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
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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