One of the best parts of working at the Cook Political Report is the chance to meet the candidates who are running for Congress. Data analytics, polling and digital optimization can’t capture the most essential and important part of any campaign: the candidate him/herself. And, while many of the candidates we meet with won’t be successful, we can get a pretty good sense of what the incoming class of freshman members will look, sound and act like from sitting down with them before the election. After meeting lots of the 2010 GOP challengers, for example, it became pretty clear that this was a group of anti-establishment figures who weren’t interested in playing by the old set of rules. House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan have found this out the hard way.
This week, my colleague David Wasserman and I had the chance to sit down with a dozen Democratic candidates for the House. All but one were running in GOP-held seats. These twelve represent different parts of the country; suburban, rural, coastal and Midwestern, border towns and districts far from Canada or Mexico. Not all will win, and one was a more of a long shot. But, the rest are running in very competitive to extremely competitive races. Here were our takeaways from a cross-section of the potential Class of 2018:
Of the 12 candidates we met, two thirds were under 40. Most were in their early 30’s.
They grew up in the George W. Bush era, and 9/11 happened during their formative years. Many had just started college or were completing their studies in 2001. At least one of them dropped out of school to enlist in the Marines, another joined ROTC and served two tours in Iraq. One said it prompted him to start his career in public service.
Only four of the 12 hold elective office or have ever run for office. Most of the others, however, are policy veterans. Some worked in the Obama White House or other branches of the federal government during the Obama era. Others worked as advocates in their states/districts on issues ranging from voting rights to child advocacy to housing issues. In other words, they aren’t your local dentists or lawyers or business owners who suddenly got “fed up” or “activated” to service. Their lives have long been defined by activism of one sort or another. However, their work and their lives have been happening outside of the districts they hope to represent. Which leads to observation #4.
Almost half of the candidates we met this week moved back to their districts post-2016. This opens them up to charges of political opportunism. And, while some will be able to point to their military service as their excuse for their long absence, others are going to have a harder time justifying the quick turn-around from unpacking a moving truck to opening a congressional campaign.
If 9/11 was one event that altered the trajectory of their lives, election night 2016 was the other. At least three told us of stories of their 2016 election night parties descending from one of early evening giddiness to late night despair; where champagne was exchanged for harder alcohol and the cute ‘blue’ state cookies and sheet cakes they baked were being devoured in anger instead of joy. One candidate said he ended that night “in shock and devastation.” And yet...
Almost all say it was the vote taken last spring in the House to repeal Obamacare that ultimately pushed them to run. They spoke of their own experiences with health care crises from a child born with health problems to a mom diagnosed with cancer to family members with disabilities. They plan to make health care, not the president, the focus on their campaigns. One said of his GOP opponent, “I’m going to beat over his head from now until November his vote to repeal the ACA.”
These Democrats are running in GOP-held CD’s, not safely Democratic New York city. All were against abolishing ICE. None are talking up “a federal jobs guarantee.” However, like Ocasio-Cortez, they are touting the fact that they won’t raise corporate PAC money. And, like her, they’d like Democrats do more than just fix what’s broken in Obamacare. Most support Medicare for All or a public option. Republicans are likely to call these plans government over-reach; an expensive proposition that will cost taxpayers billions and separate patients from their long-standing relationships with their own doctors. Even so, Democrats I’ve spoken with, said they’d like the fight in the fall to be on health care terrain. They argue that Democrats are more trusted on the issue than Republicans; Republicans have to defend an unpopular bill; and voters still don’t know much about what Medicare for all means.
When asked directly about supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker, four said outright that they would not. The others said they wanted to see “new leadership” but wouldn’t rule out voting for Pelosi. This is not an insignificant number of top-tier candidates who are not just distancing themselves from Pelosi, but are openly declaring their vote against her. The more of these candidates who are part of the freshman class, the harder it is to see a path to 218 for the now-Minority leader.
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