Democrats will need to flip 11 Southern seats or make make up the difference elsewhere
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
(CFP) — With President Trump’s approval ratings at historically low levels, Democrats have high hopes of taking back the U.S. House in 2018. But those hopes are tempered by a giant geographic obstacle standing in their way — namely, the South.
To reclaim the House, Democrats need to flip 24 seats, shifting about 10 percent of the seats that Republicans now hold. And nearly half of the GOP caucus — 114 seats — is from the South, where Republican House members outnumber Democrats by 3-to-1.
So a 10 percent shift in the South would require winning 11 seats, in a region where Democrats won just two seats in 2016 (both in Florida and neither yet safe.) If Democrats fall short of that total, they will need to shift an even higher percentage of seats throughout the rest of the country — as much as 19 percent if they come up empty in the South.
And as Democrats plot and plan to add to their meager total of 40 Southern House seats, two recent special elections for open seats offer decidedly mixed omens on their chances for overturning the GOP’s hegemony.
In South Carolina’s 5th District, the swing away from Trump’s 2016 numbers in the special election was nearly 20 percent — not enough for Democrat Archie Parnell to win but a much bigger scare than Republicans had expected. Indeed, if that 20-point swing could be replicated across the South in 2018, 42 GOP-held seats could potentially be in play, more than Democrats would need to return Nancy Pelosi to the speaker’s chair.
But the results in the other race, in Georgia’s 6th District, pour substantial caution on such irrational exuberance. Republican Karen Handel kept the seat by running slightly ahead of Trump, in a race where Democrats spent a whopping $30 million and still came up short.
And this district in the northern Atlanta suburbs is exactly the kind of place where Democrats will need to compete to claw away at Republican dominance in the South next year — increasingly diverse, maturing suburbs whose upscale, educated voters, though conservative by inclination, are somewhat wary of Trump’s stewardship of the GOP brand.
If Democrats couldn’t win this race for an open seat in a low-turnout special election with a highly energized base and a president with historically low approval ratings, flipping these seats in 2018 will be a tall order indeed, particularly given Trump’s solid base of support in the South.
So where can Democrats start? Their first targets will be three majority Latino districts in metro Miami, all of which have large numbers of Cuban-American voters. Trump lost two of these districts and only narrowly won the third.
Veteran GOP U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring, and Republicans will be hard pressed to keep her seat in a district Trump lost by 20 points. But in the other two districts, Democrats will have to unseat incumbents Carlos Curbelo, who has gone out of this way to distance himself from Trump, and Mario Diaz-Balart, who has been winning congressional elections with relative ease since 2002.
Democrats are also likely to target four other Southern districts where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump last year, which include three seats in Texas and one in Virginia. The GOP, however, has held three of these districts, in varying configurations, for decades.
The Virginia seat, in the Washington D.C. suburbs, is held by Barbara Comstock, who first won it in 2014 and was narrowly re-elected in 2016. Even at this early date, she has already drawn six Democratic challengers in a district that, like the rest of Virginia, has become more hospitable to Democrats over the last decade.
In Texas, the climb for Democrats will be steeper. Clinton won the 32nd District in suburban Dallas, but that seat is held by Pete Sessions, a GOP titan who won by 52 points in 2016. She also won the 7th District in suburban Houston, where John Culberson ran well ahead of Trump to win by 12 points.
While Democrats appear eager to try to unseat both (Culberson already has seven challengers and Sessions nine), these districts have long Republican pedigrees reminiscent of Georgia’s 6th District, which was once represented by Newt Gingrich. Former President George H.W. Bush began his political career in the 7th District in 1967; former President George W. Bush’s Dallas home is in the 32nd.
Democrats may have more luck in Texas’s 23rd District, which stretches from the suburbs of San Antonio across rural West Texas. This district is part of an ongoing legal fight over the state’s 2013 redistricting map, and a panel of federal judges is considering changes that could make it more difficult for Republican Will Hurd to hang on for a third term.
After those Clinton-won districts, the next set of seats Democrats might logically target are those where Trump’s winning margin was less than 10 points and where it would take less than a 10-point swing from the 2016 congressional results to put the seat in Democratic hands. But that list contains a scant eight seats — four in Texas, two in North Carolina and one each in Florida and Virginia. None of them are open at this point.
After that, the pickings get even slimmer — places like Arkansas’s 2nd District, where a Democrat can carry Little Rock only to get swamped by the Republican vote in the suburbs, and Florida’s 3rd District, where liberal-leaning Gainesville is subsumed in a sea of more traditional, conservative Southern voters. To be competitive in these districts, Democrats would have to commit to putting resources into races where chances of victory would appear, at the moment, to be rather remote.
So if Democrats can’t move the playing field into these second and third tiers, they have a reasonable shot at just seven Republican-held Southern seats, five of which have been in GOP hands for decades and all but one of which is likely to have an incumbent. And any anti-Trump tide that helps them in other parts of the country will likely not crest as high in the South.
With a lot of angry voters and a lot of luck, Democrats may indeed swing enough seats in 2018 to win control of the House. But as Republicans try to stop them, their ace in the hole is their dominance across the South, which should give them plenty of reason for confidence.