­in­a­tion to take on Rep. Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st Dis­trict, Demo­crats are look­ing ahead to Tues­day in Nevada, where three wo­men are lead­ing can­did­ates for the seats of Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Cresent Hardy and Joe Heck (Heck is run­ning for Sen­ate). Weeks later, wo­men will be on the bal­lot in New York in the dis­tricts of Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Lee Zeld­in and John Katko. Wo­men are also set this month to be nom­in­ated in Col­or­ado, where Demo­crats are hop­ing to knock out Rep. Mike Coff­man; and Maine, where the party is look­ing to un­seat Rep. Bruce Poli­quin.

As Demo­crats re­lent­lessly tie House Re­pub­lic­ans to Trump, they are op­tim­ist­ic that their fe­male can­did­ates will be lif­ted by the po­lar­iz­ing busi­ness­man, who in a mid-May Fox News poll had just a 33 per­cent fa­vor­able rat­ing among wo­men. Com­pound­ing the dy­nam­ic: If the Demo­crat­ic wo­men clear their primar­ies, they will face male GOP in­cum­bents in the vast ma­jor­ity of dis­tricts.

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al last week, Rep. Ben Ray Lu­jan, chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, stopped short of sug­gest­ing that the House is in play. But he pre­dicted that Hil­lary Clin­ton will gal­van­ize sup­port for Demo­crat­ic House re­cruits in Novem­ber.

“We are go­ing to see a very pos­it­ive re­sponse to Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton across the coun­try and a neg­at­ive re­sponse to Don­ald Trump,” Lu­jan said.

Less than five months from Elec­tion Day, Re­pub­lic­ans point to Clin­ton’s own un­fa­vor­ab­il­ity num­bers as evid­ence that she is un­likely to sub­stan­tially boost Demo­crats down-bal­lot. As for Trump, they say there is still time for him to re­cal­ib­rate his rhet­or­ic, and they balk at the no­tion that his pres­ence on the tick­et is a sil­ver bul­let for Demo­crat­ic wo­men can­did­ates.

“I don’t think there’s any ma­gic about be­ing a wo­man with Trump on the bal­lot,” said Tom Dav­is, a former chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee. The NR­CC did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Demo­crats, mean­while, tout polling that shows Trump push­ing away wo­men voters from the GOP, a factor that Demo­crat­ic wo­men can­did­ates could cap­it­al­ize on in com­ing months. In March and April, the DCCC con­duc­ted polling in dozens of tar­geted dis­tricts, find­ing that Clin­ton beat Trump by an av­er­age of 12 points among likely gen­er­al-elec­tion wo­men voters, an aide said.

There is pre­ced­ent for how Trump’s most con­tro­ver­sial com­ments on gender could be in­voked. Earli­er this year, an anti-Trump su­per PAC ran an ad fea­tur­ing wo­men read­ing some of Trump’s sting­ing re­marks about wo­men, be­gin­ning with words like “bimbo, dog, fat pig.”

Already in the race to re­place GOP Rep. John Kline of Min­nesota, Demo­crats are glee­fully com­par­ing Trump to the state GOP’s en­dorsed can­did­ate, Jason Lewis, who once called young single wo­men “non-think­ing.” Lewis has three Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents, while Demo­crat Angie Craig faces a clear path to the nom­in­a­tion.

In a slate of oth­er races, Demo­crat­ic wo­men are grap­pling with con­tested primar­ies. In New York, for ex­ample, where Colleen Dea­con is hop­ing to chal­lenge Katko, she must first de­feat two oth­er con­tenders. And in Rep. Car­los Cur­belo’s Flor­ida dis­trict, where na­tion­al Demo­crats sup­port An­nette Tad­deo, she trailed former Rep. Joe Gar­cia by sig­ni­fic­ant mar­gins in in­tern­al polls from both cam­paigns.

Most re­cently, Demo­crats suffered a set­back when Melissa Gil­bert ab­ruptly ended her cam­paign for Rep. Mike Bish­op’s seat in Michigan, leav­ing the party scram­bling for a new can­did­ate in a dis­trict it had tar­geted.

On The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port’s list of 36 com­pet­it­ive seats, there are only three fe­male GOP in­cum­bents: Reps. Martha Mc­Sally of Ari­zona, Bar­bara Com­stock of Vir­gin­ia, and Mia Love of Utah. Giv­en the GOP’s his­tor­ic House ma­jor­ity, there are far few­er dis­tricts in which the party can re­cruit new chal­lengers.

Still, there are a hand­ful of open House seats where wo­men could emerge as the GOP nom­in­ee, such as Dar­lene Miller in Kline’s race and Re­becca Neg­ron in the Flor­ida dis­trict be­ing va­cated by Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ate Patrick Murphy.

Out­side of Trump’s po­ten­tial im­pact on swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans in Novem­ber, the busi­ness­man proved a re­cruit­ing tool for at least two of House Demo­crats’ new­est wo­men can­did­ates. In in­ter­views with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Min­nesota state Sen. Terri Bonoff, who is chal­len­ging Rep. Erik Paulsen, and former Col­or­ado state Sen. Gail Schwartz, who is chal­len­ging GOP Rep. Scott Tipton, both cited Trump as part of their cam­paign cal­cu­lus.

“When you’ve got a real­ity TV star and the whole world is watch­ing, it ac­tu­ally puts our na­tion at risk,” Bonoff said.

A day after her primary win in Iowa, Ver­non said in an in­ter­view that she ex­pects her cam­paign to fo­cus heav­ily on the eco­nomy. But she said Trump would be an as­set in her race.

“I cer­tainly think that his mes­sage is not go­ing to res­on­ate,” Ver­non said.

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