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Review mulls whether U.S. House Democrats should write off rural congressional districts in future elections

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in on the House floor on the first day of the new session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

BALTIMORE — Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has one of the most sensitive jobs in Washington, D.C.

The third-term Democrat, representing New York’s Hudson Valley, is leading a review into what House Democrats did wrong in 2016. It’s a bit like working internal affairs of a police force, essentially investigating his own party and trying to explain what needs to be done differently next time around.

What he’s found, so far, in his independent autopsy of the House Democrats’ disappointing performance in the 2016 elections is a mix of optimistic and depressing news. “We can win where we used to struggle, and we’re struggling a bit where we used to win,” Maloney said in an hour-long interview here at the Democratic policy retreat, on the eve of a 90-minute presentation he made Thursday afternoon.

He means that there are House districts that Democrats have competed in, or even represented for a long time, that have moved so sharply away from Democrats that they need to reassess whether to compete there ever again. Yet there is also an emerging set of districts that have long been held by Republicans that are now bending toward Democrats faster than even the most optimistic strategists envisioned.

The ones now on the table? Longtime Repulican districts that are becoming more demographically diverse. Off the table may be rural districts with little diversity, the very places where Trump did well in 2016.

With the help of two aides, Maloney set up shop inside the offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and has examined 127 House races from the 2016 cycle, interviewing more than 50 campaign managers and candidates. He’s nothing but complimentary to the DCCC staff and its chairman, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., who was elected to a second term to run the House campaign operation despite a disappointing 2016. With Donald Trump’s unexpected win, the party gained just six House seats after leaders predicted a gain of more than 20.

The Maloney review is one that rank-and-file lawmakers pushed as an independent check on the campaign, running parallel but separate from the “Deep Dive” that Lujan is overseeing. There’s a natural tension to what Maloney is doing, and as votes finished late Tuesday afternoon, he and Lujan could be seen having a long, animated discussion on the House floor. Lujan joined Maloney for Thursday’s presentation here.

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A lawyer, Maloney is a bit obsessed with data, and he believes there are 350 unique characteristics that can be applied to every House race that will indicate which direction it will go. He and his aides have been pouring those granular points into a formula trying to figure out the best targets for Democrats.

Some findings are surprising. “Did the unemployment rate matter or not? Turns out it doesn’t matter much at all,” he said.

Maloney also wants to abandon the longtime party metric used traditionally by operatives known as the Democratic Performance Index, a complicated formula based on performance of presidential and congressional candidates in specific House districts. Instead, he said, the three biggest predictors of the partisan bent of a House district are the percentage of it that is rural, how much of its population has received college degrees and how diverse it is.

“We need to get out of the past. Our tools need to get out of the past,” Maloney said.

This means that Democrats made mistakes in places like Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, seats that in the summer of 2016 Democrats expected to win. But both are very rural and are not diverse. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, won re-election by nearly 8 percentage points in a district that swung from twice voting for Barack Obama for president to supporting Donald Trump, and Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., won his first election despite a long career of controversial statements as a radio talk-show host.

And two highlights for Democrats came in highly educated suburban districts, in northern New Jersey, where Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D, ousted a seven-term Republican, and outside Orlando, where Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D, knocked off a 23-year incumbent.

Some of this won’t be news to Lujan and senior staff at the DCCC, because they have already launched a “Majority Project” designed toward competing in these emerging districts. In private they admit they realized too late that Trump was speeding up the shift of well-educated suburbanites toward the Democrats, leaving too many Republicans facing inferior opponents last year in what should have been competitive races.

Still, in a pre-emptive session with reporters Thursday morning, Lujan said that he has put pollsters and consultants on notice that they might be losing their contracts because they were too far off the mark in some of their assessments particularly in rural districts.

What’s most disturbing for Democrats is just how badly their candidates did in some places. In Denver’s eastern suburbs, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., won a fourth term by more than 8 percentage points despite a relentless DCCC investment there; Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., won the suburban district north of Philadelphia previously held by his brother by 9 percentage points; and in the Twin Cities suburbs, Rep. Erik Paulsen , R, won a fifth term by an astounding 13 percentage points.

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Clinton won Coffman’s and Paulsen’s districts by 9 percentage points over Trump, and Fitzpatrick’s district was essentially a tie in the presidential race.

Maloney summed up those suburban follies in the most basic terms: “Candidates still matter.”

The question neither Maloney nor Lujan will answer is if they should recruit moderate to conservative candidates to compete in rural districts or just abandon them altogether.

A beta test for 2018 will come in two special elections this spring to replace House members getting elevated to Trump’s cabinet. Democrats regularly win governors and Senate races in Montana, where Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., is set to become Interior secretary but it’s unclear if the DCCC will invest in that mostly rural at-large district.

Instead, Maloney said, “Watch the special election for Tom Price’s seat in suburban Atlanta.”

Rep. Price, R-Ga., expected to win confirmation as Trump’s health secretary, has never faced a difficult race in 12 years in Congress, but his district snapped from favoring Republican Mitt Romney by 14 percentage points over Obama in 2012 to a narrow win for Trump of just 2 percentage points.

That’s one of 10 seats held by a Republican that Clinton lost by less than 4 percentage points, and there are another 23 GOP seats that Clinton won.

“We need to see those opportunities and we need to take advantage of them,” Maloney said.

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