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On the Trail: Five House results illustrate a politically divided America

On the Trail: Five House results illustrate a politically divided America
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Voters delivered a decidedly mixed result up and down the ballot on Tuesday in closely fought battles for the White House and House and Senate seats in critical suburban precincts across the country. The results, still being sussed out, will illustrate the deep and abiding political divide that has riven the nation.

That divide, illustrated in red and blue county-level maps, breaks along partisan lines that are increasingly defined by race, education and socioeconomic status in a realignment that is still shaking out.

Here are five U.S. House races that illustrate the future coalitions that will decide election cycles to come:

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Minnesota’s 7th District

Rep. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonOn The Trail: The political losers of 2020 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump admin to sell oil leases at Arctic wildlife refuge before Biden takes office |Trump administration approves controversial oil testing method in Gulf of Mexico | Rep. Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel Rep. David Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel MORE (D) is a survivor. He won his seat along rural Minnesota’s western border with the Dakotas in 1990, on his fourth try. He survived Republican wave elections in 1994, 2010 and 2014, and he won new terms at the same time George W. Bush, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOn The Money: GOP digs in on defending Trump tax cuts | Democrats bullish on raising minimum wage | Financial sector braces for Biden's consumer bureau pick No. 2 Senate Democrat says minimum wage can be increased with simple majority vote State-level Republicans wracked by division after Trump's loss MORE, Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyJust five GOP senators vote Trump impeachment trial is constitutional Senate committee advances Biden's DHS pick despite Republican pushback Press: The case against Citizen Trump MORE and even Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE carried his district.

But on Tuesday, he could not overcome former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach (R), who drubbed Peterson by 13 points.

Peterson holds what was once a potent recipe for success in American politics: centrist credentials and a powerful committee chairmanship — the House Agriculture Committee — relevant to his district. 

But those titles matter less in a hyper-partisan age. Peterson held on in the Red River Valley, settled first by the Norwegians who flocked there in the 1800s, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Fischbach ran up her biggest margins in exurban Twin Cities counties where she won more than 60 percent of the vote — a reminder that the Democrats’ problems outside the suburbs extend beyond rural areas and into fast-growing exurbs.

Oregon’s 4th District

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Like Peterson, Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioTackle injustice, tax Wall Street Southwest Airlines says it won't furlough workers after Trump signed relief bill Infrastructure? Not unless the House rethinks its offer MORE (D) ranks among the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus. He holds pro-gun views that would be anathema to a member of the Democratic Party anywhere except his blue-collar, culturally conservative southwest Oregon district.

DeFazio’s district has fallen on hard times, in part because of the struggles the timber industry has faced in the quarter century since the spotted owl landed on the Endangered Species List. 

But DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has what Peterson does not: a massive reservoir of Democratic votes in Lane County, home of the University of Oregon.

On Tuesday, DeFazio won an 18th term in office against Alek Skarlatos, a former National Guardsman who stopped an attack by a gunman on a French train in 2015, an incident captured in the film “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Skarlatos carried five of the district’s seven counties, by a collective margin of 47,000 votes. DeFazio survived thanks to a 52,000-vote margin in Lane, and another 18,000-vote margin out of Benton County, a hub of Oregon’s wine country.

If DeFazio, 73, decides to retire in the coming years, Republicans will make a strong play for a district that has remained tantalizingly out of reach since he came to Washington in 1987.

Wisconsin’s 3rd District

The Mississippi River Valley is the fulcrum point in modern American politics. Of the 206 counties in America that voted twice for President Obama and then for Trump in 2016, about a quarter straddle the river’s edge along the borders of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindFive centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote Pelosi wins Speakership for fourth time in dramatic vote LIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker MORE (D) has seen his political position become progressively more tenuous as those counties — heavy with blue-collar workers with middle-class jobs in manufacturing plants — realign.

Kind’s vote share, once reliably in the mid-60s, declined to just 50 percent in the GOP wave of 2010. He scored in the high 50s in 2014 and 2018. And this year he took just 51.5 percent of the vote, with some precincts left to report, against retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden.

Kind’s margin of victory, about 12,000 votes so far, came from La Crosse County, his district’s largest. He carried smaller Crawford and Vernon counties, too — counties where Trump beat Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenDobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Should deficits matter any more? Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE.

Crucially, Kind kept his rural losses low. He won at least 41 percent of the vote in 13 smaller counties that Van Orden carried, a reminder to both Democrats and Republicans that there is value in showing up in an opponent’s territory.

Nebraska’s 1st District

In the heat of an election night, as the results pour in, some anomaly will stand out: A county that breaks in an unexpected way, a demographic group that behaves differently than it had in polls, a candidate who soars or collapses.

On Tuesday, an early surprise seemed to be developing in Nebraska, where state Sen. Kate Bolz (D) led Rep. Jeff FortenberryJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FortenberryMcMorris Rodgers floats vacating Speaker's chair over Democrat's in-person vote after COVID diagnosis Jane Goodall joins lawmakers in calling for rethinking conservation and national interests OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards | Despite risks to polar bears, Trump pushes ahead with oil exploration in Arctic | Biden to champion climate action in 2021 MORE (R) — in a race no one expected to be competitive.

In the end, it wasn’t; Fortenberry took almost 60 percent of the vote on his way to a ninth term in office. As it turned out, Bolz built a big lead among absentee voters, among whom she led by 18 points, and a smaller edge in the city of Lincoln, which reported results first.

Fortenberry claimed more than 70 percent of the vote in 11 rural counties and more than 60 percent in another three, more than enough to put his opponent away.

But as Democrats move to embrace absentee and early voting in increasing numbers, a process accelerated during the pandemic, Republicans may experience a few tense moments that initially show them trailing even in districts they should win easily. Fortenberry’s district is safe, but it hints that Democrats are making the smallest inroads in ordinarily conservative mid-size Midwestern cities.

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Georgia’s 7th District

Just as rural America moves to the right, suburban America — especially around the mega-metros that are driving the nation’s economy — are turning more blue. Nowhere was that more evident than in Georgia’s 7th District, where Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux appears as one of the few bright spots for House Democrats.

Election results that have yet to be finalized show Bourdeaux leading Rich McCormick, a practicing physician, by about 8,300 votes, or 2.4 percentage points.

Bourdeaux was making her second run for office after falling just 500 votes short of ousting Rep. Rob WoodallWilliam (Rob) Robert WoodallMcCarthy guarantees GOP will take back House in 2022 Rundown of the House seats Democrats, GOP flipped on Election Day Bustos won't seek to chair DCCC again in wake of 2020 results MORE (R) in the 2018 midterm elections. She trailed far behind McCormick in Forsyth County, an Atlanta exurb that remains in Republican hands, but she made up the gap by taking a net of 35,000 votes out of Gwinnett County, a suburban area closer to the city.

Over two election cycles, Democrats have virtually maxed out their potential to make gains in the suburbs. But more voters live in the suburbs than in any other type of district, and Bourdeaux’s tenure — and her party’s — will be closely tied to how well they tend to those suburban constituents.