Many of the House’s most vulnerable Democrats won’t know for several months if their seats will be winnable next year. And for some, a once-daunting statewide run just got a lot more appealing.
So far, a half-dozen Democrats who could face some of the toughest redistricting prospects have floated bids for Senate or governor — all in states where Republicans have the ability to doom their House careers with new maps next year.
This year’s once-a-decade redraw of congressional maps is made far more complicated by coronavirus-related delays in the process. And that uncertainty — on top of a 2022 election that could plunge Democrats back into the minority — is leading some lawmakers to seriously consider political options beyond the House.
“Everyone in this place is always thinking about what they’re going to do in the future. But certainly, I know that’s affecting the thinking of a lot of people,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), who is close to many swing-district Democrats in the House.
“The most frustrating thing is everything is so delayed. It’s really hard for people to know how to plan.”
For some members — such as Reps. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Tim Ryan of Ohio — an already-challenging district has a real chance to suddenly become a lot redder. For others, like Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida or Ron Kind of Wisconsin, the outcome is less certain though still potentially perilous.
The House is, of course, a natural launchpad for higher office. But lawmakers seem to be taking a closer look at statewide bids given the uncertainty of the cycle — including some, like Ryan in Ohio, who have resisted entreaties to run in the past.
Democratic lawmakers’ ambitions this cycle could clash with their party’s hopes of maintaining their meager, five-seat majority in the House. And the departure of any swing-district Democrats would deprive Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team of a crop of battle-tested incumbents, who might be the only ones that can hang on to their districts should they become tougher to win in redistricting.
But their runs could also boost Democrats’ chances at flipping GOP-held Senate seats and Republican-controlled governorships, although they could face competitive primaries as well as challenging general elections.
Ryan, who also ran for president in 2020, is expected to enter the 2022 race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. In an interview with POLITICO, Ryan admitted redistricting may make it more difficult for him to represent any part of the blue-tinted Summit County, which includes the city of Akron, leaving him with a less favorable landscape.
“I may not be able to get that piece of Summit, and any other direction you go in is pretty red. It could be harder,” he said. Trump won the other population centers of Ryan’s district in 2020, including Youngstown and its surrounding Mahoning County.
It’s not just Ohio. Democrats across the map are anxious about the fate of their seats, and in some cases, are rethinking their future in the House. Already, two House Democrats whose seats could look different come next fall — Reps. Filemón Vela (Texas) and Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.) — announced retirements. Campaign officials expect more to come.
But other vulnerable House incumbents are taking the opposite approach as they seriously consider statewide runs for Senate or governor.
Ryan, who hasn’t announced a Senate run, has been building a team for the potential campaign. Justin Barasky, who managed Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) reelection in 2018 and recently joined the firm Left Hook, would be the media consultant, and Dave Chase, a veteran campaign operative who most recently managed the reelection of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), would be the campaign manager, according to two people familiar with the process who spoke on condition of anonymity. Ryan is also working with Kimberly Padilla, a veteran Ohio fundraiser who helped him fundraise for his congressional campaign.
Other candidates remain more uncertain or are not as far along in their planning. There is increasing chatter about Lamb, who has a virtual fundraiser Monday featuring Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Senate’s best-known moderate voice in the 50-50 chamber, according to a copy of the invitation obtained by POLITICO. Lamb also recently beefed up his fundraising operation ahead of 2022, hiring consultants Tonya Fulkerson and Ashley Kennedy, a person familiar with the decision confirmed.
In a recent interview, Lamb conceded he might be a target in the upcoming redistricting.
“Of course there’s a chance. I mean, we’re losing a seat overall,” Lamb said, noting that Pennsylvania, which is declining in population relative to other states, is likely ceding one of its 18 districts. “The Republicans clearly have a special place in their heart for me. So, you know, if they have some say about where it would happen, I’m sure it would affect me.”
But Lamb said firmly that the competitiveness of a new district wouldn’t impact his thinking on a possible Senate run. The state’s GOP legislature, he said, should create a competitive map: “I believe very strongly that we should have fair districts that any Democrat should be able to compete in.”
But it’s hard to imagine a candidate who could perform as well as Lamb has in a tough district.
House Democrats would struggle to find someone else with his kind of crossover appeal. He won a spot in Congress in a 2018 special election in a district that Trump carried by 20 points two years earlier.
Another Pennsylvania Democrat, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, has also said she’s not ruling out a Senate run. It’s unclear how her Philadelphia-area seat — which she won after it became much bluer thanks to a 2018 state Supreme Court ruling — will change in redistricting.
In Florida, Murphy is seriously weighing a bid for Senate as her seat in the Orlando suburbs remains a major question mark next year. Murphy is currently embarked on a listening tour of the state and has hired a political director, the former head of the state Democratic Party.
Murphy is among two Democrats who won their seats thanks to a court-mandated redistricting in 2015 and might be most at risk in the upcoming redraw this cycle, thanks to a shift in the partisan lean of the state’s judges. The second, Rep. Charlie Crist, is openly mulling a return to the governorship, which he held for one term after winning the 2006 election as a Republican.
In a brief interview, Murphy rejected any concerns about the upcoming redistricting process and said it would not influence her decision to run for Senate.
“I’m not worried about it. When you do your job well, the rest will take care of itself,” Murphy said. “You don’t run for the Senate because you’re worried about that. That’s just not a factor.”
Still, many Florida Democrats and campaign strategists say they are most concerned with the fate of seats like Murphy’s and Crist’s, which are already competitive but could become almost unwinnable for their party.
In 2015, Florida’s state Supreme Court mandated redraws of those districts after it found the previous congressional map violated the state’s constitution.
But that court has undergone a transformation since then; GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis named three new conservative justices to replace retiring liberals. With Florida on track to gain two new districts in reapportionment, thanks to explosive population growth, some Democrats fear Republicans may try to restore the seats they lost in 2016.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the Republicans will again try to gerrymander the district lines to their advantage,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) “Now, we have a much different state Supreme Court.”
Any attempt to deprive Crist of some of his St. Petersburg turf or Murphy of the eastern side of Orlando would make their reelections much tougher, though campaign officials and strategists caution that those boundaries will be unknown until likely next year.
Kind, another centrist who has floated a Senate run, has seen his southwestern Wisconsin district shift away from the Democratic Party in recent years. He beat an underfunded 2022 challenger, Derrick Van Orden, by just 2 points last fall. Van Orden could make another run, and Kind last month said he was looking at a 2022 race against GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.
Wisconsin is maintaining its number of House seats, eight, but there aren’t many Democratic-friendly pockets nearby for Kind’s district to absorb.
Democrats have notched a number of victories in Wisconsin since former President Donald Trump’s 2016 win, including wins by President Joe Biden last year and Gov. Tony Evers in 2018. Nonetheless, Evers could also help keep Kind in the House by vetoing a map from the Republican-controlled state legislature that hurts him.
Joshua Karp, a Democratic consultant who has advised Senate candidates, including Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and now-DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, said for House members in tough districts, the “incentive is always there” to look at statewide office.
“Running a tough House race is the only thing that even approximates a statewide race,” Karp said. “Most people, first-time candidates looking at a Senate bid, even in a fairly moderately sized state like Wisconsin, you’re talking about 18-plus months of constant fundraising and travel. House candidates at least know what that is like, although obviously the scale of the endeavor is enormously different.”
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