Democrats who rejected Congress in 2018 face obstacles in 2022

WASHINGTON (AP) – Moments after flipping a longtime Republican seat in Congress in 2018, Iowa Democrat Cindy Axne said “Washington doesn’t have our back and we deserve much better.”

Now seeking a third term in one of the most competitive House races, Axne is sounding a similar tone, telling voters she’s done for Iowans “while Washington politicians are fighting.”

But Axne and other Democrats in the class of 2018 are campaigning in a much different political environment this year. Anxiety over Donald Trump’s presidency, which their party used to flip more than 40 seats and regain its majority in the House of Representatives, has subsided. Instead it is frustration with the economy under President Joe Biden.

Many once-competitive districts have been redrawn by Republican-dominated state legislatures to become GOP-friendly.

“It was a very different world,” pollster John Zogby said of 2018. “Inflation is now where we haven’t seen it in 40 years and it’s affecting everything. And this is the party in power. With campaigns you don’t get to say, ‘But it could be’ or ‘But look what the other guy did’.”

Many of the swing district Democrats elected four years ago were buoyed by college-educated suburban voters, women and young people who shun Trump. That means many second-term House Democrats’ defeats could be interpreted as opposition to Trump no longer motivating voters in the same way — even though the former president could seek the White House again in 2024.

Trump continues to shape politics in a far more present sense. He has dominated the national Republican Party despite spreading lies about a free and fair 2020 presidential election and now faces a House subpoena for helping to incite the mob that stormed the US Capitol last year.

Tom Perez, who chaired the Democratic National Committee from 2017 to 2021, noted that midterm cycles are historically difficult for the presidential party and that — plus grim economic news from the U.S. — would typically raise the question “will Democrats to be under shelling?”

Instead, Perez thinks many of the toughest congressional races have remained close because of the strength of Democrats elected four years ago.

“All of these people from the class of ’18, what they have in common is that they are really incredibly competent, successful, and have earned the trust of voters in their districts across the ideological spectrum,” said Perez, co-chair of the American Bridge 21st Century super PAC. “To me, that’s why we have a chance here, not being driven by the wind of the moment, that incredible combination of the qualities of the candidates in contrast to the extreme views of the people who are running against them.”

Overall, 66 New Democrats won House races in 2018, ceding 41 seats to Republicans. Their party returned many of those gains in 2020, with Republicans picking up 14 new seats. Those GOP victories included defeating a dozen Democrats elected to the House for the first time in the previous cycle.

The Democratic House losses were overshadowed by Biden’s victory over Trump. But this time, a further decline in the House Democratic class of 2018 could draw more attention — especially if it helps the GOP pick up the net five seats it needs to regain the House majority.

In addition to Axna, Democrats who could be vulnerable include Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia. Another Democrat from Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, as well as Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Angie Craig of Minnesota and Sharice Davids of Kansas, could also face tough re-election.

“The question is whether or not it’s going to be similar to ’18 in terms of the democracy that’s on the ballot and the reaction to Trump,” former California Democratic Rep. Harley Road, who was elected in 2018 but narrowly lost his bid, said is for next month’s election. “Based on polls and primaries, it doesn’t appear that the voting public holds Republicans accountable for the Big Lie.”

Perez is more optimistic: “The midterm elections are supposed to be a referendum on the president, but Donald Trump continues to inject himself” into national politics.

Domestic traffic is common for both sides. By early 2018, nearly half of the 87 Republicans elected to the House when their party took control of the chamber during the 2010 Tea Party surge were gone. More lost that November.

Still, the Class of 2018 was notable as the largest influx of first-year Democrats in the House in four-plus decades, and the youngest and most diverse chamber ever.

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center on American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said 2018 also saw the largest class of new women elected to the House since 1992, with 35 Democrats and one Republican. But 2020 also saw 28 new women elected to Congress, some of them Republicans who defeated Democrats who won for the first time in the last cycle.

“We’ve had a couple of very strong years in a row, one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans,” Walsh said of women in the House. She said that means that even if the 2018 Democratic class shrinks this year, “I wouldn’t look at one election cycle and say the face of Congress is going back to the old, white people.”

Meanwhile, Republicans have 32 Hispanic candidates and 23 black candidates running for the House this cycle — both party records. They say their chances of winning a majority in the chamber are based more on high inflation and rising crime rates in some places than on Trump or last year’s insurgency.

“We have a choice between sanity and insanity,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. “And Americans will vote Republican up and down as a result.”

The 2018 House Democrat class won’t completely fall apart. Some incumbents are seeking re-election in decidedly blue districts, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Lucy McBath of Georgia and Colin Allred of Texas, who was class co-chairman.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Haley Stevens, the other co-chair, beat fellow 2018 House Democrat Andy Levin when the two incumbents squared off in this year’s Democratic primary based on their state’s new map.

One member of the 2018 Democratic House class ousted in 2020, former New York Rep. Max Rose, is now running to return to Congress. Another member, New Jersey Representative Jeff Van Drew, has since become a Republican.

Former Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman was a Republican elected in 2018, but lost his 2020 GOP primary. Riggleman is now appearing in a TV ad praising Spanberger.

“She’s trying to change Congress and make it work,” Riggleman says in the ad. “She puts the country first.”

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