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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), leads House Democrats down the House steps to hold a news conference on the first 200 days of the 116th Congress on July 25, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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House Democrats’ offensive strategy in 2020 runs through Texas

Republican retirements are giving Democrats hope they can expand their House majority in 2020.

As America barrels toward a presidential election, control of the US House of Representatives is no longer Democrats’ biggest focus. Nor will retaining it be their hardest task; they have a more uphill battle to retake the US Senate. But even though the conventional wisdom so far is that Democrats will keep the House, it’s far from assured.

The 44 seats that won Democrats a decisive majority in 2018 are also the ones that will be the toughest for them to hang onto in 2020. These are the seats in America’s suburbs that typically elect Republicans, but trended blue as voters — particularly college-educated women — registered their displeasure with the Trump. Republicans need 18 or 19 seats on net (depending on the outcome of the special election in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District) to get back to a slim majority, but with another wave of GOP retirements, it’s looking difficult for them to pull off.

“The kind of district where the majority will be won or lost are in these outer suburban districts,” said Dave Wasserman, the US House editor for the Cook Political Report. “Judging by history, it’s going to be very difficult for Republicans to win back many of these Clinton districts that flipped in 2018.”

The new members of Congress in 2018 pose together for a photo.
The 116th first-term class stands for their photo after the election in November 2018.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Once a party has reclaimed the majority in the House during a midterm year, history shows they typically keep it during the next presidential cycle. This could prove true in 2020, especially given the fact that President Donald Trump was a driver of the huge Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterms. Trump will quite literally be on the ballot in 2020, which could give Democrats another boost in legislative chambers.

But Democrats don’t just want to keep their House majority — they are looking at expanding it in more than 30 districts across the US. They’re playing aggressively in Texas after flipping two House seats there in 2018, and with a rash of Republican retirements — including the only black House Republican who narrowly hung on to his seat in 2018, Rep. Will Hurd — Democrats may finally have an opportunity to realize their dream of a blue Texas, or at least a bluer one.

“The DCCC started this cycle by going on offense, and the reality for vulnerable Washington Republicans of defending their deeply unpopular health care repeal agenda is setting in for Republican incumbents from Kenny Marchant to Will Hurd to Pete Olson,” DCCC chairwoman Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL) told Vox in a statement.

The National Republican Congressional Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment from Vox.

First Democrats must get through a possibly contentious primary season. Progressive groups like the Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-aligned Justice Democrats have already announced incumbent targets, and the official campaign arm of House Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is aggressively pushing back.

The DCCC is also embroiled in internal turmoil, Politico reported last week. A wave of top staffers have resigned amid controversy surrounding Bustos, after many longtime lawmakers of color complained top DCCC staffing wasn’t diverse enough. The organization is looking for a new executive director while an interim leader fills in; an aide told Vox they’re planning to fill the position as soon as possible.

There are still many months to go, and even though Democrats’ House map is looking favorable, they don’t have it in the bag just yet.

First-term Democratic Representatives Colin Allred (D-TX), Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), Katie Hill (D-TX), and Antonio Delgado (D-NY) stand in the seating area of the House chamber.
First-term Democratic Representatives from left, Colin Allred (TX), Abby Finkenauer (IA), Katie Hill (CA), and Antonio Delgado (NY), talk on the House floor before the start of the election of the Speaker of the House on January 3, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

House Democrats are playing defense in a lot of districts

House Democrats exceeded expectations when they walloped House Republicans in districts across the country in 2018.

The places where Democrats cleaned up were rapidly diversifying suburban districts outside major metropolitan areas. These were areas with college-educated voters who may have voted for Republicans in the past but didn’t like Trump. After two years of total Republican control in Congress, they wanted Democrats to put a check on the president and deal with a slew of issues like rising health care costs, passing universal background checks, and more.

“It is suburban districts that are diversifying and were largely drawn in aggressive gerrymanders [in 2010] to just be safe enough with the assumption the bottom wouldn’t fall out of the suburbs,” a DCCC aide told Vox.

On top of that, candidates that consistently did well in 2018 were women, often ones who had careers in the military or other public service. These were candidates who were not conventional politicians and had a message of cleaning up corruption in Trump’s Washington.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (R-VA) (L) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), both former CIA analysts, talk with reporters on Capitol Hill. The 116th Congress has the biggest number of female members ever while the number of Democratic women in the House has grown from 16 to 89 since 1989.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“People recoil at how Washington works, and they want people who are human,” the DCCC aide said.

Democrats pulled off a startling coup in seven California House districts long held by Republicans, took over four New Jersey districts after a wave of Republican retirements, and won four Pennsylvania districts once the state’s gerrymandered congressional map was redrawn after a state Supreme Court ruling.

Democrats’ wave was so strong they even picked up districts they thought furthest from their reach, like South Carolina’s First Congressional District. That district had been under Republican control since the 1980s, until Democrat Joe Cunningham beat Republican Katie Arrington by less than 4,000 votes.

But now, moderate Congress members like Cunningham have to make the argument that they came to Washington and actually did something — whether it’s holding Trump accountable or actually passing bills. To be sure, the House has been passing plenty of legislation by itself, but it’s had no luck getting those bills through the Senate, so the latter is a tougher argument to make.

The DCCC is concerned with defending 44 districts, including a wide swath of territory in California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, among other states.

  1. Arizona’s First Congressional District — Rep. Tom O’Halleran
  2. California’s 10th Congressional District — Rep. Josh Harder
  3. California’s 21st Congressional District — Rep. TJ Cox
  4. California’s 25th Congressional District — Rep. Katie Hill
  5. California’s 39th Congressional District — Rep. Gil Cisneros
  6. California’s 45th Congressional District — Rep. Katie Porter
  7. California’s 48th Congressional District — Rep. Harley Rouda
  8. California’s 49th Congressional District — Rep. Mike Levin
  9. Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Jason Crow
  10. Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District — Rep. Jahana Hayes
  11. Florida’s 26th Congressional District — Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell
  12. Georgia Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Lucy McBath
  13. Iowa’s First Congressional District — Rep. Abby Finkenauer
  14. Iowa’s Third Congressional District — Rep. Cindy Axne
  15. Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Sean Casten
  16. Illinois’ 14th Congressional District — Rep. Lauren Underwood
  17. Kansas’ Third Congressional District — Rep. Sharice Davids
  18. Maine’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Jared Golden
  19. Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District — Rep. Elissa Slotkin
  20. Michigan’s 11th Congressional District — Rep. Haley Stevens
  21. Minnesota’s Second Congressional District — Angie Craig
  22. New Hampshire’s First Congressional District — Rep. Chris Pappas
  23. New Jersey’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Jeff Van Drew
  24. New Jersey’s Third Congressional District — Rep. Andy Kim
  25. New Jersey’s Fifth Congressional District — Rep. Josh Gottheimer
  26. New Jersey’s Seventh Congressional District — Rep. Tom Malinowski
  27. New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District — Rep. Mikie Sherrill
  28. New Mexico’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Xochitl Torres Small
  29. Nevada’s Third Congressional District — Rep. Susie Lee
  30. Nevada’s Fourth Congressional District — Rep. Steven Horsford
  31. New York’s 11th Congressional District — Rep. Max Rose
  32. New York’s 19th Congressional District — Rep. Antonio Delgado
  33. New York’s 22nd Congressional District — Rep. Anthony Brindisi
  34. Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District — Rep. Kendra Horn
  35. Pennsylvania Seventh Congressional District — Rep. Susan Wild
  36. Pennsylvania Eight Congressional District — Rep. Matt Cartwright
  37. Pennsylvania 17th Congressional District — Rep. Conor Lamb
  38. South Carolina’s First Congressional District — Rep. Joe Cunningham
  39. Texas Seventh Congressional District — Rep. Lizzie Fletcher
  40. Texas 32nd Congressional District — Rep. Colin Allred
  41. Utah’s Fourth Congressional District — Rep. Ben McAdams
  42. Virginia’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Elaine Luria
  43. Virginia’s 7th Congressional District — Rep. Abigail Spanberger
  44. Washington’s 8th Congressional District — Rep. Kim Schrier

Democrats’ offensive strategy, explained

Democrats’ 2020 offensive map is their unfinished business from 2018.

One lesson Democrats learned during the midterms is there were a number of districts not on their radar in 2018 that would have been easy to flip with a little more investment.

A perfect example of this is Texas’s 24th Congressional District, which touches suburbs in both Fort Worth and Dallas. Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant barely hung on to his seat in 2018, with little-known Democratic challenger Jan McDowell coming within three points of beating him after spending less than $70,000 on her race.

“This was on no one’s map in 2018, but Marchant won by three points against a Democrat who was ignored by the party in DC, and did great with hardly any money,” Wasserman told Vox.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX), is yelled at by a protester as he heads to vote on the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Marchant recently announced he would not seek reelection in 2020.
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Marchant just announced he will retire rather than run for reelection in 2020. He’s not alone; two other Texas Republicans have announced in recent days that they’re retiring.

They were “much less interested in being in the minority” for another two years, University of Texas at Austin government professor Jim Henson told Vox. “It’s just not very attractive to some of these Republicans to be looking at a very tough election fight.”

The 24th Congressional District is now squarely on the DCCC’s expansion list, along with five other districts. To underscore how seriously it’s taking Texas, the official campaign arm of House Democrats recently opened up a field office in Austin.

“It’s not an accident that so many Texas Republicans are suddenly retiring. Four months ago the DCCC responded to the energy on the ground and opened an office in Texas, placed six senior staffers on the ground, and deployed organizers in key communities across the state to lay the groundwork for victory next year,” Bustos said. “Clearly that investment is already paying off and Democrats are well positioned to compete in and flip more seats in Texas.”

Democrats are hoping more Republican incumbents see the writing on the wall in states beyond Texas. Looking at their expansion map in 2020, it’s clear their path to extending their majority (should they hang onto all or most of their frontline districts) winds through states where they won big in 2018 but could improve in 2020: Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

Here are the DCCC’s target districts for expansion in 2020. Retirements are noted in parentheses.

  1. Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Dave Schweikert
  2. California’s 22nd Congressional District — Rep. Devin Nunes
  3. California’s 50th Congressional District — Rep. Duncan Hunter
  4. Colorado’s Third Congressional District — Rep. Scott Tipton
  5. Florida’s 15th Congressional District — Rep. Ross Spano
  6. Florida’s 18th Congressional District — Rep. Brian Mast
  7. Georgia’s Seventh Congressional District — Rep. Rob Woodall (Retiring)
  8. Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District — Rep. Steve King
  9. Illinois’s 13th Congressional District — Rep. Rodney Davis
  10. Indiana’s Fifth Congressional District — Rep. Susan Brooks (Retiring)
  11. Kentucky’s Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Andy Barr
  12. Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District — Rep. Fred Upton
  13. Minnesota’s First Congressional District — Rep. Jim Hagedorn
  14. Missouri’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Ann Wagner
  15. North Carolina’s Second Congressional District — George Holding
  16. North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District — OPEN
  17. North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District — Rep. Ted Budd
  18. Nebraska’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Don Bacon
  19. New York’s First Congressional District — Rep. Lee Zeldin
  20. New York’s Second Congressional District — Rep. Peter King
  21. New York’s 24th Congressional District — Rep. John Katko
  22. New York’s 27th Congressional District — Rep. Chris Collins
  23. Ohio’s First Congressional District — Rep. Steve Chabot
  24. Pennsylvania’s First Congressional District — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick
  25. Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District — Rep. Scott Perry
  26. Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District — Rep. Mike Kelly
  27. Texas’ 10th Congressional District — Rep. Mike McCaul
  28. Texas’ 21st Congressional District — Rep. Chip Roy
  29. Texas’ 22nd Congressional District — Rep. Pete Olson (Retiring)
  30. Texas’ 23rd Congressional District — Rep. Will Hurd (Retiring)
  31. Texas’ 24th Congressional District — Rep. Kenny Marchant (Retiring)
  32. Texas’ 31st Congressional District — Rep. John Carter
  33. Washington’s Third Congressional District — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler

There’s already drama over primaries

Establishment Democrats in Washington have a thorn in their side going into 2020: the threat of longtime Democratic incumbents being primaried by younger, insurgent progressives.

Groups like Justice Democrats that emerged in 2018 have stoked the ire of Democratic leadership. The group has already announced some of their Democratic targets in 2018: Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas and Eliot Engel of New York are two prominent ones. Cuellar’s more moderate Texas district in particular will be an interesting experiment of whether a progressive can win.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), speaks with reporters outside of Speaker Pelosi’s office about the agreement to take up the Senate border bill on June 27, 2019.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

“It’s a conservative district. We ran on an endorsement from the NRA,” Cuellar Campaign Manager Colin Strother told Vox. “The Justice Democrats have been spinning some yarn that Congressman Cuellar has been deceptive and if his voters only knew his record ... no, the voters are very aware of his voting record.”

The Justice Democrats didn’t successfully primary Democrats en masse in 2018, but they had a few notable success stories: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat then-House Democratic Chair Joe Crowley in a remarkable underdog race in the Bronx and Queens. Crowley was widely seen as the heir to House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s throne someday, but he was suddenly out of a job when Ocasio-Cortez beat him in the primary. Ocasio-Cortez has since gone on to become one of the most well-known (if controversial) stars of the first-term class in the House.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with supporters during her victory celebration in Queens, New York on November 6, 2018.
Rick Loomis/Getty Images

In Boston, former Rep. Michael Capuano was primaried by Justice Democrats-backed candidate Ayanna Pressley, a Boston City Councilor and woman of color. Pressley has gone on to join Ocasio-Cortez and two other new congresswomen, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Ilhan Omar (MN), as part of “the Squad,” a progressive group that has drawn fire from conservatives and President Trump.

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote earlier this year, there’s a distinct theory of political change behind Justice Democrats’ move to primary moderate Democrats: Even if you don’t win the challenge, you hopefully force the moderate incumbent further and further to the left.

Their theory of political change works not because it’s likely that left-wing challengers will unseat dozens of incumbent House Democrats but because a handful of successful challenges will scare a wide enough swath of similarly situated incumbents into moving left.

Justice Democrats ... while obviously critical of the existing party establishment is — by definition — an organization that is committed to the Democratic Party and working with and through it as a vehicle for change ... The point, however, is not to displace the Democrats but to change them.

The group has already been successful in shaking things up in Washington, DC. They’re hoping they can replicate some of that success in 2020.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members (L-R) Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) attend a hearing on drug pricing on July 26, 2019. Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley both successfully primaried incumbent Democrats in 2018, with backing from progressive group Justice Democrats.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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