Lawmakers targeted as district politics shift

Lawmakers targeted as district politics shift
© Greg Nash

Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindAmerica's workers and small business owners need the SECURE Act Blood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure Democrats see whistleblower report as smoking gun MORE (D-Wis.) are both prime targets for their opponents, with each seen as a potential takedown for parties looking to expand their 2018 footprints in once-safe seats.

Both lawmakers enjoyed easy campaigns in the last cycle, facing no opponent in November. But Sessions and Kind also have the dubious honor of being the only two incumbents who faced no opposition even as their parties’ presidential candidates lost their districts.


So now Democrats and Republicans alike are focusing on the Texas and Wisconsin districts, respectively, hoping that those 2016 numbers can lead to 2018 gains.

Sessions is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) list of top 2018 targets, while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has put Kind on its own list — a signal that the committees are open to making major investments.

Both lawmakers represent seats with shifting voting patterns. Kind sits in the 25th-most Republican-trending district in the Cook Political Report’s recent rankings, while Sessions’s district is the 24th-most Democratic-trending district since 2013.

Much of that has to do with the role demographics played in 2016.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' Hillary Clinton praises former administration officials who testified before House as 'gutsy women' Third-quarter fundraising sets Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg apart MORE, who performed strongly with well-educated and minority voters, like those in the Dallas suburbs, won Sessions’s district by 2 percentage points. And President Trump, who fared better with the mix of working-class and rural voters in the Wisconsin district, won Kind’s by 4.5 percentage points.

Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, is a daunting political opponent no matter the national climate. He’s been in Congress for 20 years, forging strong alliances in party leadership.

And, as a former chairman of the NRCC, he knows what it’s like to be involved in a tough race.

But Democrats smell blood, knowing that Sessions is tied at the hip to an unpopular GOP House majority and to Trump himself. Making matters worse for Sessions, a president’s party typically loses House seats in the first midterm elections after a presidential race.

“Pete Sessions is married to the Trump agenda, 100 percent. And we are going to wrap that agenda around his neck,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told The Hill.

Democrats already have one issue to use against Sessions: healthcare. He told CNN in March that “nobody is going to lose their coverage” under the GOP plan to replace ObamaCare. But nonpartisan analysis showed that 24 million people would lose coverage by 2026, including 14 million by 2018.

“He’s already had to defend himself on policy. … He’s either unaware or not taking account” of the political climate, one Democratic strategist familiar with the race said.   

A Democrat familiar with DCCC recruitment told The Hill that enthusiasm is palpable in Sessions’s district, both among voters and potential challengers who the DCCC believes could become a “winnable candidate.”

A combination of the prospect of boosted turnout among Hispanic voters and a federal decision that’s expected to redraw some congressional maps in Democrats’ favor makes Democrats hopeful.

“The problem in Texas forever for Democrats has been turnout,” the source said.

“But right now, folks are so excited and there’s this energy. In a place like the Dallas suburbs, those are the people we need to turn [Texas’s 32nd District] into a toss-up.”

Right now, Democrats only have one declared candidate — former NFL linebacker Colin Allred, who played college football at nearby Baylor University and served as a special assistant in the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Democrats are also talking about a potential bid by Ed Meier, a former top policy adviser to Clinton’s presidential campaign who now works at a Dallas education nonprofit, as another possibility.

But Republicans point to both the lack of a top-tier challenger and to Sessions’s long history of strong wins as reasons to think he’ll keep his seat.

“Pete Sessions is his own person with a strongly defined, independent brand. He is well-known in the district before Trump, and that’s still true now,” a GOP House operative said.

“And the guy is a former NRCC chairman; he’ll be doing everything and more to win his district.”

While Democrats believe Trump has created a major opportunity to nationalize Sessions’s seat and push him onto the defensive, Republicans see those same election trends as a way to focus on a more local push in Kind’s Wisconsin district.

Kind is another prominent House member who joined Congress in 1997, the same year as Sessions. And, like Sessions, he sits on a powerful committee: Ways and Means.

Republicans have targeted Kind before, but they’ve never done it this early in a cycle — a sign that Republicans think change could be afoot.

One GOP House strategist compared Kind to former Sen. Russ Feingold, the Democrat whose comeback bid fell short in Wisconsin last year.

“People are not looking for a creature of Washington — that’s what Russ Feingold is, and that’s what Ron Kind is,” he said.

“The anti-insider sentiment is especially prevalent in the [3rd District].”

Some Republicans who spoke to The Hill also highlighted a potential vulnerability for Kind: an investigation into over-prescriptions at a Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Tomah, Wis.

Phone records released last year found that a former Marine, who died after taking an off-label mixture of pills prescribed to him by the Tomah VA, had called Kind’s Washington office before his death, according to The LaCrosse Tribune.

Kind told the paper it has no record of the call but that his office would investigate.

The scandal has pulled in multiple Wisconsin politicians accused of failing to take action, including Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonSondland could provide more clues on Ukraine controversy 10 top Republicans who continue to deny the undeniable GOP braces for impeachment brawl MORE (R) and Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinFederal funding for Chinese buses risks our national security Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall The Trump downturn: Trouble ahead for the US economy MORE (D). And Republicans are already signaling they will be raising questions to Kind ahead of his reelection. 

But one Wisconsin Democrat told The Hill that voters will be heartened by the steps he’s taken since the revelation: supporting the Promoting Responsible Opioid Management and Incorporating Scientific Expertise (PROMISE) Act, which strengthens protocols around VA opioid prescription and other methods to curb addiction.

“Voters in Wisconsin understand Ron Kind has been working with the families and veterans because he wants to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” the strategist said.

“They’ll understand because they’ve heard from Ron Kind — he’s talking to them. He’s listening to them, and he’s taking action.”

Democrats are also buoyed by similar national trends in Wisconsin, hopeful that issues like healthcare and an anti-Trump backlash can help stave off any potential Republican gains.

Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst with The University of Virginia, told The Hill that while Sessions is “more vulnerable” than Kind, thanks to the potential of a midterm wave against the president’s party, it would take a massive effort to dislodge him.

“An open question for a lot of this, given the shift we saw in 2016, is: Will things revert back to some degree?” he said.

“Incumbents are difficult to dislodge, even if they are in districts that become politically difficult for them.”


--This story was updated at 9:45 a.m.