If House Democrats have any hope of saving their flimsy majority in 2022, or even just limiting GOP gains, it will be thanks to candidates like Salas. He is part of a group aiming to win roughly a dozen Republican-held House seats that Joe Biden carried in 2020 — perhaps the only GOP districts that are truly vulnerable this fall.
In a midterm political environment leaning so heavily against Democrats, the party will need to win a large chunk of them to have any chance of remaining in power next year. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take the majority, and the GOP target list includes more than 10 Democratic districts Donald Trump carried in 2020.
Stiff national headwinds have stifled Democratic recruitment in many places, and some potential contenders opted to wait for a more promising year. But party operatives have landed top-tier Democratic candidates in many Biden-won districts, in part thanks to new favorable district lines. They are state legislators and military veterans and public school educators, among other backgrounds.
“Redistricting has been obviously bad for Democrats in Ohio, but it’s been great in Cincinnati,” said Democrat Greg Landsman, an early education advocate-turned-Cincinnati city council member who’s taking on GOP Rep. Steve Chabot in 2022.
Chabot was protected over the last decade by a gerrymander that sliced Cincinnati in two. But the newly drawn district unites the city, transforming the seat from one Trump carried by 3 points in 2020 to one Biden won by 9 points. “It’s probably the best pickup opportunity that Democrats have in 2022. He never had to run [in a] district remotely this competitive,” Landsman said of Chabot.
Salas’ district also became more favorable for his party, by shedding some of Valadao’s home base.
House Democratic strategists see Landsman and Salas as among their top eight prospects to flip a district this year. All were won by Biden in 2020 — though rising inflation and Biden’s plummeting popularity have made national Republicans operatives far less concerned than the 2020 numbers might warrant.
Even so, Democrats insist they’re going on offense. And several of the party’s targets are in newly redrawn districts that voted for Biden by double digits, giving the party some hope even in a more hostile environment.
Perhaps Democrats’ single best target is in central Illinois, where the party transformed GOP Rep. Rodney Davis‘Springfield-area district into one Biden carried by 11 points. Davis jumped to a neighboring seat — and a primary against a fellow Republican incumbent, clearing the way for Democrat Nikki Budzinski, a former adviser to Gov. JB Pritzker.
Another top Democratic target is in Western Michigan, where Republican Rep. peter mejer is now in a district that voted for Biden by nearly 9 points. And in southern New Mexico, Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez, a former aid to Sen. Martin Heinrich (DN.M.), is taking on GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell in a seat redrawn by state Democrats to tilt more to the left.
In Cincinnati, Landsman won his primary last week with no competition, allowing him to devote all his efforts against Chabot, whom he outraised last quarter. Democrats also expect another recruit up this Tuesday, Nebraska state Sen. Tony Vargas, to clear his primary on Tuesday and shift his focus toward GOP Rep. don bacon
who represents the Biden-won district in Omaha.
In interviews, many of these recruits insisted they were not discouraged by the ominous political environment because they feel their backgrounds are uniquely suited to their home turf.
Salas, for example, has racked up huge victory margins in his California state Assembly seat elections, attracting crossover voters by bucking his own party on issues including opposing the gas tax and supporting increased funding for police.
And in Nebraska, Vargas, the son of immigrants who became a public school science teacher, lost his father, a machinist, to Covid-19. He was outraged that Bacon voted against a pandemic relief package.
“We need people that come from working-class backgrounds that also have experience getting things done,” Vargas said.
Bacon’s last opponent was a self-declared socialist who lost to him in two consecutive elections after the incumbent painted her as too far left for the swing district. In contrast, Vargas touts her bipartisan streak in the state legislature: “I’ve been able to get a lot done across the aisle.”
While some Democrats in the Biden-GOP districts are skating through primaries, others have been more contentious. In the Los Angeles area, Christy Smith is seeking her third matchup against Rep. mike garcia (R-Calif.) after losing the first two.
But some national Democrats are pushing for first-time candidate Quaye Quartey, a Navy intelligence officer. He and his supporters of him argue he’s a better contender against Garcia.
“He and I are both Naval Academy graduates, former officers — even though I outrank him. We’re both people of color, we’re both first generation Americans,” Quartey said in an interview, as he compared their bios.
The seat, which Republicans unexpectedly won in a 2020 special election, went for Biden by double digits in 2020, as Garcia held on to the seat by just 333 votes last fall.
“The past two cycles, with all due respect to the former candidate, we didn’t get it done,” Quartey said when asked about running against Smith.
Still, while Biden-won territory isn’t solid ground for Republicans, it also means that many of the incumbents have experience winning elections in tougher environments than they may face in 2022. Garcia and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) — who was one of just three Republicans in Hillary Clinton-won districts to survive the 2018 Democratic wave — each have just under $2 million banked already.
Democrat feels their likely nominee against Fitzpatrick, Ashley Ehasz, has a compelling profile as an Army veteran — but her campaign had just $90,000 on hand as of April.
And Democrats are a bit less optimistic about seats that Biden carried by a smaller margin. Democratic physician Asif Mahmood is challenging GOP Rep. YoungKim in an Orange County seat that Biden won by just 2 points. Navy veteran Jay Chen is slightly better positioned in Republican Rep. michelle steel‘s neighboring district, which Biden won by 6 points.
In addition to California, Democrats had high hopes for New York — where the party’s state legislators had drawn a lopsided gerrymander. But the state’s high court tossed out the map, scrambling plans to turn at least three GOP-held seats into strong Biden districts.
One district in upstate New York, held by retiring GOP Rep. John Katko, is likely to remain a top, Democratic-leaning pickup opportunity. Attorney Josh Riley and veteran Francis Conole are running there.
But an open seat on Long Island and another GOP-held district on Staten Island are likely to be far less Democratic-friendly under the new court-drawn map. That’s bad news for former Rep. Max Rose (DN.Y.), a Purple Heart-winning combat vet seeking a rematch with GOP Rep. Nicole Malliotakis on Staten Island.
Rose is one of a handful of Democratic candidates who are making another go this election after a previous failed bid — with hope they can pull off a win in a slightly better seat.
Democrats are also throwing support behind Hillary Scholten, a former DOJ attorney, as she prepares to face Meijer in his newly redrawn district.
The freshman Republican eleven said his vote to impeach former President Donald Trump may have been “political suicide” — but in addition to a GOP primary, he has to contend with a newly competitive district. The new lines, drawn by a nonpartisan commission, take in portions of Grand Rapids that Scholten easily won in 2020 and add voters from other Democratic strongholds, like 20,000-student Grand Valley State University.
“We’re going to target every last one of those voters and make sure they know they not only have a chance to influence this seat,” Scholten said, but also have a “nationally important” impact on the battle for the House.