Eight Congressional Races Could Decide if Biden Beats Trump

In 2018 Democrats flipped 41 Republican House seats, 23 of them in districts that Donald Trump won in 2016. This year Democrats are hoping those midterm wins stick for a second round—and turn out to have been harbingers of growing dissatisfaction with Trump among conservatives and independents, dissatisfaction that could now be decisive in the race for the White House. The logic: if some GOP voters will vote for moderate Democrats in the House, they should also, after nearly four years of Trump, be willing to cast their ballots for a moderate in the White House.

Eight of the flipped seats are in three key states Trump won by narrow, and in one case razor-thin, margins: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. All eight of those freshman Democrats are running for re-election this year and those elections are being closely watched by the brass of both parties. "The districts Democrats flipped in 2018 are the places where we might expect to see the most voters move from Trump to Biden, but there aren't many of them," says Dave Wasserman, House Editor for The Cook Political Report, which is nonpartisan. "These are largely suburban seats with swaths of voters who used to support Republicans and have shifted pretty strongly over."

The Democrats are making a big bet on a small group of voters. In the U.S. system, though, a relative handful of votes can make a huge difference. Citizens vote, but it's the Electoral College that actually elects the president. All the electors of a given state are awarded to whichever candidate wins the popular vote. Trump won in 2016 even though he lost the popular vote nationwide, because he eked out popular vote wins in elector-rich states. And if Biden can do the same (or better) this year he'll win the White House.

Every Little Bit Hurts

In 2016 Trump won the popular vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, but not by much. He got Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes by winning 48.8 percent of the popular vote to Clinton's 47.6 percent and he won Florida's 29 electors by getting 48.6 percent of the popular vote to Clinton's 47.4 percent, differences of 1.2 and 1.5 percentage points respectively.

Clockwise from left: Conor Lamb, Elissa Slotkin, Haley Steven, Donna Shalala, Chrissy Houlahan Illustration by Gluekit; Source images: Getty 5

The narrowest and bitterest defeat for Clinton, though, came in Michigan, which had not gone for a Republican for president since 1992. Trump, helped by Clinton's inept campaign in the state, won Michigan's 16 electors by winning the popular vote by only 0.3 percent. Of the 4.8 million votes cast that year in Michigan, a state of about 10 million people, Trump got only 11,000 more than Clinton. Put another way: Trump's microscopic margin of victory was even tinier than the pitiful average attendance last season (18,767) at Detroit Tiger home games. (The woeful Tigers lost 114 of 161 games, finishing in the basement of the American League East).

For the 2018 midterms, the Democrats worked to overcome their 2016 nightmare in Michigan and elsewhere, by choosing candidates in conservative-leaning states who could plausibly be positioned as non-ideological pragmatists. In Michigan's sprawling 8th District, which Trump had won by 6.7 percent, the candidate was Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst. The 8th, which was redrawn after the 2010 census, is a vaguely pot and handle shaped "purple" district, a mix of suburbs, small cities and farms. It is about 80 percent white and had not sent a Democrat to Congress in more than 20 years. While most of the district is reliably conservative, the part of it in Ingham County, which includes the state capital Lansing, usually goes Democratic and the party has also made inroads in some of the district's affluent and growing suburbs. As Slotkin recently told Politico, "This is a microcosm. All of the crosswinds of the country in one district that's an hour and 30 minutes across."

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) speaks during news conference discussing the "Shutdown to End All Shutdowns (SEAS) Act" on January 29, 2019 in Washington, D Zach Gibson/Getty

While maintaining liberal bona fides on issues like abortion rights, LGBTQ equality and Trump's attempts to kill Obamacare without a replacement, Slotkin ran as a centrist eager to reach across the aisle. She avoided the subject of Trump himself as much as possible and beat Republican Mike Bishop by 3.8 percentage points or about 19,000 votes. Since then she's co-founded the House's bipartisan Servicewomen and Women Veteran caucus; voted for Trump's U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement; backed a $4.6 billion border security bill that nearly 100 other House Democrats opposed; and co-sponsored a series of bills with Republicans to use more tech tools to fortify the nation's borders. "Any illegal crossing into the United States should remain illegal. We have the right to know who is coming into my country. That's pretty different than a lot of my peers including the Speaker of the House," she says.

Slotkin's challenger for re-election this year is Republican Paul Junge, a former prosecutor and TV newscaster. Democrats are hoping, naturally, that Slotkin, a formidable campaigner, will win. But they also hope the same moderate pitch that's worked for her in central Michigan will help Biden there. Trump won the 8th District by 6.7 percentage points in 2016. Democrats don't think the district's conservatives and independents have turned into liberals since then, but they are betting those who went for Slotkin in 2018 will vote for Biden now. A top Democratic official in Michigan who asked not to be named describes the party's thinking like this: "If you didn't like the guy who put kids in cages and kept trying to take away your health insurance two years ago, what has happened since then to make him seem any better? 175,000 dead people and 20 percent unemployment?" (According to the Labor Department, the official unemployment rate is about 10 percent, although some economists say that significantly undercounts the number of jobless people.)

Slotkin, however, doesn't think it is going to be easy. "This is a Republican gerrymandered district. That's just the reality. We can win here, but we're going to have to work for it. If anyone thinks that we can rest on our laurels and just coast into a victory, I'm sorry, that doesn't reflect what I'm hearing and seeing in my district."

Not The Squad

The seven other Congressional districts that could make the difference for Biden this year include those represented by Haley Stevens, also of Michigan; Conor Lamb, Chrissy Houlahan, Susan Wild and Mary Gay Scanlon all of Pennsylvania; and Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, both of Florida. Houlahan, who wrested a suburban Philadelphia district from Republican control, says, "I believe that we can win for the vice president in my district. We lost Pennsylvania by something like 40,000 votes [in 2016] and I think we can find them in my district." (According to Politico, the actual number was more like 68,000.)

If all eight incumbent Democrats share a strategic theme and image ("I am a reasonable moderate who gets along with Republicans and so is Joe Biden"), so do their GOP challengers ("Don't be fooled again. Under those mild-mannered exteriors lurk fanatical Bolsheviks"). In a YouTube video, Lamb's opponent, Sean Parnell, calls him "Nancy Pelosi's biggest supporter." Maria Elvira Salazar, who lost to Shalala in 2018 and is challenging her again this fall, says Shalala has been "disturbingly silent" while "some members of her party peddle the same radical Socialist agenda that has ruined the countries from which many of us escaped." And Slotkin's opponent Junge says she votes "90 percent of the time with the radical liberal squad of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urges the Senate to pass the Heroes Act during a news conference in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol July 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The GOP challengers also like to point out that when they were candidates in 2018, all eight Democrats said they were not interested in impeaching Trump and were open to supporting someone other than Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. Once elected, they all voted for Pelosi (except for Lamb who voted for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III and Slotkin who voted "present") and for impeaching the president. Junge, who worked in the Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services office before returning to Michigan last year, says Slotkin betrayed the promise she made to voters in 2018: " She said she would be an independent-minded, bipartisan representative. The message then was, 'Well, if you don't like a few things here and there, I'll be independent-minded.' That's not how she has voted."

Slotkin says she changed her mind on impeachment only after Trump's Ukraine shenanigans proved too outrageous to ignore and did so reluctantly: "I can't think of something I would want to work on less than impeachment in my first term as a Democratic representative of a Republican-leaning district, and frankly, I resisted it for a long time." Slotkin says she's at peace with her vote to impeach, but she took a fair amount of heat at town halls from unhappy constituents.

Rather than partisan battles, she and the other Democratic incumbents prefer to talk about the times they've reached across the aisle. "We passed nine provisions into law, all of them bipartisan," Slotkin says. "We've introduced another 22 in the House, all bipartisan."

They also like to talk about the times they challenged their party's leadership from the right. Michigan's Haley Stevens, who was elected co-president of the Democratic freshman class, points to a letter she wrote to Pelosi urging support for Trump's new trade deal with Canada and Mexico "for the health of Michigan's economy, for the health of Michigan's workforce, for the health of Michigan's small businesses. It wasn't a popular thing, it wasn't like leadership was asking me to do that." Pennsylvania's Conor Lamb notes he voted against the HEROES Act, the House Democrats' $3 trillion COVID-19 relief package which has languished since its May passage, because he "didn't think it was well-constructed."

Indeed, for all the hype around The Squad and the defeats this summer of moderate incumbents by Squad-style upstarts, the reality is Democrats won the House in 2018 by running centrists. The Cook Report's Wasserman says, "The overwhelming number of Democrats who came in were more moderate, business-oriented members."

Donna Shalala photographed on Feb. 13, 2018. Jose A. Iglesias/el Nuevo Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty

Shalala, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services whose last job before running for Congress was as president of the University of Miami, agrees: "The freshman class has given Speaker Pelosi the most centrist caucus anyone has ever had because so many people that were elected had non-political jobs before they flipped seats, which meant that they weren't either to the left or the right. They were pragmatic. I described myself as a pragmatic progressive."

Not that you're likely to hear that from any Republicans. According to Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann, "You're gonna hear the words 'socialist' and 'extremist' a lot, there will be a lot of images of looters, I wouldn't discount any of those things as being effective messages for Republicans." Grossmann adds, though, it's not clear that tactic will work well this year because: 1) Biden, the man at the top of the ticket, is nobody's idea of a revolutionary; and 2) the Democrats who won Republican seats in 2018 have worked hard to separate themselves from their party's left.

Stuck With Trump

If the eight Democrats have avoided being linked to their party's progressives, most of their GOP opponents remain identified with Trump. That became a liability when COVID-19 and its economic fallout sent his popularity plummeting. David O'Connell, a political science professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., who is tracking the Pennsylvania races, says, "Things have changed so dramatically in the last few months. I was fully confident Trump was going to win re-election in February. His approval ratings were similar to Obama at the end of the third year and he had a great economy. No incumbent has ever lost with those situations."

Now Trump's weak poll numbers leave loyal supporters like Junge in a bind. He says: "I voted for President Trump in 2016, I served in the Trump administration and I will campaign and urge people to vote for him to win re-election in 2020. Whether there's wisdom to being tied to the president or not, I am."

The Cook Report's Wasserman says that while many Republican House candidates had to show support for Trump to fend off right-wing challengers in the primaries "it's probably not an asset in the general election. Even though Trump carried these Michigan districts in 2016, he didn't win by that big a share of the vote and his standing is lower now than it was then."

Members-elect from the 116th Congress pose for the freshman class photo on the East Front of the Capitol on November 14, 2018 Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

A few Republicans are attempting to position themselves as the bipartisan independents they say the Democratic incumbents promised to be. In Florida, Carlos Gimenez is giving Debbie Mucarsel-Powell a serious challenge by touting his 2016 vote for Hillary Clinton and by criticizing Trump for failing to wear a mask in public amid the COVID-19 crisis. In Michigan's 11th District, Haley Stevens' GOP challenger Eric Esshaki, a Chaldean Christian whose father immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq, is frustrated that Trump has scaled back the U.S. asylum program and left thousands of Christian refugees from ISIS and other Muslim regimes to languish. He's also unhappy with the continuous efforts to kill Obamacare without offering any other plan. "You can't repeal without a replacement, it's been implemented now for too long," he says. "You would essentially pull the rug out from underneath private insurance companies and destroy the market."

Dickinson College's O'Connell agrees with The Cook Report's Wasserman that Lamb, Houlahan and the other Pennsylvania Democratic incumbents will probably retain their seats and that could boost Biden. But success, he says, could come at a price. "If Biden wins, then Lamb is targeted in 2022 and he'll be one of the most endangered Democrats in the country, the type of person who definitely loses his seat in a midterm swing election," he says. In the meantime, it remains to be seen whether the eight Democratic freshmen will be able to not only win re-election but also draw significant numbers of votes to Biden. All of their districts have big Republican and independent populations and despite the wins of 2018, none of the incumbents is considered a lock this year.

Slotkin could easily be speaking for all of them when she says, "It's a competitive district, it's always going to be a competitive district. It's a very independently minded district. And that's good. It keeps you on your toes.