Against the Grain

The Five Most Compelling House Showdowns

These are the races to watch for a sense of where the political winds are headed for 2018.

Amy McGrath, with her husband, Erik Henderson, waves to supporters after being elected as the Democratic candidate for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District on May 22 in Richmond, Ky.
AP Photo/James Crisp
June 26, 2018, 8 p.m.

After Tuesday’s round of primaries, nearly two-thirds of states will have picked their congressional nominees—with the contours of the House battleground map becoming a lot clearer.

Hotline published its list of districts most likely to flip last week, but this column offers a different spin on the House race lineup. These races are top priorities for both parties as each side tries to forge a majority for the next Congress. All feature compelling candidates, and shed light on the driving forces in the battle for Congress.

1. Kentucky-06: Rep. Andy Barr (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

This race is the ultimate bellwether. Early polling shows McGrath, a former Marine pilot, leading Barr in a district where President Trump is still widely popular. But Republicans are confident that once they nationalize the race, the numbers will tighten considerably. There’s a rural-urban divide in this seat that Republicans will try to exploit: The state’s Democratic base of Lexington represents about 40 percent of the district’s voters, but its GOP-friendly rural surrounding counties make up a majority of the electorate.

On Election Day, Kentucky polls will be the first to close in the country. If McGrath scores an early upset, it will be a very encouraging sign for the Democrats’ prospects for a House majority. A McGrath victory would indicate that Democrats are capable of winning back blue-collar Trump voters and expanding the House map.

2. Pennsylvania-17: Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) vs. Rep. Conor Lamb (D)

It’s not often you get a House race featuring two congressmen facing each other, but the new map in Pennsylvania forced rising Democratic star Lamb to challenge Rothfus in a district that’s evenly divided between Trump and Clinton voters. In a sign of the contest’s importance, Vice President Mike Pence flew into Pittsburgh last week for a fundraiser with the embattled GOP congressman.

Trump’s protectionist push was designed in part to win over steelworkers in blue-collar districts like this. But medical and fracking jobs are now bigger drivers of the region’s economy than steel. Lamb managed to win in a more conservative district despite the president’s tariff threats. Another Democratic victory would underscore the political futility of opposing free trade.

3. Texas-32: Rep. Pete Sessions (R) vs. Colin Allred (D)

As my colleague Ronald Brownstein would put it, this race will test whether the “coalition of the ascendant” is prevailing in the age of Trump or the “forces of restoration” will remain in this rapidly diversifying suburban Dallas district. Sessions is a longtime loyal soldier with close ties to House Republican leadership. Allred, his Democratic opponent, is an African-American former NFL player now working as a civil-rights attorney. You couldn’t draw up a greater cultural contrast.

Sessions will be promoting the Trump tax cuts as a major boon to this white-collar district, boosting corporations and upper-income voters alike. If that doesn’t keep this district red, it will demonstrate the booming economy isn’t enough to protect Republicans.

4. California-45: Rep. Mimi Walters (R) vs. Katie Porter (D)

Democrats are growing increasingly confident that voters will be receptive to liberal messaging on health care, with numerous candidates running on the vague-sounding Medicare-for-all message. Porter has gone even further, supporting a single-payer, government-run system where everyone is covered. She’s an acolyte of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and isn’t afraid to tout progressive policy prescriptions in one of the wealthiest districts in the country.

Not long ago, it would have been remarkable to hear a Democrat calling for socialized medicine in Orange County, the onetime conservative heartland of California. And some Democrats are still uncomfortable over how such rhetoric will play here. This race is a test between whether swing voters will punish reflexive partisanship—Walters voted for Trump’s tax cuts and Obamacare repeal—or whether they’re more worried about the liberalism of the opposition.

5. California-25: Rep. Steve Knight (R) vs. Katie Hill (D)

At 30, Hill is one of the youngest and most intriguing frontline congressional nominees in the country. The director of the largest homelessness nonprofit in the state, she cuts a moderate profile as a small-farm owner who knows how to shoot a gun. But on other cultural issues, she offers a millennial vibe: Hill is openly bisexual and is an outspoken activist on LGBT issues. She let a documentary crew from Vice News get an inside look at the campaign. (It’s probably the first time you’ll hear a candidate talk about their “resting bitch face” in a documentary.)

This is shaping up to be a banner year for both women and political outsiders. But Hill still needs to do traditional electioneering, like turning out normally disengaged Hispanic voters and convincing older voters that’s she’s ready. Regardless of the outcome, her campaign will be fun to watch.

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