Democrats recruit newcomers, hoping to spark anti-Trump wave in 2018

Washington Post

A wave of first-time candidates eager to fight President Donald Trump and his young administration plan to challenge House Republican incumbents, giving Democratic Party leaders hope that they can capitalize on the anger and intensity at grass-roots protests and town hall meetings across the country this year.

At least 15 declared candidates or contenders on the verge of announcing have emerged in districts that Democrats must win to take back the House, including in several districts where the party did not seriously compete in 2014 or 2016, according to party officials.

Democrats need 24 new seats to retake control of the House - a tall order that no party leader publicly says is possible, at least not yet.

Still, less than 100 days into Trump's presidency, the early interest gives Democrats a chance to compete more aggressively in districts where they haven't fielded challengers in recent cycles - and perhaps chip away at the GOP's seven-year control of the House.

"This is unprecedented," said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, the progressive organization that trains and recruits women to run for political office. During the 2016 cycle, her group spoke with about 900 women interested in running for school board, state legislature or Congress. This year, they've heard from more than 11,000 women in all 50 states - with a few dozen seriously considering House races, she said.

Democratic strategists are trying to take advantage of the groundswell of engagement. They have moved initial staff to key districts they are targeting, including several in California, Virginia and Texas.

In a bid to pick up as many as five more seats from Republican incumbents in California, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has moved its eight-member western regional political team to offices in Irvine, California, - the first time the team has been permanently stationed outside of Washington since 2000. The goal is to defeat Reps. Mimi Walters, Edward Royce, Dana Rohrabacher, Steve Knight and Darrell Issa, all of whom won reelection last year in districts that Hillary Clinton won.

And they are actively recruiting candidates in the most competitive districts. Staff at the DCCC - responsible for electing more Democrats to the House - say they've spoken with more than 300 potential candidates in 70 districts nationwide, a figure that they believe will allow the party to compete in several long-held Republican districts like the one in Georgia where the first round of a special election this week earned outsized national attention.

Congressional Republicans cautioned that the Democrats' activity includes no evidence of an advantage in next year's midterm elections. They noted that Democrats have to focus more on recruiting because they control less of the map and need to make gains. And they caution that early recruits might not line up with the demands of Democratic voters.

Democrats "are getting a bit out front of themselves in not recognizing that their candidates are going to have difficulty getting through primaries," said Jesse Hunt, national press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Their base is demanding all-out destruction and candidates with rigid ideology whose sole purpose is to oppose Donald Trump and the Republican agenda. That's going to run up against some of what Washington Democrats want to do."

NRCC officials said they have spoken with more than 100 potential candidates about challenging Democrats, especially in a handful of Midwestern districts that could become vacant as Democratic incumbents retire or seek higher office. And so far, Republicans retain a financial advantage in this election cycle despite Democrats' apparent enthusiasm advantage: While the DCCC raised $31 million in the first quarter - including 120,000 online donations from first-time givers - the House GOP's campaign arm raised $36 million.

Liberal activists and Democratic organizers said the key ingredient this year is the grass-roots urgency, but the hope is to combine that with organizing heft.

In the fierce battleground of Northern Virginia, Democratic State Sen. Jennifer Wexton is a prime example. A former prosecutor, Wexton was wooed by Democrats in 2016 to challenge Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., but she declined - and the two-term lawmaker prevailed in one of the most expensive and competitive House races last year.

On Friday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report declared Comstock's seat a "toss up" after Wexton decided to jump in - a decision that resulted partly from conversations with fellow Democrats and partly from attending the Women's March on Washington and other protests that opened her eyes to the extent of the outrage spurred by Trump's election.

"I've never seen anything like that it my life, it was amazing and very inspiring," Wexton said. "I went to Dulles Airport during the Muslim ban and same thing there. All the people who had come out to protest in solidarity with immigrants and the volunteer attorneys who were there. I mean that was amazing."

A scientist in California, military veterans in Colorado and Virginia, Latino activists in Florida and Texas ,and women business executives in several states are making similar decisions.

Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, which trains Latino Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, said that at this same point two years ago, the group had held "just a handful" of conversations with potential congressional candidates. This year, he's talked to 12 potential candidates about challenging Republican congressmen in Texas, Florida and Virginia.

Thanks to his anti-immigrant rhetoric and plans to build a border wall, "Donald Trump is the best Latino political organizer in history," Alex said.

"I've never seen anything like it" added physicist Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey. Holt said he used to get one or two inquiries a year from fellow scientists interested in entering politics. But in the past five months, more than a dozen people have reached out.

"There's a widespread and deep concern that there is an eroding appreciation of science," Holt said. "That didn't start in November, but now it's reached a crescendo."

The landscape is different in the Senate.

Republicans have a distinct advantage in 2018, when 25 Democrats will be defending Senate seats, including 10 in states that Trump won last year. But Republicans are struggling to find candidates to challenge Democrats next year. Several prominent, well-funded contenders in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Montana, Indiana and elsewhere have declined to launch Senate campaigns. Democrats, hoping to win Senate races in Arizona and Nevada, also have yet to find recruits.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on its recruiting plan. But one national GOP strategist, who like many contacted declined to be named publicly for fear of retribution from the White House or congressional leaders, said that concerns with Trump's sagging popularity are a leading factor for wary Republican candidates.

"Presumably, if you're running as a Republican in 2018, you're running to implement his agenda," said the operative. "There are a lot of Republicans who are uneasy with big elements of Trump's agenda and you're seeing that reflected in challenges with candidate recruitment."

In the House, the recent focus by Democrats on Georgia's 6th Congressional District, an Atlanta-area seat until recently held by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, is part of a plan to more actively support candidates in Republican-held districts that last year voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and had never voted to elect former president Barack Obama.

Beginning in February, the DCCC began hiring field staffers in 20 districts - a mix of perennial swing districts in Florida, Colorado, Iowa, New York and Pennsylvania, plus GOP-held districts that voted for Clinton in California, Texas and Kansas. While staffers are usually hired or deployed in these areas, the party started doing it two weeks after Trump's inauguration in response to the grass-roots-level organizing that sparked large marches, airport protests and rowdy town hall meetings.

Several of these fresh Democratic recruits will face battle-tested, well-funded GOP incumbents who can rely on national Republicans or well-funded super PACs for financial support. Such backing has helped suppress support for previous Democratic opponents, who may have earned early buzz and support but fizzled closer to Election Day.

Potential recruits say that the DCCC is cautioning potential candidates that competing in dozens of new Republican-friendly districts will be expensive and could stretch resources.

"They were realistic. They're not selling a false bill of goods," said Miguel Solis, a Dallas school board member who had considered running against Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, but declined because of family commitments. He said he had nearly a dozen conversations with senior Democratic lawmakers about the race.

"The numbers suggest it can be done, but it's going to take a significant coalition of independents, moderate Republicans and a significant turnout of Democrats to win it," Solis said.

In some cases, it also requires getting past primaries in expensive media markets. At least two other Democrats who are expected to run against Sessions, a former NFL player and former State Department official, will face just that.

That isn't stopping many Democrats from jumping in. In Colorado, the DCCC is working with Jason Crow, an attorney and former Army Ranger who has decided to challenge Rep. Mike Coffman, a perennial Democratic target. Crow said the decision was clear for him.

"If we're not OK with the state of affairs in D.C., and if we're not OK with the direction of our country," he said, "we're not going to fix it by electing the same kind of people with the same way of thinking than we've had in the past."

In addition to Crow, several military veterans are planning to run as Democrats. In the San Diego area, Josh Butner, a former Navy SEAL, is challenging Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is a Marine. In central Virginia, former Marine Roger Dean Huffstetler is running against Rep. Thomas Garrett, R-Va.

The Washington Post's Sarah Kaplan and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.

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