Democrats, on defense in blue states, brace for a red wave in the House
By Shane Goldmacher
Republicans are pressing their advantage deep into Democratic territory in the closing stretch of the 2022 campaign, competing for an abundance of House seats amid growing signs that voters are poised to punish President Joe Biden’s party even in the bluest parts of America.
Republicans need to win only a handful of seats to take over the House of Representatives, which Democrats now control by a narrow margin of 220-212. But with two weeks until the election, Republicans are looking to run up the score and win a more expansive — and governable —majority by vying for districts in Democratic bastions, including in Rhode Island, which has not sent a Republican to Congress for nearly three decades.
“We thought for a little bit that we could defy gravity, but the reality is setting in,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, a progressive research and polling firm. With Democrats on the defensive in so many places, McElwee said the goal should now be to limit the party’s losses so it could conceivably try to take back the House in 2024.
Simply making incursions so deep into Democratic terrain is a victory for Republicans. Win or lose, they have diverted limited Democratic resources. But Republicans need just five seats net to flip the chamber, and with the current daunting map, some Democratic strategists worry the party could lose far more: 20 or even 30 seats.
In Oregon, Republicans are in contention to win half of the state’s soon-to-be six congressional seats — up from the one seat they now hold in the traditional Democratic stronghold.
In California, Republicans are competing to represent as many as five House seats that Biden carried in 2020 by the relatively comfortable margin of 10 percentage points or more.
In New York, Republicans are pursuing five more districts carried by Biden, including one held by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as they seek a prominent symbolic victory as much as a seat.
“The question the blue states will answer is how deeply Republicans go into the map or how narrow a majority they might end up with,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has worked on House races.
The flow of money from super political action committees and national party committees, which prioritize the most competitive races, reveals a House battleground landscape that is overwhelmingly tilted toward seats that Biden won in 2020. Such a landscape is significant: Democrats have all but given up contesting more Republican terrain won by Donald Trump, putting the party heavily on the defensive.
Of the 46 House races that had seen at least $3 million in outside spending through this past weekend, 42 of them were carried by Biden in 2020, according to data compiled by Rob Pyers, the research director for the California Target Book, which analyzes political races.
Eleven of the districts most flooded with money are seats that Biden carried by 10 percentage points or more. That is a remarkable number of solidly Democratic seats for Republicans to be contesting. In 2020, Democrats did not win a single district that Trump won by 10 points or more.
In contrast, Democrats have devoted virtually no national money to targeting seats Trump carried.
In fact, of the roughly $400 million in outside spending that has gone into House races nationwide so far in the general election, only a little more than $100,000 in Democratic super PAC or party committee money has targeted a Republican incumbent in a seat that Trump carried.
Few places exemplify the current climate better than Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District. Biden carried the seat by nearly 14 percentage points less than two years ago, yet it could now deliver Republicans their first House seat in the state this millennium.
“If Democrats are playing defense in Rhode Island, they are losing across the country,” said Steven Frias, who has served as the Republican national committeeman in Rhode Island for the past decade.
Republicans have nominated Allan Fung, 52, a former mayor of Cranston who previously ran for governor and who has campaigned to be a “voice of moderation” in Congress.
In an interview at a coffee shop in Warwick on Monday, Fung, who was greeted with encouragement from the owner and multiple patrons, said that fear over the economy had been the dominant issue of the campaign. “Everyone’s scared,” he said.
On Wednesday, the first lady, Jill Biden, is coming to Providence as Democrats try to nationalize the race, snap Rhode Island Democrats back to their usual partisan posture and build support for Seth Magaziner, the Democratic state treasurer running against Fung.
“They’re sending the wife and not the president himself because they know how widely unpopular he is,” Fung said Monday. “He’s underwater here, underwater across the country.”
The October itineraries of Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been a sign of the current political geography and the limited appeal of the party’s national leadership.
Harris went to Connecticut and appeared with a vulnerable Democratic incumbent (“Please send her back,” Harris urged voters) for an event about abortion rights. Biden spent part of the month stumping in both Oregon and California. He has also made one trip, and plans another, to New York, where polls have shown Gov. Kathy Hochul leading by far less than Democrats have won in recent years. Biden has traveled to Pennsylvania, but notably, his major event on abortion rights last week was held in Washington, D.C. — not a battleground seat or district at all.
Strategists and officials in both parties said they were seeing the trend of both Democratic weakness and Republican overperformance in states that are fully ruled by Democrats.
Some have speculated that voters, who polls show are generally unhappy about the direction of the nation, have no one to blame but Democrats in those states. Others have hypothesized that abortion — the issue that Democrats have used to mobilize the party base and win over moderate women — is less salient in states that have enacted their own abortion protections.
“In a blue state, where you hear no stories of anyone getting prohibited from getting an abortion, it just doesn’t play,” Frias said.
Today, top Democratic groups are rushing to triage the House map, with some seats already being all but written off.
In Oregon, the super PAC aligned with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority PAC, has yet to spend on behalf of one Democrat — Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who unseated a moderate Democrat in the primary earlier this year — even though she is running in a seat that Biden carried by nearly 9 percentage points. In California, that same super PAC on Friday canceled $2.2 million in television reservations in Los Angeles that had been earmarked to try to unseat Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican. A person involved in the decision described the seat as increasingly out of reach for Democrats even though Biden carried it by more than 12 percentage points.
Polling, including the recent New York Times/Siena College survey, shows that voters are increasingly focused on the economy and inflation and that economy-focused voters are lopsidedly backing Republicans.
Democrats are buoyed by the fact that the relatively few remaining undecided voters in these blue states tend to be more Democratic than in more conservative states, and party officials believe they can still cast even more moderate Republicans with a Trump-aligned national brand.
But in Rhode Island, Fung, so far, has proved resistant to Democratic efforts to define him as extreme, rallying the support of moderates and Trump-aligned Republicans alike. One of them is Antonio Raposo, 54, who owns a construction company and said he wears his “Let’s Go Brandon” hat every day.
As Raposo sipped a lunchtime espresso martini Monday at Andino’s, a restaurant in Providence’s Little Italy neighborhood, he spoke with excitement about the possibility that his state might finally have Republican representation in the House. Raposo was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest the election results, but said he did not join the riot inside the Capitol. Raposo hosted Fung at his home in Coventry this year, at an event that he said raised $25,000 for the candidate.
He predicted victory on Nov. 8 — in Rhode Island and nationally. “People,” he added, “are fed up.”