House Democrats Make Final Recruiting Push

Several key battlegrounds could still see new candidates emerge.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Headquarters in Washington on Nov. 8, 2016.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Dec. 21, 2017, 7:59 p.m.

House Democrats are enjoying a nationwide candidate windfall, but they’re also heading into 2018 with a few lingering holes.

The party is still recruiting in some of the 23 GOP-held districts that Hillary Clinton won last year. That includes two seats in California’s Central Valley, held by Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao, and Rep. John Katko’s Syracuse, New York-based district.

And a few unexpected developments in the past week have created a little more uncertainty. Sexual-misconduct allegations felled front-runners in two Democratic targets in suburban Philadelphia and Kansas City, while also forcing freshman Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen to announce his retirement from a vulnerable Las Vegas district.

The absence of impressive, well-funded contenders in these seats is notable among an abundance of such candidates in districts across the map, including seats that haven’t been seriously contested in years. Democrats appear to be on the verge of a big midterm cycle, but recruitment failures in these seats, particularly the Valadao district, where Clinton won by 16 points, could complicate the path back to the majority.

“Every cycle, no matter how good, is not perfect in terms of filling every seat with an A-grade candidate,” said Rep. Denny Heck, who leads recruitment for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s not possible to hit a home run every time you stand up at the plate. That ought not to be the standard by which anyone is measuring.”

Democrats have “what we deem to be only four meaningful holes,” said Heck, who declined to reveal the entire list but acknowledged it includes the Katko and Valadao districts. The committee is still assessing whether it will need to re-recruit in districts held by Republican Reps. Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, where there are already other declared candidates with six figures in the bank.

To be sure, there is still time to continue the process next year. Candidate filing deadlines are in March in California and Pennsylvania, April in New York, and June in Kansas.

As they assess their current fields in the Central Valley, House Democrats are also continuing to speak with prospective candidates in search of the best fit. To take on Valadao, the DCCC is in talks with Steve Schilling, the CEO of a chain of health clinics that serve low-income migrant communities, according to sources familiar with conversations among party leaders.

National Democrats appear to be unenthused by Valadao’s 2016 challenger, Emilio Huerta, who is running again but has reported raising only $70,000 so far. The son of civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, he benefits from a beloved name, but some observers said he ran a lackluster campaign last year, and the DCCC felt the need to spend on his behalf to ensure he cleared the primary against a less viable candidate.

State Assemblyman Rudy Salas hasn’t publicly ruled out a bid, and a DCCC automated poll conducted in the spring showed Salas beating Valadao, according to a state party delegate familiar with the polling.

Democrats are increasingly upbeat about Denham’s Modesto-based district. An automated poll released this week by the Democratic group Patriot Majority found Denham taking just 41 percent to 49 percent for a generic Democrat.

Eight Democrats have already filed for the seat, which Clinton won by 3 points, but the party is continuing to talk with prospective candidates. Josh Harder, who had more than $500,000 on hand by the end of September, might be the strongest current contender, but some consultants worry his profile as a venture capitalist won’t resonate in a district with a median income of $54,000.

Michael Eggman is among the candidates the DCCC has reached out to there, and the local beekeeper is considering a third run at the urging of state and national Democratic groups, according to sources close to him. Though Eggman ruled out a comeback in June, sources said the DCCC has encouraged him to run with an automated poll conducted by the committee in the spring that found him beating Denham. It also recently commissioned a fresh one.

In upstate New York, outgoing Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has toyed with both a House run and a primary challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She ruled out a congressional bid in October, only to reverse that position a month later after Katko voted for the GOP tax overhaul.

The DCCC has received mixed signals from Miner, whom it has tried to land in past years. Heck said officials are also pursuing another candidate who may be more likely to jump in if Miner doesn’t.

Katko, who was reelected last year by 22 points, is the only New York Republican in a district Clinton won.

“If you’re going to win the majority, you’ve got to pick up two to four seats in New York,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who held a Long Island seat and chaired the DCCC while in Congress. “It’s much harder picking up two to four seats in New York without winning that district.”

House Democrats renewed recruiting efforts in a suburban Philadelphia district when it became clear their top candidate, state Sen. Daylin Leach, was being accused of sexual misconduct, according to Democratic sources in the district.

Sources said the DCCC recently approached Tanner Rouse, a former Philadelphia prosecutor and current state Senate candidate, about running for Congress. The committee also reached out to Dave Foster, an Army veteran and founder of a real estate development company, a source said. It’s not clear if either will run.

Dan Muroff, who challenged former Rep. Chaka Fattah in a primary in a neighboring seat last year, is already in the race and has brought in $300,000 so far. But he could face residency blowback, having moved into the district to run.

Another sexual-harassment scandal could give Democrats a headache in Kansas’s 3rd District. The departure of front-runner Andrea Ramsey has created a vacuum. Teacher Tom Niermann now leads in fundraising, but Bernie Sanders-aligned attorney Brent Welder is also in the race and was endorsed this week by Ramsey and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander.

Also running is last year’s nominee, Jay Sidie, who lost by 10 points after disappearing from the trail in the final stretch of the campaign. He enjoys high name ID after being the beneficiary of significant outside spending in 2016.

An incredibly favorable environment, evidenced by double-digit leads in recent generic ballots, means the Democrats could win seats even with unexceptional recruits. And it also likely lessens their defensive burden. Republicans have struggled to land credible challengers for some of their top Democratic targets.

On the whole, Democratic recruiting has been gangbusters, with the party drafting the kind of five-star candidates that have forced red districts in Utah, Kentucky, and Kansas onto the map. Victories in those seats could compensate for holes elsewhere.

Diversity of offensive targets could be an asset, Israel said, because swing-seat members in the top tier are the ones most prepared to withstand wave conditions.

“It’s tier two and tier three where you can beat incumbents while they’re not looking,” he said, “and that’s where recruiting becomes very strategic and more important.”

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