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House and Senate Democrats are facing radically different political maps

For a House majority, think the OC, not the Rust Belt.

To win a majority in the US House of Representatives in 2018, Democrats would need to pick up 24 seats from the GOP. Nate Cohn of the New York Times forecasts that based on recent electoral performance, the most vulnerable Republican incumbent is Darryl Issa, whose district includes parts of Orange County, California. The 24th most vulnerable Republican is Dana Rohrabacher, who represents the district right next door.

Democrats can’t take the House exclusively by winning seats in Southern California, of course, but the Golden State is genuinely central to Democrats’ midterm House hopes. Of the 23 incumbent House Republicans holding down seats that Hillary Clinton won, six are located in California. Voters in these districts, many of which were carried by Mitt Romney in 2012, likely assumed — as most of us did — that Donald Trump was going to lose last November and voted to reelect a Republican member of Congress to serve as a check on Clinton.

Instead, Trump won. And congressional Republicans have proven to be extremely supportive of his administration — meaning that unless his numbers improve substantially in these districts, their holders are at real risk. And so are their colleagues in a string of “sun and suburbs” districts across the country that feature a healthy dose of ethnic diversity and a well-educated white population that’s drifting away from the Trump’s refashioning of conservative politics along ethnonationalistic lines.

The path to a Democratic House runs through diverse suburbs

The at-risk 23 have a generally sunny cast. Three of the seats are in Texas. Two are in Florida. One is in Arizona. The more northerly ones — scattered around Kansas, Washington, Illinois, Virginia, Minnesota, and New York, plus four in the suburbs of Philadelphia — are distinctly non-rusty.

These are places where the white population is disproportionately well-educated, and where the Latino and Asian populations are generally disproportionately high. Of course, to take the House, Democrats would have to also successfully defend a clutch of seats in districts that Trump carried. But it’s very unusual for the out-of-power party to lose House seats in a midterm, and Democrats who already survived the disasters of 2010 and 2014 are battle-tested and well-liked locally.

The thing for House Democrats to focus on is maximizing their potential gains.

And that points to a fairly clear strategy. The places Democrats need to win to pick up seats are diverse, suburban, and more affluent than average. Their voters aren’t indifferent to economic concerns — nobody is — but, absent a new recession, they’re simply not invested in an overarching narrative of American decline.

These are places where voters are predisposed to worry that the Trump administration might be too dismissive of scientific and economic expertise, too close to polluting industries, and too cruel to immigrant families. These are also places where arguments about the benefits of low-skilled immigration for college-educated women’s career opportunities (in research by Patricia Cortes) and the economic value of cultural diversity (in research by Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri) will be persuasive.

This sun-and-suburbs strategy has a lot to recommend it as a 2020 presidential strategy, too: The Democratic nominee could put more of a focus on winning Florida and North Carolina (and, with luck, Arizona or even Georgia) than Michigan and Wisconsin. The problem for Democrats is the 2018 Senate map is deeply uncooperative.

Democrats need to defend a lot of seats in the “Trump Belt”

A vast swath of the United States of America, running from Maine down through upstate New York and Central Pennsylvania, pivoting around the Great Lakes and over to North Dakota, could be deemed the Trump Belt. It covers more territory than the traditional definition of the Rust Belt. But it includes the Rust Belt and shares with it some demographic characteristics: few Latinos or Asians and a relatively large number of whites with no college degree.

Some of these states (Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota) Trump lost, and some of them (North Dakota, Indiana) have been conservative for a long time. But these are all places where Trump did considerably better than Mitt Romney or George W. Bush. Places where his twist on conservatism — less churchy, less talk about free markets, more emphasis on economic nationalism, white identity politics, and protecting retirees — played very well.

Democrats have to defend a ton of Trump Belt Senate incumbents in 2018. Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maine are all up for reelection. That’s offset by just one real opportunity to win back a Republican seat in Nevada.

Not all of these Trump Belt Democrats are genuinely endangered — both Al Franken and Angus King can probably breathe pretty easy. But they all share a basic incentive to downplay issues like immigration and climate change that push polarization around ethnic and educational lines.

Incumbents running statewide in most of these places will want to emphasize the idea that Trump, beyond the circus atmosphere, is basically a same-old, same-old rich guy Republican with rich friends who doesn’t care about working people and their everyday struggles.

Offense beats defense

Since the Senate is ground zero for the confirmation battles that define the early days of any administration, Senate Democrats’ tactical thinking has been a heavy point of emphasis so far.

Democrats mounted unanimous opposition to GOP nominees like Tom Price and Betsy DeVos who deal with core social service functions, while Jeff Sessions and Scott Pruitt secured some votes from Trump country Democrats that raised the hackles of progressive activists nationwide. But fundamentally, Trump’s victory is an enormous gift to the Heidi Heitkamps and Joe Manchins and Claire McCaskills of the world. Democrats representing states so Trumpy that Clinton didn’t even campaign there would have faced massive tensions squeezed between a Clinton administration agenda and the views of their constituents. The risk of losing seats in a 2018 backlash election would have been overwhelming.

Life is never easy for a West Virginia Democrat, but playing defense is a fundamentally easier task.

That means that with confirmation battles now largely in the rearview mirror, Democrats’ offensive strategies will take more prominence. And that’s going to mean spending more time getting in touch with the concerns of college-educated suburban moms — and their housekeepers and nannies — than endlessly rehashing the anxieties of Trump-loving retired steelworkers.

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