HouseRatings

House: Ratings Changes in 12 Districts as Democrats Gain Momentum

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October 13, 2017

President Trump and GOP control of Congress have sparked a 2018 Democratic candidate bonanza. Don't call it "recruitment:" for the most part, these aspirants decided to take the plunge on their own. Many are political newcomers; others have waited years for the right moment to run. And in light of national polling, it was only a matter of time before more GOP-held House seats joined the ranks of the vulnerable.

Over the past week, the Cook Political Report has met with dozens of Democratic candidates sporting impressive resumes, ranging from military veterans and former Obama administration officials to prosecutors and scientists. Much like the GOP's crop of candidates in 2010, only a handful were current or former elected officials. However, some campaigns have progressed more quickly than others and not all opportunities are created equal.

For example, Democrats are rightfully excited about former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings, 42, who has taken on drug cartels and public corruption in South Texas. He possesses the national security credentials to go toe to toe with GOP Rep. Will Hurd (TX-23), a former undercover CIA agent, and it doesn't hurt that he's politically close to the Castro brothers and married to a former Miss San Antonio. But he must also overcome a competitive primary and typically low Latino turnout in midterms.

Based on recent developments in races and conversations with candidates and operatives on both sides of the aisle, many races have the potential to become more competitive. This week, we're changing our ratings in 12 districts:


Ratings Changes

Race Ratings

DIST.
REP.
RATINGS CHANGE
AZ-02 McSally Lean R to Toss Up
AZ-09 OPEN (Sinema) Solid D to Likely D
CA-48 Rohrabacher Lean R to Toss Up
CA-50 Hunter Solid R to Likely R
IA-01 Blum Lean R to Toss Up
KS-02 OPEN (Jenkins) Likely R to Lean R
KY-06 Barr Solid R to Likely R
MI-08 Bishop Likely R to Lean R
NY-11 Donovan Solid R to Likely R
PA-07 Meehan Likely R to Lean R
UT-04 Love Solid R to Likely R
VA-07 Brat Solid R to Likely R

Updated Bottom Lines

AZ-02: Martha McSally (R) - Southeast: Tucson, Cochise County
Toss Up. In her first term, McSally cultivated a popular profile as a trailblazing fighter pilot and moderate Republican who fought for Pentagon funding for Tucson's A-10 Warthog. It allowed her to win reelection with 57 percent in 2016 while Hillary Clinton carried the district 49 percent to 44 percent. But her vote for the House GOP healthcare repeal bill may endanger her independent reputation and put her back in jeopardy.

There is some talk that McSally's vote was a bid to preserve her viability in a future statewide GOP primary, and that she could leave this seat to run for Senate if GOP Sen. John McCain is unable to complete his term. But if she runs for reelection, she's vulnerable, and the Democratic frontrunner is former 1st CD Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who moved from Northern Arizona to Tucson following her losing challenge to McCain in 2016.

Kirkpatrick is running as an unabashed progressive defender of the ACA and has the support of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly. She'll also seek to deflect the carpetbagger label by talking about moving to Tucson to care for her family based there, including two grandchildren who were recently born prematurely months after the 2016 election. It also helps that she's advertised in Tucson in all of her congressional races.

Kirkpatrick won't have a free ride in the primary: 2016 nominee Matt Heinz is probably her most serious competition, but former Assistant Army Secretary Mary Matiella, former state Rep. Bruce Wheeler and hotel manager Billy Kovacs are running too. However, Giffords's endorsement of Kirkpatrick will be difficult for others to overcome. If Democrats are to take back the House, this is a must-win race.

AZ-09: OPEN (Sinema) (D) - East Phoenix: Tempe, parts of Scottsdale
Likely Democratic. This Tempe seat is the wealthiest and most highly-educated in the state, and has been trending Democratic for years. In 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton by 16 points. In the wake of Sinema's Senate bid, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton quickly jumped into the race. He's the clear frontrunner for both the primary and general election, although Democratic former state House Minority Leader Chad Campbell is mentioned too.

However, the open seat also gives Republicans hope they can put it in play, and they've got a credible candidate in Steve Ferrara, a physician and Afghanistan veteran who served as the Navy's chief medical officer. This seat has a history of supporting moderate Republicans, so Ferrara's campaign is worth watching, but this could be mission impossible if 2018 turns into a Democratic wave.

CA-48: Dana Rohrabacher (R) - Coastal Orange County: Huntington Beach
Toss Up. Rohrabacher's profile as a surfing, pro-marijuana conservative has played well in this part of Orange County since 1988. But as this coastal district's demographics have changed, Rohrabacher has taken a different turn: his recent sympathetic comments towards Russia and strange interactions with Julian Assange and internet conspiracy theorist Chuck Johnson could amount to self-sabotage in a district President Trump narrowly lost.

Democrats in DC are thrilled with Hans Keirstead, a stem cell and cancer researcher who founded a biotech company that was sold for $126 million. Keirstead will talk about helping spinal cord injury victims recover function and the need to cut through FDA red tape. He's not just new to politics, he's new to the country: he grew up in Canada, still speaks with a Canadian accent and only became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

Keirstead is confident he can get past real estate businessman Harley Rouda in the primary and peel off Rohrabacher's corporate support, but his political skills are still unproven to say the least. Rohrabacher allies insist voters aren't focused on Russia and appreciate his "independent streak," but Democrats can also make the case that 30 years in Congress is too long. This is one of Democrats' best takeover opportunities in California.

CA-50: Duncan D. Hunter (R) - Inland San Diego County: Escondido, Santee
Likely Republican. It would take the combination of a Democratic wave and an indicted GOP incumbent to put a seat as Republican as this one anywhere near the competitive radar, but that may be where things are headed. Hunter, whose father occupied the seat before him, is under a DOJ investigation into whether he improperly used campaign funds for his kids' private school tuition and to fly a pet rabbit on a family trip, among other expenses.

Democrats have an unusually credible candidate in former Navy SEAL Josh Butner, who has served in the Gulf War, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq and was elected to his local school board in 2016. Butner's extensive service is a real asset in a district with a huge military tradition, but to have any chance, he must hope Hunter's legal problems are severe but do not force him off the ballot in 2018.

IA-01: Rod Blum (R) - Northeast: Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Dubuque
Toss Up. Blum has consistently been underestimated, but he's still a conservative Republican sitting in a seat with a left-leaning heritage in a cycle that has a potential to become a Democratic wave. In 2016, Blum won reelection with 54 percent while President Trump carried the seat by three points, and this year Blum drew some scorn for angrily walking out of a TV interview while he was surrounded by schoolchildren.

At 28, Dubuque state Rep. Abby Finkenauer would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She hails from a union family and has EMILY's List's endorsement, and looks like the frontrunner over former Labor Department official Thomas Heckroth in the primary. Finkenauer would make for a jarring contrast with Blum, who is more than twice her age and personally wealthy. This is shaping up to be another highly competitive race.

KS-02: OPEN (Jenkins) (R) - East: Topeka, Lawrence
Lean Republican. This part of Kansas voted for President Trump by 19 points, but former state House Minority Leader Paul Davis's candidacy makes things interesting. Davis carried this seat 51 percent to 45 percent in the 2014 gubernatorial race while losing statewide. And although he won't have the luxury of running against dreadfully unpopular GOP Gov. Sam Brownback this time, the GOP field here is a mess in the wake of the moderate Jenkins's retirement.

The leading GOP contenders include state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald (who once considered a primary to Jenkins from the right), state Rep. Kevin Jones and state Sen. Caryn Tyson, all of whom Democrats would portray as Brownback lackeys. A fourth contender, former pro soccer player and Brownback cabinet member Antonio Soave, lives in the 3rd CD. Davis allies love that this field won't sort itself out until next August's primary.

Despite its rural character, there's a precedent for this seat going Democratic in a wave: populist Nancy Boyda pulled off an upset here in 2006 before losing in 2008. Davis's stumbling block may be that he will be more easily caricatured as a career politician and a "liberal lawyer from Lawrence." It wouldn't be surprising if polls next year show Davis ahead thanks to name ID from past races, but Democrats still probably have a better shot in the 3rd CD.

KY-06: Andy Barr (R) - East central: Lexington, Frankfort
Likely Republican. Kentucky has been a terrible place for national Democrats' brand lately, but retired Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath's candidate announcement video quickly went viral and attracted the interest of Democratic donors across the country. She's also angling for anti-establishment Republicans by introducing herself as a fighter pilot running to take out "Mitch McConnell's handpicked congressman," Barr.

In the last few years, plenty of candidates who thought their impressive military or business backgrounds would transcend partisanship have fallen flat on their face. Barr and Republicans will have over a year to define McGrath as a would-be vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. But, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray narrowly carried the 6th CD in his race against Sen. Rand Paul last year, so McGrath's challenge is worth watching.

MI-08: Mike Bishop (R) - Central: Lansing, Detroit exurbs
Lean Republican. Between Democrats' challenge to Bishop and the open 11th CD next door, the Detroit suburbs are shaping up to be a critical House battleground. Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who grew up in a well-known meatpacking family in rural Holly and served three tours in Iraq as an Arabic-proficient CIA analyst, plans to contrast her service with Bishop's lengthy political career and has already raised $460,000.

There's just one slight liability: Slotkin just moved back from DC after wrapping up her stint as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense and has never been registered to vote in Michigan since she left for college at Cornell University. Bishop cuts an insider figure and plenty of votes to attack (including on healthcare), but Slotkin's biggest challenge will be to make voters see her as "one of them." Slotkin is an underdog but has a credible path.

NY-11: Dan Donovan (R) - Staten Island, Brooklyn: Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst
Likely Republican. Donovan's popularity as Staten Island's former DA has made him look untouchable in this seat, but former GOP Rep. Michael Grimm's exit from prison and entry into a primary against the incumbent has thrown a curveball into the 2018 race. Grimm is attacking Donovan for voting against the House GOP's healthcare repeal bill and has plenty of sympathizers who believe he was unfairly targeted for prosecution.

The potential for a GOP fracas has perked up Democrats, who have had an awful track record on Staten Island the last few cycles. The frontrunner is Army veteran and healthcare executive Max Rose, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in Afghanistan and is close with former Rep. Mike McMahon's political organization. Former pro boxer Boyd Melson is running from the Brooklyn side and hoping to break through with sheer force of personality.

PA-07: Pat Meehan (R) - Southeast: most of Delaware County
Lean Republican. Meehan, a former federal prosecutor and Delaware County DA, hasn't faced a credible or well-funded opponent since he first won this seat in the 2010 wave, but that's likely to change in 2018. Hillary Clinton won this district 49 percent to 47 percent in 2016, and although Meehan voted against the AHCA, Democrats will try to attack him for voting to advance the healthcare repeal package in committee.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a former stand up comedian who fell short in a bid for next-door PA-13 in 2014, is running as a Main Line progressive and has experience raising money. Non-profit executive Paul Perry, who was born to an incarcerated mother and subsequently adopted and raised by two fathers, could attract support with his powerful personal story. It's promising, but still uphill for Democrats given the expensive of the Philadelphia market.

UT-04: Mia Love (R) - Central: Southern Salt Lake City suburbs
Likely Republican. In her first run for Congress in 2012, Love underperformed GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 19 points and lost by less than 1,000 votes. In 2016, she outperformed Donald Trump by 15 points and won reelection with 54 percent. Although Love has worked hard to change her initial reputation as a spotlight seeker, she still hasn't put this overwhelmingly GOP seat away. And, Trump's unpopularity in Utah could keep Democrats in the game.

In a major coup for Democrats, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is on the verge of running against Love. McAdams, 42, won the top county office in 2012 and 2016 and already represents 85 percent of UT-04 (although UT-04 is much more Republican than the county). McAdams has built a unique brand as a wonky, nerdy Mormon Democrat, raised over $1 million in past races and cultivated relationships with Republican mayors.

McAdams, an attorney, will likely focus on local needs like transportation and infrastructure funding and paint Love as an inaccessible obstructionist who has sided with the Tea Party over Salt Lake's business community on issues like reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. His allies contend he'll be harder to pigeonhole as "Nancy Pelosi's dream" than Love's previous opponents because voters already know him as a pragmatist.

However, McAdams's most press-worthy episode of 2017 could cut both ways. In March, McAdams's consideration of several possible suburban sites for new homeless shelters drew intense ire at town hall meetings. Later, it was revealed McAdams had been moved to act on the issue after posing as a homeless person and living in a particularly distressed shelter for three days and two nights. Keep an eye on this race.

VA-07: Dave Brat (R) - Central: Richmond suburbs, Culpeper
Likely Republican. This wealthy district in the Richmond suburbs was once the most reliably pro-GOP establishment part of the state. Then in 2014, Brat pulled off the upset of the decade by defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. And in 2016, court-ordered redistricting removed deeply conservative Hanover County from the 7th CD. Last year, President Trump lost the suburban portion of the 7th CD and won it by just six points overall.

The blue trend line of Henrico County and lingering ill will towards Brat on the part of old pro-Cantor forces could make this an interesting "reach" in a wave scenario. Democrats haven't decided between a primary or a convention. Five are running, including 2016 nominee Eileen Bedell, but the two strongest are former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, who lives in Henrico, and retired Marine Col. Dan Ward, who lives on a farm in more rural Orange.