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Election Preview: GOP’s Southern U.S. House wall faces Democratic challenge in suburbs

Democrats have put 31 Republican-held seats in play across the South

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Will the Republican’s big, blue Southern wall that has been the linchpin of their U.S. House majority hold, or will Democrats reverse a decade of disappointment and eat away at GOP dominance in the South?

That question will be answered in Tuesday’s midterm elections, in which voters will decide all 152 House seats in 14 Southern states.

Heading into the vote, Republicans hold a 112-to-40 advantage across the region. But at least 31 GOP-held seats are on the Democrats’ radar for possible takeaways in 2018, which could portend the biggest comeback for the party in Congress since 1994, when scores of traditionally Democratic seats in the South melted away, seemingly for good.

By contrast, none of the 40 Democrat-held seats in the region are expected to flip.

The possible Republican-to-Democrat flips are concentrated in four states — Florida, with nine; Texas, with eight; and Virginia and North Carolina, with four each.

But Democrats have also targeted Republican seats in West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma, where they were shut out in 2016, and South Carolina, where they won but a single seat.

Many of the most competitive races are in suburban areas around major cities that have traditionally been solidly Republican, including districts in and around Dallas, Houston, Austin, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Washington, D.C.

The elephant in the room in all of these races has been President Donald Trump, with Democrats trying to make inroads in normally Republican districts where Trump underperformed in 2016, as he was overperforming in rural areas on his way to capturing the White House.

This election might also portend the revival of what has in recent years become something of a endangered species in Congress — the white Southern Democrat.

Currently, just 13 white Democrats who are not Latino or Asian hold Southern House seats. But of the 31 competitive seats this year, 22 feature a white Democrat trying to oust a Republican.

Among the Southern races drawing the most national attention are in Kentucky’s 6th District, where Democratic newcomer Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, raised more than $7.8 million in a bid to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Barr — a race which drew a visit from Trump on Barr’s behalf.

Kentucky has the nation’s earliest poll closing, at 6 p.m. in the part of the state located in Eastern time zone. So the McGrath-Barr race should provide an early indication of how the national results may develop.

Another possible bellweather race: West Virginia’s 3rd District, where Democratic State Senator Richard Ojeda is battling Republican State Rep. Carol Miller for an open seat in a district that Trump carried by a whopping 49 points in 2016.

Polls close in the Mountaineer State at 7:30 p.m. ET; an Ojeda win or a close vote could be a harbinger of a difficult night for the GOP.

In Texas, Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions is in the fight of his political life in suburban Dallas, where he faces Colin Allred, a lawyer and former NFL linebacker who worked in the Obama administration.

Sessions, first elected in 1996, is the chairman of the House Rules Committee and was one of the architects of the Republican wave in 2010, which swept the party back into control of Congress.

While he won re-election with 71 percent of the vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton was narrowly carrying his district, which made him a top Democratic target in2018.

Another Texas Republican whose race is a toss-up is U.S. Rep. John Culberson, whose metro Houston district was also carried by Clinton in 2016. He faces Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Democratic attorney.

Culberson’s district has been in Republican hands since former President George H.B. Bush won it in 1966.

Barbara Comstock

The most endangered Southern Republican is U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, who represents a district in Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Polls have shown her trailing Democratic State Senator Jennifer Wexton in a district where Clinton scored a 10-point win.

In Florida, Democrat Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s former health secretary and former president of the University of Miami, is trying to win an open Republican-held seat in a district Clinton won by 20 points. But she has run into a stiff challenge from Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a popular journalist on Spanish-language TV.

Karen Handel

Meanwhile, in suburban Atlanta, Republican U.S. Rep. Karen Handel — who won her seat in a sensational 2017 special election in which $50 million was spent — is in a tight race with Democrat Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate whose son died in a racially charged shooting.

In Virginia, U.S. Rep. Dave Brat, the giant-killer who ousted former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, is being challenged by Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative.

In North Carolina, three Republican incumbents find themselves in competitive races — George Holding, Richard Hudson and Ted Budd — and the GOP is trying to keep control of an open seat in metro Charlotte.

The news is better in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee, where Republican incumbents are all expected to survive without any trouble.

See ChickenFriedPolitics.com’s latest ratings for hot U.S. House races.

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Insight: Donna Shalala poised to follow Hillary playbook and lose an unloseable race

Lack of Latino connection, combined with 2018’s worst political gaffe, could keep Florida’s 27th District in GOP hands

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MIAMI (CFP) — Miami Democrats may be about to learn that hard way that even in a race where the odds seem decidedly in your favor, your candidate and her campaign matter. A lot.

ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor Rich Shumate

On paper, Florida’s 27th U.S. House District should have been an easy layup for Democrats. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fixture in Cuban-American politics for more than three decades, was retiring. Hillary Clinton carried the district by 20 points, giving the 27th the distinction of being the location of Donald Trump’s worst loss in a Republican-held congressional district anywhere in the country. And younger Cuban voters have been showing less fealty to the GOP in recent election than did their ferociously anti-communist elders.

Yet, despite all that, when the smoke clears on November 6, there is a very good chance that the new congresswoman from the 27th District will be a Republican, and a race Democrats thought they couldn’t lose will be lost.

So what happened? Donna Shalala happened.

After months of ambitious Miami-Dade Democrats plotting and jockeying for position in what was assumed to be a wide-open race for a sure seat in Congress, Shalala big-footed her way into the contest in March, deciding to enter elective politics at age 77 after a career spent in academia and eight years as Bill Clinton’s health secretary and two years as head of his foundation.

She instantly became the “big name” in the race and the favorite. Three Democratic rivals withdrew; another switched to a congressional race in another district.

Among the candidates who withdrew was popular State Senator José Javier Rodríguez, and his departure left Democrats with a handicap that has since turned into an albatross — he had been the only Latino Democrat running in a district in which seven out of 10 residents, and nearly six in 10 voters, are Latino.

In the end, the Democratic primary in August came down to a race between Shalala and State Rep. David Richardson, the first openly gay man to serve in the Florida legislature. She won, but with only 31 percent of the vote against a field of four rivals.

Meanwhile, in the Republican primary, Maria Elvira Salazar — running against eight rivals — was taking 40 percent of the vote, and her total vote was nearly 1,700 more than Shalala’s total, even though more people had voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary.

Salazar is no Trump-loving ideologue. As a journalist for 35 years, she has pushed back against the president’s characterization of the news media as the enemy of the people, and she is for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and against separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

And perhaps more significantly, Salazar has three qualities Shalala can’t match: She’s a Latina. She speaks Spanish. And she has deep roots in Miami, where she was born and has been in the living rooms of her Latino constituents as an anchor and reporter on Spanish-language television.

Shalala’s inability to speak Spanish has given Salazar the advantage of being able to speak to Latino constituents in the district in their own language. And while someone entering a race in March probably can’t be expected to be fluent in October, those constituents probably found it telling that Shalala has lived in a bilingual city for 17 years, and served as president of its namesake university, without bothering to enough Spanish to give a simple speech. (Even George W. Bush speaks enough Spanish to make do in a pinch.)

More inexplicable was the decision by Shalala’s campaign not to begin running Spanish language ads until mid-October, an egregious oversight in a district where Spanish is ubiquitous.

And then, the campaign invited Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee appear at an event with Shalala and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The same Barbara Lee who said, after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died, “we need to stop and pause and mourn his loss.” The same Barbara Lee who wrote lobbied against placing sanctions on the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, many of whose victims have sought refuge in Miami.

Shalala’s campaign managed to extricate themselves from Lee actually appearing, but the damage was already done. When Pelosi and Shalala arrived at a Miami restaurant for the October 18 event, they were greeted by protestors calling them “communists” and “witches” — and much worse that isn’t printable here.

After news broke of Lee’s aborted visit, Salazar and Shalala met in a Spanish-language debate, where Shalala had to rely on an interpreter for the particulars of a rather vigorous denunciation from her Republican rival — a scene that summed up all that has gone wrong for Democrats in the 27th District.

There is a curious echo here: A woman with an impeccable resume handed a Democratic nomination on the basis of her presumed invincibility, only to see it turn to ashes thanks to personal deficiency and questionable strategy.

After 2016, Democrats waxed wistful of the might-have-beens if Vice President Joe Biden or another big name Democrat had challenged Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2016. If Shalala loses, we will see the same wistfulness for a different outcome with Rodríguez, or even Richardson who, although not Latino, has won election twice to a majority-Latino Florida House seat.

Perhaps Shalala will squeak through in the end. If so, she’ll have some serious fences to mend, not to mention a new language to learn.

But if she loses, Miami Democrats will have created a new Republican political star who will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge.

Your candidate and her campaign matter. A lot.

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Florida Primary: DeSantis wins GOP governor’s nod; Gillum is surprise winner among Democrats

Three Democratic U.S. House incumbents survive; Donna Shalala wins race for Miami seat

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — November’s election for Florida governor will pit a Donald Trump acolyte against a Bernie Sanders-backed Democrat trying to become the first African-American ever elected to lead the Sunshine State.

In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis easily defeated State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who started the campaign as the front-runner but saw his chances fade after DeSantis got Trump’s endorsement.

But the biggest surprise of the August 28 vote came on the Democratic side, where Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came from behind to defeat two self-funding millionaires and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who comes from a prominent Florida political family.

Meanwhile, three Democratic incumbent U.S. House members who faced primary challenges survived, including 9th District U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who easily defeated former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a controversial liberal firebrand trying to make a political comeback.

Also, Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s health secretary, won her primary in a GOP-held district likely to flip in November.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Florida

In the Republican race for governor, DeSantis, 39, from Palm Coast, beat Putnam by 20 points, carrying all of the state’s large cities.

“I believe there is no limit to what we can accomplish here as long as we have the courage to lead,” he told supporters at a victory party in Orlando. “And I pledge to you as governor to work my but off to accomplish great things for this state.”

DeSantis also offered his thanks to Trump “for viewing me as someone who can be a great leader for Florida.”

The result was a significant stumble for Putnam, 44, who spent 10 years in Congress and two terms as agriculture commission with his eye on the governor’s mansion.

Putnam

Speaking to supporters in Lakeland, Putnam said he would do “any and everything we can” to help DeSantis win in November.

“He’s a veteran, he’s a solid conservative, and he will need our help,” Putnam said.

On the Democratic side, Gillum, who was vastly outspent and did not lead in a single public pre-election poll, took 34 percent to 31 percent for Graham. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine came in at 20 percent and Palm Beach billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene at 10 percent.

Florida does not have primary runoffs, so Gillum won the nomination without a runoff.

Combined, Levine and Greene put more than $20 million of their own money into the race, to no avail.

Gillum was outspent by all of his major competitors, although he did get an infusion of cash near the end of the campaign from liberal megadonorrs George Soros and Tom Steyer. He was also endorsed by Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist who ran an insurgent presidential campaign in 2016.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum

“There were just a few people who said that this moment would not be possible,” Gillum told cheering supporters in Tallahassee. “And then there were a few more who believed this day was possible.”

“This thing is not about me. It never has been. It never will be,” he said. “This race is about every single one of you.”

Gillum’s victory upsets the political equation on both sides. Democrats had been hoping for a DeSantis win, seeing him as a weaker candidate against Graham, who had a moderate record during her one term in Congress. Now, both campaigns will have to adapt to a race pitting the most conservative candidate in the race against the most liberal.

Gillum is also the first African American candidate in either party to win a gubernatorial nomination in Florida and would become the state’s first black governor if he beats DeSantis in November.

One cloud on the horizon for Gillum is an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee city government. He has insisted that he is not implicated in the probe, although photographs have surfaced of the mayor traveling with two FBI agents who were working undercover.

Gillum, like DeSantis, won all of the state’s major cities. The key to his victory was a collapse in Graham’s vote in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where she didn’t break 20 percent.

Graham

Speaking to her supporters in Orlando, Graham pledged her support to Gillum, relating a phone call she had with the primary winner.

“I said, ‘Now Andrew, go out and win this damn thing because this is too important to the state of Florida,” said Graham, the daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.

In the U.S. Senate race, both Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott easily won their party’s nominations for the fall election, setting up what is likely to be the nation’s most expensive Senate race this year.

In U.S. House races, three Democratic incumbents also easily turned back primary challengers.

In the 5th District, a majority-minority district that stretches across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee took 60 percent of the vote to defeat former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

In the 9th District in metro Orlando, Soto easily dispatched Grayson, 66 percent to 44 percent. Grayson was trying to make a comeback after giving up the seat in 2016 to make an ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate.

In another Orlando-area district, the 7th, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy crushed Chardo Richardson, an attorney who was running as a “progressive” alternative to Murphy, taking 86 percent of the vote.

Tuesday’s primaries also set up fall matches for four battleground seats that Democrats are trying to take away in their quest to win control of the House.

In the 27th District in Miami-Dade County, Shalala, a Clinton cabinet secretary and former president of the University of Miami, took the first step in her quest to launch a political career at age 77, winning with 32 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates.

She will face Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a former Spanish-language TV news anchor, who won the GOP race with 41 percent of the vote.

The district, which includes Miami Beach and parts of Miami, is open due to the retirement of veteran Republican U.S. Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, who has held it for 30 years. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, making this one of the Democrats best pickup opportunities nationally.

However, the population of the district is more than 70 percent Latino and includes Miami’s politically potent Cuban community. Salazar is a Cuban-American born in Miami; Shalala, of Lebanese descent, was born in Ohio and moved to Miami in 2001.

In the 16th District centered on the southern side of Tampa Bay, Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is seeking a seventh term in a district Trump carried by 11 points. He will face Democrat David Shapiro, a Sarasota lawyer who easily won his party’s nomination.

Shapiro has raised more than $1.3 million for the race to try to make it competitive, according to Federal Elections Commission campaign finance reports. However, Buchanan has raised $2.2 million.

In the 18th District along the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County, the Democratic nominee will be Laura Baer, an attorney from Palm Beach Gardens who served as a senior adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She will now take on Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast from Palm City in a swing district that switched parties in 2012 and 2016.

In the 26th District which takes in parts of Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys, Democrats chose Debbie Murcasel-Powell, a consultant for non-profit groups, to face Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

Curbelo been a rare critic of Trump within the House Republican Caucus as he tries to hang on in a district Hillary Clinton won by 16 points.

Republicans also picked nominees for three open GOP-held seats that they will be favored to retain in November.

In the 6th District in metro Jacksonville, which DeSantis gave up to run for governor, Republicans chose Mike Waltz, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In November, he will face Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a former Bill Clinton aide who served as deputy U.N. ambassador.

In Southwest Florida’s 15th District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross retired, State Rep. Ross Spano won the Republican nomination and will now face Democrat Kristen Carlson, former general counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus.

And the 17th District, a rural district south of Orlando, Republicans chose State Senator Craig Steube, while Democrats chose April Freeman, a TV producer and political consultant from Cape Coral.

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