U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) should be feeling nervous as the 2018 midterm elections come into view on the political horizon. Challenged by just one Democrat in 2016, she was re-elected to her second term by only hardly in a gerrymandered monstrosity of a district that Hillary Clinton won by 10 points.
This year, no fewer than eight Democrats — including State Sen. Jennifer Wexton, former State Department official and anti-human trafficking advocate Alison Kiehl Friedman, Army veteran and business strategist Dan Helmer and Obama administration alumnus Lindsey Davis Stover — have declared their candidacies for that race. The jam-packed primary in Comstock’s district is by no means unusual. Finally, Democrats’ problem is a good one to have: things are starting to look a little crowded
Helped along by President Donald Trump’s abysmal approval rate, Democrats certainly lead the Republicans in energy and enthusiasm for the 2018 congressional elections. The most recent polling data signaled that Democrats have a double-digit lead on the generic ballot, and experts suggest that this could be sufficient to flip the House of Representatives. However, it will be impossible for Democrats to benefit from that energy if our candidates do not challenge Republicans in every last election and district — no matter how unlikely the race may seem. Last fall, Virginia Democrats made substantial inroads in the General Assembly, but many of those victories would have been impossible in past elections because those districts were uncontested. In 2013, 34 Virginia Republicans ran without major-party opposition. In the 2015 midterm elections, that number increased to 44. But in 2017, fueled by anger at Trump and his Republican-establishment enablers, Democratic challengers left only 12 Republicans unopposed. Six Republicans who lost their seats in 2017 held seats that were not contested in 2015.
Many of those Democratic candidates had never considered running for political office before. Thanks to the Virginians who stepped up to the plate to run for the first time, not only is the General Assembly more Democratic, it looks a lot more like the Commonwealth. Joining the Democratic caucus were Danica Roem, the first openly transgender woman elected to the General Assembly; Hala Ayala, a PTA mom who became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates; and Lee Carter, the first self-described Democratic Socialist. By fighting like hell and challenging every Republican in every office, Democrats can chip away at GOP majorities on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures.
This midterm election cycle, I’ll be closely watching a number of top-notch Democratic candidates running in typically ruby-red states and districts. There’s Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who is running for retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s seat. Her center-of-the-road politics could help her hold the line against the hateful and lawless former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is running for the Republican nomination. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee is also vacating his seat, and the promising Democratic candidate in that election is former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Like Sinema, Bredesen is a political moderate, and having won every county in Tennessee in 2006, he has broad appeal in the state. In Texas, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Although electing a Democrat to the U.S. Senate from Texas is surely a long uphill climb, the young, progressive and Kennedy-esque Congressman is the Lone Star State’s great blue hope. Mass deportations and wall speculation affect his border district as much as any other, and his dedication to comprehensive immigration reform could help him mobilize the binational state’s large Latinx community.
There is also Amy McGrath, who is running for the House of Representatives in Kentucky’s 6th district. She was a combat aviator in the U.S. Marines who flew 89 combat missions bombing al Qaeda and the Taliban. When she was 12 years old, she wrote letters to every member of the House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees asking them to change the law against women serving in combat so that she could follow her dream of flying fighter jets. “I never got a letter back from my Senator Mitch McConnell,” she laughed in her campaign launch ad. Her campaign has already had a remarkably enthusiastic and financially successful start. Kentucky’s 6th district is deeply red, but I’m confident that McGrath will be a competitive challenger to Republican Rep. Andy Barr, the McConnell devotée who is the incumbent candidate.
Looking beyond Congress to gubernatorial elections, I look forward to watching the campaign of Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who is testing the theory that Democrats can win statewide elections in the South by building coalitions of African-American support. She has also attracted Democratic endorsements nationwide, such as from former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey, and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
Midterm elections are generally seen as referenda on the sitting president, and given Trump’s low approval rating and historic trends working against the party in power, Democrats could well be in line for a significant windfall. Gaining the 24 seats Democrats need to flip the House of Representatives will be no easy task, but the possibility would not even be on the table without the wave of Democratic energy and appealing, viable candidates.