Against the Grain

The Worst House Republican Slackers

The path to a Democratic majority could hinge on whether GOP members in otherwise safe seats blow winnable races.

Rep. Robert Pittenger
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
April 3, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, the cash-flush GOP House super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, is setting aside several million dollars of its resources to bail out Republican stragglers whose campaigns badly underperform before Election Day. The news, confirmed by an operative familiar with the group’s thinking, is yet another sign that Republicans are struggling to manage the growing number of vulnerable members in a treacherous political environment for the party.

Even without these unprepared members in otherwise safe districts, the map is looking increasingly precarious for House Republicans. Democrats need to win back 23 House seats to take the majority, and Republicans are already defending 25 districts that Hillary Clinton carried last year. Add another handful of GOP seats that Donald Trump narrowly carried, and Republicans simply have no room for error. Even a few losses in reliably Republican territory could easily make the difference between a Republican majority and a Nancy Pelosi speakership.

“Saying ‘I’m going to win because I haven’t lost before’ isn’t a campaign plan. And if you’re getting outraised and haven’t started your campaign yet, you can start working harder or begin thinking about a new profession,” said Congressional Leadership Fund executive director Corry Bliss, whose office is adorned with an expansive whiteboard showing a growing roster of members in need of assistance.

After talking with leading GOP operatives involved in House races, I compiled a list of the least prepared Republican members. These members made the cut for poor fundraising, underwhelming polling (public or internal), and/or a voting record out of line with their constituents.

1. Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina

One of the clearest signs of an incumbent in trouble is when he has trouble winning his own primary. Pittenger faces a trifecta of trouble this year: a contested primary against a prominent pastor next month, a well-funded Democratic opponent with a compelling biography, and the demographic churn in a suburban Charlotte district that could flip under ideal circumstances for Democrats.

His expected Democratic opponent, Iraq war veteran Dan McCready, is one of the party’s most compelling recruits. At the end of last year, the Marine banked nearly $1 million for his campaign—about three times as much as Pittenger. McCready’s business and military background offers him valuable personal credibility that’s necessary to flip a seat that Trump carried with 54 percent of the vote.

2. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York

Tenney has always been something of an awkward fit for her central New York district. Succeeding one of the most moderate Republicans in the House, she’s maintained her reputation as a conservative hard-liner during her first year in Congress. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, she drew criticism for saying on a radio show that many people who commit mass murders are Democrats, later dodging questions after receiving national scrutiny for the comments.

A survey conducted last month by the Democratic pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner underscores how badly Tenney is faring. Despite Republicans (still) holding an 8-point lead on the generic ballot in this GOP-friendly district, Tenney trails Democratic opponent Anthony Brindisi by 6 points, 50-44 percent. That degree of underperformance is unusual, even in a difficult national environment. She also ended last year with less campaign cash than Brindisi, another atypical result—and the sign of someone in deep political trouble.

3. Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia

Brat has become something of a trendy bipartisan target lately, but GOP concerns about his reelection prospects are no joke. His fidelity to the deeply conservative Freedom Caucus has put him out of step in his suburban Richmond district, he’s likely to face an impressive Democratic opponent, and he hasn’t (yet) put together the type of team that can win a close race. “All I talk about is policy,” Brat told Politico when asked about his campaign, a sign of the lackadaisical nature of his political operation.

Republicans believe that Brat’s reelection can be salvaged, and they are privately anticipating the need to do so. They aren’t optimistic that he’ll run a first-class campaign, but they believe the GOP lean of the district will ultimately bail him out—with some possible outside help.

4. Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina

When North Carolina Republicans redistricted the state to their advantage, they didn’t anticipate a wave taking out any of their members. But Budd, a freshman elected with little scrutiny in 2016, faces the fight of his career against Democratic attorney Kathy Manning.

There are plenty of reasons that Budd is vulnerable. He barely won 20 percent in a crowded 17-candidate GOP primary in winning the open seat, and still has low name recognition in the expansive district. He grew up in a small town and owns a gun store—in a district that includes a lot of suburban and urban Democrats around fast-growing Greensboro. And his fundraising has been abysmal: He has brought in less than one-third of the money that Manning did in the last quarter of 2017.

5. Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan

Walberg was once a regular inclusion on lists like these after he won his first election to Congress in 2006. Despite running in a comfortably Republican district where Trump won by 17 points, Walberg has never won more than 55 percent of the vote since being elected. In fact, he lost his reelection campaign in 2008 precisely because he was caught napping in an otherwise safe seat.

This year has a feeling of déjà vu. He’s facing a rematch against state legislator Gretchen Driskell, whom he beat handily in 2016. But early polling shows her running much more competitively; a February survey conducted by the Democratic pollster Normington Petts showed Walberg polling only at 41 percent and leading Driskell by just 4 points.

One thing to watch: Walberg was first elected with help from the free-trade-supporting Club for Growth. Attacking Walberg’s trade record was a significant element of Driskell’s campaign two years ago. Trump’s protectionist turn could give Democrats fresh fodder to spark intra-Republican party divisions in this Midwestern district.

HONORABLE MENTION: Rep. John Culberson of Texas

Culberson has become something of a poster child for unprepared members, even though he picked up his fundraising pace late last year—and bolstered his campaign team. He also benefits from Democratic divisions, given that he could end up facing a Democratic opponent (Laura Moser) widely seen as too liberal to win a historically Republican seat around Houston.

But though he may face a weaker-than-expected opponent, Culberson still can’t take his reelection for granted. Even if he puts together a credible campaign, he hasn’t changed his legislative tune in a historically Republican district that Clinton remarkably carried in 2016.

If Culberson loses, it’s as likely to be because the doctrinaire conservative ended up out of step with his own voters. A majority of his constituents are now nonwhite, and the district is filled with members of Houston’s business elite turned off by Trump and more willing than ever to cast a protest vote against a party turning against their interests.

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