By Adam K. Raymond
With Election Day 2017 safely behind us, the race to the 2018 Midterm Elections has officially begun. And with Donald Trump sitting in the White House on the razor thin margins he secured in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — Hillary Clinton’s so-called Blue Wall — all eyes will be on the Rust Belt, where political prognosticators hope to get a sense from some key congressional races on what the electoral landscape will look like in 2020.
The D-Triple-C (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) has already targeted 12 GOP-held seats in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. If the Dems can take the House, Trump will spend the two years leading up to an uncertain reelection mired in congressional investigations and impeachment hearings. But if Republicans hold on to the gains they made in 2016, we may be looking at four more years.
It’s a battle that, like so much of modern life, will feature Trump at its center. Democrats will try to reclaim their strength in the Rust Belt by making the congressional elections a referendum on a wildly unpopular president. Republicans, meanwhile, will try to solidify a newfound base by telling voters that enacting Trump’s agenda requires a Republican-controlled Congress.
We’ve highlighted 8 Rust Belt congressional races to watch, each with our best guess at who will challenge the incumbent in the general election. Their outcomes will begin to tell us what voters will do in 2020.
Wisconsin’s 1st, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) vs. Randy Bryce (D)
The House Speaker gets a viral challenger with blue-collar bona fides
Of all the Democrats hoping to unseat a sitting Republican congressman in 2018, there may be none as famous as Randy Bryce, an iron worker and union activist whose viral campaign ad launched him into the national political spotlight last summer and helped him nab an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders this fall. The man they call “Iron Stache” has spent the second half of 2017 travelling the country to raise money and the $1 million he has in the bank should be plenty to win the Democratic primary. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to beat Ryan, who has 10 times as much cash, the ability to raise plenty more and the advantage of being the most powerful man in the House.
Bryce has tried to portray Ryan as an out of touch Trump enabler and heavily criticized the Ryan-endorsed sweetheart deal given to Chinese tech company Foxconn, which is building a factory in Ryan’s district that few people seem to want. But he’s also made the occasional unforced error, such as his recent weird and sexist tweet about Ivanka Trump, that one might expect from a guy whose election record is 0-2.
As an ironworker who’s attracted the attention of Bernie Sanders and his rabid followers, Randy Bryce may have both the authenticity to appeal to voters and the network to keep pace with Paul Ryan.
Republicans, meanwhile, are projecting confidence about Ryan’s chances to win a ninth straight election. Given his profile and war chest, it seems wise to bet on Ryan, who won by a whopping 35 points in 2016. But as an ironworker who’s attracted the attention of Sanders and his rabid followers, Bryce may have both the authenticity to appeal to voters and the network to keep pace with Ryan. Even if he doesn’t win, with a good showing Bryce could give Democrats momentum going into 2020. After losses in districts like Wisconsin’s 1st, which encompasses fading manufacturing towns, suburbs and rural farm lands, merely denting the armor of one of Washington’s most powerful Republicans would be a moral victory that Democrats would not be above celebrating.
Wisconsin’s 3rd, Rep. Ron Kind (D) vs. ???
A Democrat who ran unopposed in 2016 won’t be so fortunate in 2018
Democratic Rep. Ron Kind got lucky in 2016. Four years after Obama won his district by 11 points, Wisconsin’s 3rd swung hard to the right, voting for Trump by a four-point margin. Kind, meanwhile, did not face a Republican challenger. The NRCC (National Republican Congressional Committee) is making sure that won’t happen again in 2018.
The last Democrat in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation who doesn’t represent Madison or Milwaukee, Rep. Ron Kind is one of the GOP’s top targets in 2018 given Trump’s surprise win in traditionally-blue Wisconsin.
The last Democrat in Wisconsin’s congressional delegation who doesn’t represent Madison or Milwaukee, Kind is one of the GOP’s top targets in 2018 given Trump’s surprise win in traditionally-blue Wisconsin and Sen. Ron Johnson’s out-of-nowhere re-election in 2016, which saw him fend off former Sen. Russ Feingold in a race that few national Republicans gave him a chance to win.
Kind won’t be easy to defeat though, even with the momentum in his district seemingly moving away from him. He’s won eight of his nine elections by 13 points or more and the GOP’s failure to field a challenger in 2016 allowed him to hoard money. Then again, in the land of Aaron Rodgers, Republicans have gotten used to connecting on hail marys.
Michigan’s 8th, Rep. Mike Bishop (R) vs. Elissa Slotkin (D)
A Democrat with national security credentials moves home
If Democrats have any shot at retaking the House in 2018, they’ll have to pull upsets in districts like Michigan’s 8th, which has been sending Republicans to the House since 2001. If there’s a Democrat who could end that run, it may very well be Slotkin, a veteran of both the Obama and Bush administrations with impressive national security credentials.
If Democrats have any shot at retaking the House in 2018, they’ll have to pull upsets in districts like Michigan’s 8th, which has been sending Republicans to the House since 2001.
As a former CIA analyst and a longtime Defense Department official, Slotkin is not the dovish Democrat voters may be used to. And this suburban Detroit district has shown an affinity for security-minded politicians in past, sending former FBI agent Mike Rogers to Congress from 2001 to 2015. Rep. Mike Bishop won the seat in 2014 after Rogers retired and he hasn’t faced much of a Democratic challenge. Slotkin should change that. She has the resume and fundraising ability — she brought in $460,939 in the third quarter of 2017 — to give Democrats a good shot in Michigan’s 8th, just as long as she can avoid a dreaded label that no politician, regardless of party, wants: carpetbagger.
Michigan’s 11th, Lena Epstein (R) vs. Fayrouz Saad (D)
With a Representative’s retirement, both parties see an opportunity outside Detroit
A relatively wealthy, college-educated district outside Detroit, the 11th went for both Mitt Romney and Trump by five points. Combine that with a strong Republican leaving the seat on good terms, and it sure doesn’t look like fertile ground for Democrats. But some political operatives think otherwise. According to Politico, D-Triple-C spokeswoman Rachel Irwin believes that Rep. Dave Trott’s retirement “opens up a competitive seat that is trending toward Democrats.”
Fayrouz Saad, Detroit’s former director of immigration affairs, is attempting to become the first Muslim woman in Congress.
Both parties will field crowded primaries and while some Republicans in swing districts are distancing themselves from Trump, Lena Epstein in Michigan’s 11th is leaning into her support for the president. A co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Michigan, Epstein said in May, “I am unapologetic in my support for the President.” Three former or current Republican state representatives have also declared, while former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio has launched an exploratory committee. The reindeer farmer served one term in Congress before Trott ousted him in the 2014 Republican primary.
The Democrats meanwhile have seen a state representative, a businessman, and two high-profile women enter the race. Haley Stevens worked on the auto bailout under President Obama and recently moved back to the district, and Fayrouz Saad, Detroit’s former director of immigration affairs, is attempting to become the first Muslim woman in Congress.
Ohio’s 14th, Rep. Dave Joyce (R) vs. Betsy Rader (D)
A Democrat with Appalachian roots takes aim at a centrist Republican in Northeast Ohio
Rep. Dave Joyce’s future in Congress is safe if the voting history in his district holds. He’s won the last three elections in the northeastern tip of Ohio by double-digit margins and, on the presidential level, the district lurched rightward in 2016, giving Trump a 12-point win after Mitt Romney won by only three points in 2012.
So why does Democrat Betsy Rader think she has a chance to take the seat? As she told Belt Magazine, people in the district will vote for the person, not the party. To prove this, she points to the 2012 victory of Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has endorsed Rader.
Betsy Rader is not a typical effete Democrat. As she told Belt, “My dad was a game warden, my grandfather was a dairy farmer, and my dad went on to manage a drag strip in central Ohio, so I suppose I have a different experience that I bring to the table.”
But Rader, even with her compelling personal story growing up poor in Appalachia eating squirrel stew — and is now an employment lawyer in Chagrin Falls — faces long odds in her battle against Joyce, who won’t be tied to Trump as easily as some of his fellow colleagues. In fact, Joyce has done enough to buck Trump that he may have to fend off a primary challenge from a pro-Trump pastor. Assuming Joyce survives that potential challenge and meets Rader in the general, he won’t find himself matched up against a typical effete Democrat. As Rader told Belt, “My dad was a game warden, my grandfather was a dairy farmer, and my dad went on to manage a drag strip in central Ohio, so I suppose I have a different experience that I bring to the table.”
Pennsylvania’s 6th, Rep. Ryan Costello (R) vs. Chrissy Houlahan (D)
An Air Force veteran mounts a challenge in suburban Philly
“I think of our seats, if you want to look at kind of a bellwether, it’d probably be Ryan Costello,” Steve Stivers, the head of the NRCC, said in June.
After the election results in Virginia earlier this month, Stivers can’t be feeling good. The affluent suburbs outside of Washington and Richmond voted heavily for Democrat Ralph Northam, and it’s not hard to see that trend extending to Costello’s district outside of Philadelphia, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
After the election results in Virginia earlier this month, the head of the NRCC can’t be feeling good.
That must be why Rep. Costello is doing all he can to avoid being tied to Trump. The second-term congressman has broken with the big guy on the American Health Care Act and criticized the president’s proposed cuts to medical research, environmental protection, and public education. Still, he’s voted in line with Trump 94 percent of the time and that’s something his most-likely opponent won’t let voters forget.
Former Air Force captain Chrissy Houlahan is the highest profile Democrat running for the party’s nomination in Pennsylvania’s 6th and her campaign strategy was clear the day she announced: Tie Costello to Trump. Houlahan criticized Costello’s “eagerness to rubber-stamp” Trump’s agenda when she launched her campaign in April and she’s been beating that drum ever since, consistently using the hashtag #TrumpRubberStamp in tweets to the congressman. If Philly’s suburbs are anything like D.C.’s, she may have herself a winning strategy.
Pennsylvania’s 7th, Rep. Pat Meehan (R) vs. Daylin Leach (D)
A moderate Republican attempts to stand firm in a district Clinton won
Pat Meehan, whose district borders Costello’s, is one of two Republicans in Pennsylvania who won reelection in a district that went for Hillary Clinton (Costello is the other). This grotesquely gerrymandered suburban Philadelphia district, which Mitt Romney won in 2012, is just the kind of place that Democrats hope they can flip in 2018 by appealing to moderate suburbanites who’d prefer a president who doesn’t tweet like a teenager.
If Democrats are to be successful in the 7th, it’ll likely be with a candidate who, like Trump, isn’t afraid to pop off. Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach, one of a few candidates in the primary, went viral earlier this year when he tweeted that Trump is a “fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!”
If Democrats are to be successful in the 7th, it’ll likely be with a candidate who, like Trump, isn’t afraid to pop off. Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach, one of a few candidates in the primary, went viral earlier this year when he tweeted that Trump is a “fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!” Now Leach is attempting to benefit from the surge of post-Trump political activism, declaring himself “part of the resistance for core American values.” The trouble for Leach is that Meehan isn’t Trump, which could make this race all the more interesting. If moderate Republicans like Meehan fall next year in suburban districts like Pennsylvania’s 7th, Democrats will be giddy going into 2020.
Pennsylvania’s 17th, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D) vs. John Chrin (R)
A Democrat in Trump country tries to keep his district blue
When a party has a stranglehold on power the way the GOP does in Washington, they typically focus on playing defense. But if Republicans are to keep their majorities in Congress, they may need to swipe a few seats from Democrats in 2018, and Pennsylvania’s 17th is one of their top targets.
Republicans so far are pinning their hopes on John Chrin, a wealthy investment banker with “practical business experience” who said in May that he’s running because “we need new leaders from outside the political system.” Sounds like somebody paid attention in 2016.
It’s an unlikely place to see the GOP devoting resources. The 17th district was drawn by Republicans to soak up as many Democrats as possible, creating Republican-leaning districts all around it. But in 2016, Democrat Matt Cartwright saw his constituents give Trump a 10-point win. Republicans so far are pinning their hopes on John Chrin, a wealthy investment banker with “practical business experience” who said in May that he’s running because “we need new leaders from outside the political system.” Sounds like somebody paid attention in 2016.