House Republicans are eyeing pickup opportunities this cycle in enemy territory — the liberal states of California, Illinois and New York.
Districts in the trio of solid-blue states provide the GOP some of its best chances to knock off incumbents, as Republicans look to grow their congressional majority and reach their ambitious goal of 245 seats.
If Democrats hope to make gains, they have to protect their own and take out some Republicans themselves. In an unfavorable midterm election year, that’s looking less likely, even in the traditionally Democratic states.
Democrats netted four seats in Illinois in 2012, following a friendly gerrymander (a fifth Republican seat was eliminated when Illinois redrew its districts), one in New York and four in California.
Still, even some Republicans are surprised at some pickup opportunities they have in the states and that several incumbents who once looked like top targets now look like heavy favorites.
“The fact that we even have as many competitive races in these three states speaks a lot to where we are in this environment and to our candidates, who have really made these races,” said one national GOP strategist involved in House contests.
“If you would have told me earlier this year that David Valadao [R-Calif.] and Chris Gibson [R-N.Y.] weren’t going to have any outside money spent, I would have laughed.”
Those two incumbents were expected to be some of the GOP’s toughest to defend, but both look to be in good shape about six weeks out from Election Day. Meanwhile, Democrats once favored to win reelection — such as Reps. William Enyart (Ill.) and Ami BeraAmi BeraIndependent investigation into Russian interference needed House Democrats identify vulnerable incumbents for 2018 cycle Dems bringing young undocumented immigrants to Trump's speech MORE (Calif.) — are facing increasingly tough odds.
Democrats argue that the president could still help in these states, and they would welcome him on the campaign trail. They also point to other unexpected places they’re likely to make gains, such as Florida and even Nebraska.
“California, Illinois and New York are not simply the center of the House battleground this cycle, but also the places where President Obama can make the biggest difference for Democratic turnout,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokesman Josh Schwerin.
But in those places, Democrats are simply fighting to hold onto what they have, when they once dreamed of making gains.
They are retrenched in California, where they hoped to net a seat or two. Now, with no candidate at the top of the ballot generating enthusiasm, Democrats are steeling themselves for huge drop-off from the number of voters who flocked to the polls to reelect Obama in 2012.
“All of this is going to depend on voter turnout in this state, and the lower the turnout, the better it’s going to be for Republicans,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime GOP strategist and editor of the nonpartisan California Target Book.
The DCCC has moved back its planned ad war against Valadao, with former Senate chief of staff Amanda Renteria (D) slipping. A recent SurveyUSA poll showed her down by 19 points. The group instead has shifted resources to attacking state Rep. Jeff Gorell (R), who’s running against Rep. Julia BrownleyJulia BrownleyDems react to Flynn's request for immunity: 'Where there's smoke, there's fire' Lawmakers press Mattis on Marines nude photo scandal A guide to the committees: House MORE (D-Calif.) in a Democratic-leaning suburban Los Angeles district.
The DCCC is spending money to shore up Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar (D) in the party’s best pickup opportunity in the open 31st District, but the fact that the group is even spending signals the race is far from the sure thing many thought.
While the DCCC still has $1.1 million reserved in the Sacramento media market that was initially earmarked to target Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), Democratic strategists privately admit the sophomore lawmaker is looking strong, and the DCCC might end up using that cash to help Bera, who is in a tight battle against former Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.).
Ose’s campaign released a poll showing him with a small lead, which the Democratic House Majority PAC pushed back on with a poll of its own showing Bera slightly up.
It’s not all bad news for Democrats in the Golden State. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) looks like a likely winner in his swing district, and Republicans admit that former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio (R) has made some missteps against Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).
In Illinois, Democrats are struggling to generate the enthusiasm favorite son Obama created two years ago. Unpopular Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D), with his own reelection in doubt, is a drag, particularly in downstate races.
Democrats privately concede that freshman Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who barely won his swing seat against a weak opponent in 2012, is likely to sail to reelection this fall. An early target of national Democrats, Davis recently released a poll showing him with a 19-point lead against former Judge Ann Callis (D), once a vaunted recruit.
They’re instead fretting about Enyart, a freshman who’s facing a tough challenge from Illinois state Rep. Mike Bost (R) in a suburban St. Louis district. National groups have been spending heavily on both sides, and Democrats grumble that Enyart has done little to solidify himself in the swing district, while Republicans are increasingly optimistic.
Republicans are also bullish about the chances of former Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) in his rematch against Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) in Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. Schneider barely beat Dold, despite Obama’s coattails in 2012, and strategists in both parties predict another close race.
Republicans are also hopeful that former Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) might be able to force a close race against Rep. Cheri BustosCheri BustosMembers jam with Wynonna Judd, Keith Urban at Grammys on the Hill Overnight Regulation: Justices won't halt Obama water rule case | Greens, states sue over delayed energy rules Lawmakers ask Sessions to exempt federal prisons from hiring freeze MORE (D-Ill.), though they concede Bustos’s recent missteps haven’t been enough to push the race into toss-up territory.
In New York, Rep. Bill Owens’s (D) retirement has given the Republicans a prime pickup opportunity, and they seem to have finally solved the party infighting that has hurt them there in past years. Former White House aide Elise Stefanik led documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf by 13 points in a recent Siena College poll, and House Majority PAC recently canceled its ad reservations there.
In the Long Island-based 1st District, Republicans failed several times to unseat Rep. Tim BishopTim BishopDems separated by 29 votes in NY House primary Flint residents hire first K Street firm House moves to vote on .1T package; backup plan in place MORE (D). But they’re feeling better about the race with state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R) as their nominee, who doesn’t have the same outsourcing baggage that wealthy businessman and two-time nominee Randy Altschuler had. Still, a Siena poll last week showed Zeldin down 10 points.
One of the biggest disappointments for the cycle has been Democrats’ ability to target Gibson. Many kept hoping wealthy venture capitalist Sean Eldridge (D), the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, would dip into his pockets to attack Gibson on the pricey New York City airwaves. That hasn’t happened, and Democrats privately admit their shot is gone here.
Democrats could still pick up the Staten Island-based 11th District from embattled Rep. Michael Grimm (R), who faces 20 federal criminal charges and a looming December trial. But even Grimm is hanging in there; he had a narrow 4-point lead in a recent Siena College poll. Freshman Rep. Sean Maloney (D) is well-positioned in a rematch with former Rep. Nan Hayworth (R).
A late-breaking opportunity might be available against Rep. Dan Maffei (D), though. He won his seat in 2012, redrawn as more favorable toward Democrats. But the NRCC increased its advertising reservation there to $1.5 million, and Democrats fired back against former federal prosecutor John Katko (R). A Siena poll showed Maffei up 8 points.
This post was updated at 10:25 a.m.