Shutdown Spotlights Republicans in the Most Vulnerable Territory

Five Republicans are up for reelection in states and districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick at a demonstration against the partial government shutdown in Philadelphia on Tuesday
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Jan. 9, 2019, 8 p.m.

As GOP leaders seek to maintain a unified front of support for President Trump in government-funding negotiations, the five Republicans in the House and Senate up for reelection in districts and states carried by Hillary Clinton have been some of the party's most outspoken critics of the strategy.

In the Senate, Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado were the first to openly break with the president, who has warned that a shutdown could last for months if he doesn’t receive the requisite funding for construction of a border wall. Across the Capitol, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Will Hurd of Texas, and John Katko of New York were among the several who bucked the party line by twice voting with Democrats on a funding package.

They are among the most at risk in 2020 for ties to the president, who sought to sell his argument to the nation from the Oval Office on Tuesday and trekked to Capitol Hill to speak directly with congressional Republicans on Wednesday.

"I don’t think shutdown politics makes sense," Hurd said in an interview Tuesday night. "I think I’ve proven I know how to win tough races and I know how to win in tough environments. And I think more of my colleagues are going to probably feel the things that I have to deal with."

All three members are among the most moderate Republicans in the House and have decried the shutdown as unfair to federal workers and ignorant of Congress's most essential mandate. As biennial top Democratic targets, they are acutely aware of the political implications of major congressional votes.

Gardner and Collins are under visible pressure as well. They stick out on a map that, while not as generous to Democrats as 2018 was to Republicans, will put the GOP on defense to hold their slim Senate majority. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has jumped to mark both senators as responsible for the consequences of the shutdown.

A crowdfunding campaign has raised nearly $4 million promised to the eventual challenger to Collins over her support for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Collins won her last race with 67 percent of the vote after outspending her opponent by more than 2-to-1. Although Trump carved out one electoral vote in Maine by carrying the 2nd District, Democrat Jared Golden unseated a GOP incumbent there in November.

In increasingly blue-leaning Colorado, Democrats just won control of all the state's levers of power, from the state Senate to the governor's mansion, in addition to unseating battle-tested Republican Rep. Mike Coffman by 11 points.

Democrats are expected to line up to challenge Gardner, who leapt from the House to the Senate on a moderate campaign in 2014. He could even face a heavyweight challenge from popular former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, should he opt against running for president.

“I strongly support efforts to take further action to increase funding for border security and begin to fix our broken immigration system,” Gardner said in a statement following the president’s remarks Tuesday night. “That said, I don’t believe shutting down the government is the best course of action.”

House Democrats held votes Wednesday on another funding bill that would force their GOP colleagues to reject legislation that would reopen specific agencies, providing fodder for TV attack ads down the line. Katko, Fitzpatrick, and Hurd were three of eight GOP members who voted in favor.

Reeling from a 40-seat loss in November, Republicans could face a challenging 2020 landscape, as well. More than two dozen members, many in suburban areas, won reelection by 5 points or less. And while only three are in a district Clinton won in 2016, there are other GOP-held seats Clinton only narrowly lost.

In an interview before the vote series Wednesday, Fitzpatrick said he has voted in the interest of his constituents, who understand that the shutdown jeopardizes national security because of the stresses it places on border patrol, air-traffic control, and the Transportation Security Administration. Congress should compromise on enhancing border security, he said, but not until it reopens the government.

“I come from a centrist, moderate district, “ Fitzpatrick said. “They’re very pragmatic. They’re very rational. And the rational, pragmatic thing to do here is to fund our government. It’s the most basic responsibility of Congress.”

Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, insisted there would be no repercussions from House leadership for members who vote with Democrats.

"They need to represent the people that sent them here and they’ll do that," he said.

Hurd eked out a win in his West Texas district, which spans more than 800 miles of the border, by about 1,000 votes against Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran who has said she's likely to run again in 2020. Clinton carried that seat and Katko's Syracuse-based district by 4 points, and Fitzpatrick's newly redistricted Bucks County seat by 2 points.

Clinton's margin was one of the strongest predictors of Democratic success in 2018. Democrats flipped all but three of the 25 seats she carried. They felled entrenched and battle-tested incumbents such as Carlos Curbelo in South Florida and David Valadao in California's Central Valley, and members such as Mimi Walters in Orange County and Pete Sessions in Dallas, whose districts supported Mitt Romney by double digits in 2012 and had not been seriously contested in years.

Katko and Fitzpatrick likely benefited from somewhat lackluster opponents. Privately, local Democrats complained that Scott Wallace, a wealthy philanthropist who spent years living in South Africa, failed to connect with voters in southeastern Pennsylvania. Republican outside groups found troves of opposition research in his past and hammered him on the airwaves.

In New York, national Democrats were so unenthused with Dana Balter, the college professor challenging Katko, that they pushed a failed Syracuse mayoral candidate into the primary. Balter ultimately secured the nomination and though the race tightened in the final weeks, she still lost by 5 points.

Katko, a former federal prosecutor, touts himself as one the most bipartisan members of Congress. And Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent elected to replace his brother in 2016, has said he essentially ran as an independent.

“I think the biggest problem facing our country is the hyper partisanship on both sides,” Fitzpatrick said.

Meanwhile, Hurd drew national attention in 2017 for streaming a "bipartisan" road trip that he took with then-Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke from Texas to Washington, D.C. He has criticized both Trump and his immigration rhetoric, speaking as a former CIA operative and as the congressman who represents a massive swath of the border.

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