House Dems target GOP suburbs
© Devin Henry

LAKEVILLE, MINN. — Democrats haven’t won this suburban Minneapolis House district since 1998, and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) was getting a bird’s eye view of the challenge here during a visit to a local paper mill earlier this month.

Performance Paper President Russ DeFauw told Hoyer and Democratic candidate Angie Craig, the prize recruit the party hopes will take back retiring Rep. John Kline’s seat, that he wasn’t crazy about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Claiming 'spousal privilege' to stonewall Congress MORE’s proposal for tuition-free community college.

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It’s “not only a fantasy, but it would be a gross misallocation of resources,” DeFauw said bluntly at a roundtable attended by local businessman.

Democrats think their path back to a House majority runs through wealthy, well-educated and politically-engaged suburban districts around the country.

Minnesota will prove a testing ground for that strategy this fall, with Democrats looking to claw back Kline’s seat and knock off another Republican in a neighboring district.

“We believe we have some of our greatest opportunities in these suburban districts,” Hoyer told The Hill after the meeting. 

In Minnesota, prognosticators have given Craig a slight edge in her race, but say Democrats have a tougher road ahead in Rep. Erik Paulsen’s (R) district in Minneapolis’ western suburbs.

Democrats are making a hard charge for these seats, fielding strong and well-funded challengers in for the first time in years. 

They also hope to tie their GOP opponents to presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE — a playbook that, if successful here, they could look to replicate in similar districts around the country, where Hillary Clinton could find an edge with voters turned off by the Republicans’ bombastic standard-bearer. 

“First of all, they’re swing districts by definition,” Hoyer said. 

“Secondly, we believe Donald Trump is showing himself, almost every day, to be an unacceptable option for president of the United States. We believe that the people also are very, very upset with the dysfunctional Congress, the gridlocked Congress that is not addressing issues.”

In the wave elections of 2010 and 2014, Republicans mostly cleared out the contingent of rural and conservative Democrats that had contributed to their House ranks for decades. With Republicans tightening their hold there, and liberals maintaining a strong edge in urban centers, fights in the suburbs could be key to control of the House. 

“These are areas where I think it’s reasonable to expect Clinton to run ahead of Obama 2012 and for Democrats to pick up some seats,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. 

Residents of the two Democrat-targeted Minnesota districts, for example, are on average the best-educated and wealthiest in the state. Democrats hope to tap to electoral advantages with those voters by lining up strong challengers here.

They also hope to use Trump as a boogeyman, applying his negatives to congressional Republicans and appealing to the college-educated white voters that are cool to him, Kondik said. 

Democrats are expected to gain seats in November; their goal now is to expand their map into suburban districts where Republicans have recent history on their side.

Many House seats widely accepted as toss-ups — such as Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) outside Chicago or Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) near Denver — are in the suburbs. And, like in the Twin Cities, Democrats hope to make battlegrounds out of traditionally GOP-controlled seats, such as Rep. John Mica in suburban Orlando or Rep. Steve Knight outside of Los Angeles.   

Some of these districts haven’t had Democratic representatives for years, meaning the party has to broaden its appeal. In Angie Craig’s case, that means reaching out to independent voters and plugging her private sector bona fides. 

“What I’ve found so far is those independent and lean-Republican voters are giving me a shot here, so it’s really extending beyond the traditional Democratic base to say, ‘will you support me?’” said Craig, a former executive at medical device manufacture St. Jude Medical.

Her race is near the top of the Democrats’ wish list this fall. The district is a Republican-leaning swing seat: Obama and Mitt Romney ran even in 2012, but Kline won by sizable margins for more than decade.

Former radio host Jason Lewis won Tuesday’s GOP primary here, pitting him against the well-funded businesswoman Craig in a race prognosticators predict she could win (Craig has a $1.6 million cash-on-hand edge, and the Cook Political Report changed its rating of the district to “Lean Democrat” this week). 

Lewis acknowledges the cash gap, and said he thinks he’s an underdog in the race. His goal is the same as Craig’s: in a split district, appeal to the middle. 

“I think you’ve got to rise above the factions, the parties, and be an independent voice,” he said. “I think you’ve got to represent the wishes of the district, and you’ve got to be a good listener and make certain that you’re not dogmatic about anything.”

In Minneapolis’s western suburbs, Democrats hope they can use Trump to highlight Paulsen’s voting record in a district that voted twice for Obama.    

Paulsen is a business-friendly, moderate Republican with a legislative portfolio focused on tax issues and local matters, like repealing the ObamaCare tax on medical devices. But his opponent, Terri Bonoff, said she plans to use social issues against him in a district where that hasn’t been a major topic in the past.

“For the first time, there’s a spotlight on our district, and what that spotlight shows is that, yeah, we do ticket split out here ... but nobody’s ever shone a light on Erik’s record,” said Bonoff, a veteran of the state Senate and a former business executive. “For the first time, I, as a challenger have the opportunity to make my case.”

Democrats certainly aren’t guaranteed wins in either district, especially against the deep-pocketed Paulsen (he has $2.5 million more in the bank than Bonoff, and Cook says the race leans Republican). But they hope the seats — and those like them around the country — are primed to flip in their favor.

Republicans acknowledge the suburbs could one day be a new focal point of House campaigning. But they say Democrats have missed their chance in several potentially favorable areas this year, fielding weak or underfunded candidates in suburban New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, also questioned whether Democrats can easily stick Trump to congressional candidates who are looking to run on their own records.

“I think that voters can see through the Democrats’ political smoke,” she said. “Republican congressional candidates are not carbon copies of the presidential nominee."

The fight for the House will light up airwaves in the suburbs. In the Twin Cities, for instance, the NRCC has reserved $6.5 million in ad time for the fall; Democratic groups have lined up over $8 million. Commercial breaks for voters in the tightly-packed metro will be filled with ads for up to three House races this fall — with Democrats looking for a rare sweep.

“In the suburban districts, we think we have an excellent opportunity, because they’re listening to both sides of the arguments,” Hoyer said. 

“Some districts on our side and some districts on their side, they’re only listening to one side of the argument … and we think we have a better side of the argument.”