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Insight: Republicans find themselves playing defense in Southern U.S. House races

Across the region, at least 30 House seats are potentially competitive, all of them now in GOP hands

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

A month away from the 2018 midterm election, Republicans in the South are finding themselves in a situation they haven’t faced in several election cycles.

Namely, playing defense in U.S. House races.

Currently, at least 30 seats are either highly or potentially competitive across the 14 Southern states. And not one of those seats is now held by a Democrat.

Of course, this disparity is to be expected, given that Republicans hold 114 Southern House seats to just 40 for Democrats. With such a dominant majority, the GOP has more of the field to defend.

However, the fluid situation in 2018 stands in stark contrast to 2016, when Democrats managed to take away just two seats anywhere in the South, and in 2014, when Democrats suffered a net loss of three seats.

Democratic opportunities have opened up across the region, including a few isolated districts in states such as Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina, where President Donald Trump won massive victories in 2016.

But the Democrats’ biggest hopes of trying to chip away at the Republicans’ Southern hegemony lie in suburban swing districts in the largest Southern states, including Florida, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.

Of the 11 highly competitive districts, three are in Virginia and two each are in Florida, Texas and North Carolina. There are also two seats in metro Atlanta where Republicans are currently favored but Democrats are within striking distance.

Of the six Republican-held seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, the Republican candidate is currently ahead in just one, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s seat in West Texas.

Those five seats are perhaps the most endangered. But Democrats also have a decent shot at seats in the Kentucky Bluegrass, metro Little Rock and the coalfields of southern West Virginia.

And in Texas, which has been a wasteland for Democrats for the better part of three decades, at least eight House seats are competitive in 2018.

What has made the difference for Democrats in this election cycle as opposed to 2014 and 2016? Part of the answer may be money.

According to Federal Election Commission reports, 16 Democratic House nominees have raised more than $1 million, led by Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th District, who raised more than $3 million. Another nominee, Clarke Tucker in Arkansas’s 2nd District, is likely to break the million dollar barrier before all is said and done.

Money does not, by itself, make a seat competitive. But anyone who has a million dollars to spend on a House race has to be taken seriously, no matter the traditional partisan lean of the district.

Having to play defense in the South also has significant implications for Republican chances of keeping control of the House.

The region has been the GOP’s big red wall, supplying nearly 60 percent of its House majority. So any erosion in that wall is an unwelcome development, particularly in an election where polls show Democrats with a lead in the generic congressional ballot.

Still, one should be careful not to overstate Democratic prospects in the South in 2018. If Democrats take half of the current seats that are toss-ups and Republicans hold all the seats where they are now ahead, the net Democratic gain across the region would only be six seats.

However, given that Democrats only need to shift a net of 24 seats nationally to take control of the House, the loss of six seats in the GOP heartland could prove problematic. A blue wave in Texas or Virginia — the states where Democratic hopes are highest — could be catastrophic.

The one thing we can be sure of is that on election night, the political class will be paying more attention to the results of House races in the South than has been paid in quite some time.

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U.S. House Primary Wrap: Democrats pick female Marine fighter pilot for targeted seat in Kentucky

Voters in Georgia, Arkansas and Texas also pick party nominees for House seats that could help decide balance of power

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

LEXINGTON, Kentucky (CFP) — In a year in which women candidates have been making noise nationally, Amy McGrath has made her own statement in Kentucky’s Bluegrass country by winning the Democratic nomination for a U.S. House seat over a candidate recruited by party leaders in Washington.

Meanwhile, in other May 22 primaries in Georgia, Arkansas and Texas, Democrats narrowed the fields in races for seven GOP-held seats that are being targeted in November, while Texas Republicans picked nominees in four open seats that are expected to stay in Republican hands.

In central Kentucky’s 6th District, which includes Lexington and Frankfort, McGrath took 48 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who had been recruited for the race by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Kentucky does not have primary runoffs, so McGrath won the nomination with a plurality and will now face GOP U.S. Rep. Andy Barr in November.

Democratic U.S. House nominee Amy McGrath

Declaring victory with her supporters in Richmond, McGrath — a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot whose call sign was “Krusty” — said “what happened tonight is amazing.”

“Six months ago, political pundits and establishment insiders didn’t think we could pull this off,” she said. “What those insiders maybe still don’t know is how this happened. Well, I know how it happened. It’s because you all care about the future of our country.”

McGrath began her campaign in August 2017 with a video in which she told how, as a young girl growing up in Kentucky, she decided she wanted to be a fighter pilot but discovered that women were not allowed to serve in combat. She then wrote letters to members of Congress in which she asked why she was barred from serving, including a letter to Kentucky U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, which she said was never answered.

After the ban was lifted, McGrath enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy and served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps aviator before retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

McGrath’s video went viral, triggering a wave of contributions to her long-shot campaign. She now raised almost $2 million in her quest to unseat Barr, who is seeking his fourth term.

Another positive sign for McGrath: More than 100,000 Democrats turned out to vote in the primary, compared to just 49,000 Republicans in a district President Donald Trump carried by 15 points in 2016. However, GOP turnout also lagged behind Democratic turnout in 2016, when Barr took 61 percent.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky’s 3rd District in metro Louisville, Republicans nominated Vickie Glisson, a Louisville attorney who headed the state health department, to face U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who has drawn the particular ire of Republicans nationally with his strong criticism of Trump, including introducing articles of impeachment.

In Georgia, the House races receiving the most attention are in the 6th and 7th districts, where Republican incumbents are seen as possibly vulnerable in districts that President Donald Trump won by narrow margins in 2016.

In the 6th District, in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel won her seat in 2017 after a hard-fought and hugely expensive special election, Democrats have narrowed their field to Lucy McBath, a gun control activist from Cobb County, and Kevin Abel, a Sandy Springs businessman, who will compete in a July 24 runoff.

McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in 2012 by a man at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, over a dispute over loud hip-hop music. His case became part of the nationwide campaign against deadly violence aimed at young African-American men. The shooter, Michael David Dunn, was later convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Handel’s chances of keeping the seat — in a district Trump only carried by just 1.5 points — improved when the man she defeated in the special election, Democrat Jon Ossoff, decided against a rematch.

In the 7th District, in northwest metro Atlanta, Democrats Carolyn Bordeaux and David Kim advanced to the runoff for the right to face Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in November.

Bordeaux, from Suwanee, is a professor at Georgia State University and former budget analyst for the Georgia Senate. Kim, from Duluth, is the son of Korean immigrants who owns a company that provides tutoring for students. If elected, he would become Georgia’s first Asian-American congressman, running in a district with a growing Asian population.

While Woodall took 60 percent of the vote in the 7th District in 2016, Trump only won by 6 points, putting the seat within the realm of possibility for Democrats.

Arkansas-SQIn Arkansas, the House race drawing the most attention is the 2nd District in metro Little Rock, where Democrats believe they might have a shot at ousting GOP U.S. Rep. French Hill if a national Democratic wave develops.

The Democratic nominee will be State Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, who won the primary without a runoff.

While Hill won re-election by 11 points in 2016, the 2nd District is the least Republican district in the state, anchored by Pulaski County, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Trump won the district by less than 10 points.

In Texas, Democrats have picked nominees in four targeted U.S. House seats now in Republican hands that Democrats have hopes of flipping in the fall.

In the 7th District, in metro Houston, attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher defeated liberal activist Laura Moser for the right to take on Republican U.S. John Culberson, in a district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Fletcher had been backed by the DCCC against Moser, who was seen by Democratic leaders as too liberal for the district.

In the 21st District, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and takes in part of the Texas Hill Country, Republican Chip Roy will face Democrat Joseph Kosper for the seat now held by retiring U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a district which Trump carried by 10 points.

Roy served as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Kosper is a former U.S. Army officer and technology entrepreneur.

In the 23rd District — the largest Texas district geographically, sprawling from the suburbs of San Antonio to near El Paso — Democrats picked Gina Ortiz Jones to take on incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd in November. Clinton also carried this majority-Latino swing district, which has changed hands four times in the last 12 years.

Jones is a former military intelligence officer who worked as a U.S. trade representative in the Obama administration. If elected, she would be the first open lesbian, Iraq War veteran and Filipino American to represent Texas in Washington.

In the 32nd District, in metro Dallas, former NFL player Colin Allred defeated businesswoman Lillian Salerno and will now face Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who is trying to keep a traditionally Republican seat in a district that Clinton also carried. Allred, a civil rights attorney, played five seasons in the NFL for the Tennessee Titans before his career ended after a neck injury.

Also in Texas, the fields have been set in four other open GOP-held districts that Republicans will be favored to keep in November:

Barton decided not to seek re-election after after a nude selfie he had exchanged with a woman with whom he was having a consensual extramarital relationship wound up on social media.

Farenthold resigned after news reports that $84,000 in taxpayer dollars had been used to pay a settlement to a former female staffer who alleged that she suffered sexual harassment from Farenthold and another male staffer. The congressman denied the harassment allegations, while conceding that a lax management style in his Washington office created a “decidedly unprofessional” work environment.

A special election is being held in June to fill the remainder of Farenthold’s current term, with Cloud, Holguin and seven other candidates on the ballot.

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