The Late-Breaking Democratic House Targets

The party sees fresh opportunities in districts that have previously gone uncontested.

Rep. John Mica greets voters at an event in Maitland, Fla. on Oct. 19.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Oct. 27, 2016, 8 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­ans are likely to re­tain their House ma­jor­ity, but a hand­ful of late-break­ing races are sud­denly for­cing the party to play de­fense in un­ex­pec­ted ter­rit­ory.

Most stun­ningly, na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are steer­ing $1.2 mil­lion to an open seat in In­di­ana that Mitt Rom­ney last car­ried by double di­gits. In Flor­ida, the party is send­ing $1.4 mil­lion to try to bail out vet­er­an Rep. John Mica in a newly re­drawn dis­trict. And in Cali­for­nia, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dar­rell Issa, the wealth­i­est mem­ber of Con­gress, is fight­ing strong head­winds in af­flu­ent sub­urbs where Don­ald Trump is highly un­pop­u­lar.

“There is a col­lect­ive will on the Re­pub­lic­an side to make sure we don’t leave any­thing to chance,” said one GOP strategist in­volved with House races and gran­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “This is a really weird elec­tion.”

To Demo­crats, the new spend­ing sig­nals an en­vir­on­ment break­ing in their fa­vor.

“Some of these Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents have not done the work they needed to shore up their dis­tricts, and we’re see­ing Demo­crat­ic en­thu­si­asm and a dis­taste for the Re­pub­lic­an Party among in­de­pend­ents that very well could lead to pick­ing up one, two, or all three of these seats,” said Alix­an­dria Lapp, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of House Ma­jor­ity PAC.

In In­di­ana’s open 9th Dis­trict, which Trump is ex­pec­ted to com­fort­ably carry, unique can­did­ate cir­cum­stances have promp­ted a rare burst of spend­ing.

Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated Trey Hollings­worth, a Ten­ness­ee busi­ness­man who took a beat­ing in the primary for only re­cently mov­ing to the dis­trict and for heav­ily self-fund­ing. In the months since, even Re­pub­lic­ans con­cede that his im­age hasn’t sig­ni­fic­antly im­proved.

Demo­crat Shelli Yo­der, who was Miss In­di­ana in 1992, of­fers an un­help­ful con­trast for Hollings­worth, and House Ma­jor­ity PAC is spend­ing $650,000 in the dis­trict on her be­half. Hollings­worth’s cam­paign is jump­ing on that out­side help to tie Yo­der to House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi.

“Those mor­als, val­ues, and ideals don’t line up with where Hoo­siers stand,” said Rob Bur­gess, a Hollings­worth spokes­man.

Most GOP strategists be­lieve that Hollings­worth will ul­ti­mately pre­vail thanks to the dis­trict’s par­tis­an lean. And on the whole, Re­pub­lic­ans deny their that new spend­ing there—or in Flor­ida—points to a dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pan­ded bat­tle­field.

“Demo­crats failed to re­cruit in a slew of com­pet­it­ive seats that they des­per­ately needed to win in or­der to ever reach the ma­jor­ity,” said Katie Mar­tin, a spokes­wo­man for the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee.

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans con­cede that they have a re­mark­ably tough fight in Mica’s Cent­ral Flor­ida dis­trict, where the NR­CC dir­ec­ted a late wave of spend­ing.

Un­der Flor­ida’s new con­gres­sion­al map, Pres­id­ent Obama and Mitt Rom­ney would have dead­locked in the 7th Dis­trict with 49 per­cent of the vote. Demo­crats fielded polit­ic­al new­comer Stephanie Murphy, a na­tion­al se­cur­ity spe­cial­ist who fled com­mun­ist Vi­et­nam by boat with her fam­ily. Already, Demo­crat­ic groups have shelled out nearly $4 mil­lion to boost her bid.

Even Re­pub­lic­ans lament that the 38-year-old Murphy is a com­pel­ling can­did­ate against Mica, a 12-term in­cum­bent. Privately, they grumble that Mica could have done more to in­su­late him­self from a chal­lenge, in­tro­du­cing him­self earli­er to the por­tion of the dis­trict he didn’t pre­vi­ously rep­res­ent and amass­ing stronger fun­drais­ing hauls.

In an in­ter­view, Mica pushed back against cri­ti­cism that he has not run an ag­gress­ive enough cam­paign. Ac­cord­ing to his in­tern­al polling, he ad­ded, he is beat­ing Murphy in the part of the dis­trict that is new.

“They don’t have a clue,” he said of his crit­ics with­in the party. “We tar­geted the new part of the dis­trict in the primary. We walked it, we called it, we mailed it—you couldn’t do any more than we did.”

But the NR­CC still saw reas­on to pump in $1.4 mil­lion for him in the race’s fi­nal two weeks, launch­ing its first TV ad Wed­nes­day.

In Cali­for­nia, Re­pub­lic­ans also be­lieve Issa waited too long to mount a for­mid­able cam­paign. His race took on na­tion­al at­ten­tion in June, when Demo­crat Doug Ap­pleg­ate pulled in a sur­pris­ing 45 per­cent of the vote in the top-two primary after run­ning a fairly mod­est cam­paign.

Re­pub­lic­ans said Issa could have shut down this race by spend­ing more money over the sum­mer, but he only re­cently went on the air. Mean­while, Issa has emerged as a strong sup­port­er of Trump, un­like many of his vul­ner­able GOP col­leagues.

“This is a great proof point for the im­pact Trump has had,” said Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Ben Tulchin, who works on the race for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s in­de­pend­ent-ex­pendit­ure arm.

The NR­CC has not spent in the 49th Dis­trict, per­haps a res­ult of Issa’s per­son­al wealth. Demo­crat­ic groups have steered more than $3 mil­lion to the dis­trict.

“I think Nancy Pelosi is cer­tainly com­ing after the con­gress­man, and I think the con­gress­man wanted to make sure we were us­ing our money in the best way pos­sible,” said Issa spokes­man Calv­in Moore, de­fend­ing the cam­paign’s spend­ing de­cisions.

Some oth­er re­cent in­vest­ments from GOP groups have raised eye­brows. The NR­CC launched an ad this week in Min­nesota tar­get­ing Demo­crat Terri Bonoff, des­pite pub­lic polls show­ing Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Erik Paulsen com­fort­ably lead­ing. The DCCC is con­tinu­ing to spend money in the race, and House Ma­jor­ity PAC re­cently ad­ded $800,000 to the dis­trict, after can­celing re­ser­va­tions there last month, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­crat­ic source.

The Amer­ic­an Ac­tion Net­work is in­vest­ing in Vir­gin­ia’s 5th Dis­trict and Pennsylvania’s 16th Dis­trict, part of the GOP group’s ef­forts to build a Re­pub­lic­an fire­wall, along with its sis­ter su­per PAC, the Con­gres­sion­al Lead­er­ship Fund.

An ex­pand­ing map is un­ques­tion­ably a pos­it­ive for Demo­crats, but the party likely won’t be match­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in some of those reach dis­tricts.

“We are really only lim­ited by our budget in terms of the places we can go play,” Lapp said.

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