Swing-District Democrats, Defying Predictions, Poised to Help Keep House

    HENRICO COUNTY, Va. — When Representative Abigail Spanberger, the Democrat running for re-election in the conservative-leaning Richmond suburbs, arrived to debate her Republican opponent on a recent evening, she received a heroine’s welcome, loudly cheered by supporters on both sides of the street who held blue balloons and handmade signs praising her accomplishments.

    There was no such warm welcome for Nick Freitas, the state delegate running to oust her, recalled Carol Catron, 52, a stay-at-home mom and a supporter of Ms. Spanberger, who was among those shouting “We love Abigail!” outside as the Republican walked in without making eye contact.

    The scene in this Republican-leaning district, which voted heavily for President Trump four years ago, underscored how solidly Ms. Spanberger — a first-term representative once thought to have an uphill climb to re-election — has cemented her following among voters here and now has the advantage heading into Election Day.

    Across the country, Democrats like Ms. Spanberger, a former C.I.A. officer who has cultivated a brand as a moderate unafraid to criticize her own party, are playing a pivotal role that has positioned Democrats to maintain control of the House and build their majority.

    She and dozens of freshmen Democrats like her whose victories in Trump-friendly districts in 2018 handed the party control of the House — and who were seen as the most vulnerable to defeat this year — are leading their Republican challengers in polling and fund-raising headed into the election’s final week.

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi likes to call this group of about 40 lawmakers — most of them young, many women, and predominantly moderates — her “majority makers,” while the House Democratic campaign arm calls them “frontliners.” And they have largely managed to buck intense Republican attempts to brand them as Ms. Pelosi’s minions, socialists or out-of-touch coastal elites.

    “We knew we had a lot of work to do when we got elected, and we got to work,” says Representative Lauren Underwood, Democrat of Illinois and a registered nurse.

    Republicans had hoped to pick off Ms. Underwood, who in 2018 won in the Chicago suburbs carried by Mr. Trump. But after she raised more than $7 million and Republicans nominated a perennially unsuccessful candidate to challenge her, national conservative groups decided against spending on advertising in the district.

    In polling conducted by the House Democrats’ campaign arm, the frontliners are outperforming former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the Democratic nominee, in their districts by an average of 8 percentage points, said Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

    In June, the Democratic frontline candidates had about $125 million cash on hand compared with just $25 million for their Republican challengers.

    Credit…Julia Rendleman for The New York Times

    While each of the frontliners is running in a competitive district or a Republican stronghold Mr. Trump carried, only seven are in races that are still considered tossups, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

    “There aren’t very many of them left who are in genuine danger,” said David Wasserman, the House editor of the newsletter.

    To be sure, there are still a handful who are at real risk of defeat. Representatives Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi in New York, Ben McAdams in Utah, TJ Cox in California, Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa are all struggling to head off Republican challengers.

    Still, for a group that was initially seen as top targets — and most likely to pay the steepest political price for Mr. Trump’s impeachment — they are outperforming expectations. Of the 58 changes he has made to House race rankings over the past three months, Mr. Wasserman said, “many of them have benefited these Democratic freshmen.”

    “Clearly the battlefield has shifted to Republican-held seats,” Mr. Wasserman added. “Republicans have not had enough money to prosecute the case against these freshmen Democrats.”

    After Democrats picked up 41 House seats in 2018, Republicans immediately vowed revenge, targeting more than 50 seats, including 13 districts that Mr. Trump carried by six percentage points or more, as their ticket to reclaiming the majority.

    Polling showed voters in these districts viewed socialism negatively, so Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, embarked on a strategy to try to tie the freshmen Democrats to that label, predicting that their party’s “embrace of socialism is going to cost them their majority in the House.”

    Democrats were prepared for the onslaught, moving quickly and aggressively to protect the more than 40 members of their Frontline Program — almost all freshmen — through aggressive fund-raising, volunteer recruitment and online networking.

    They rushed to build individual brands distinct from their party’s, and hauled in campaign cash that scared off some potential challengers from the right. And Mr. Trump’s sinking poll numbers in the suburbs has given them an even broader advantage in the closing months of the race.

    Like Ms. Spanberger, several — including Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former C.I.A. analyst; Representative Jared Golden of Maine, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Representative Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, a Navy helicopter pilot — are known for their robust national security credentials.

    Ms. Sherrill’s race is not considered competitive. National conservative groups have shied away from challenging Ms. Slotkin again, after spending millions on unsuccessful attack ads against her two years ago, and recently decided to cut their advertising campaign against Mr. Golden. And this month, the Cook Political Report moved Ms. Spanberger out of its “toss up” category, judging that her district was leaning toward re-electing her.

    Ms. Slotkin said she and other frontliners have had to labor far more intensively than many of their older Democrats colleagues, who hold safe seats in deep-blue districts.

    Credit…Sylvia Jarrus for The New York Times

    “It takes work for a Democrat to represent a majority-Republican district,” Ms. Slotkin said. “We came into Congress with a strong sense of what it took to win in tough districts and what it would take to keep the seats.”

    On a recent Wednesday, as Ms. Spanberger campaigned here with Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Senator Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic nominee for vice president, she relayed what she is up against.

    A voter recently approached Ms. Spanberger with fear in her voice asking if Democrats were really moving to “defund the police,” as Republicans were claiming. Ms. Spanberger assured the woman she and the majority of Democrats were not.

    “It really does make people scared,” she said of the Republican line of attack.

    In some ways, Ms. Spanberger and frontliners like her have served as brand ambassadors for the Democratic Party in red districts, pushing back against Republican attempts to caricature their party and, at times, openly criticizing their own leaders.

    On a recent private call with Ms. Pelosi and Democratic colleagues, and confirmed in an interview with Ms. Spanberger, she blasted party leaders for failing to find agreement with Republicans on a new coronavirus stimulus deal, saying she wanted to do “my goddamned job and come up with a solution for the American people.”

    It was a familiar spot for Ms. Spanberger, who rose to viral fame in 2018 after a debate with the Tea Party-aligned incumbent Republican, Representative Dave Brat, in which she chided him for repeatedly referring to Ms. Pelosi instead of her.

    “I question again whether Congressman Brat knows which Democrat in fact he’s running against,” Ms. Spanberger said then, as the crowd burst into applause. “Abigail Spanberger is my name!”

    In this month’s debate, Mr. Freitas, a former Green Beret running as a strict fiscal conservative, attempted to tie her to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal firebrand from New York.

    “My opponent votes with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez almost 90 percent of the time and then comes back to the district and claims to be a moderate,” Mr. Freitas said.

    This time, Ms. Spanberger ignored her opponent’s comment altogether.

    “I don’t fall in line with speaker when I don’t want to,” Ms. Spanberger said in an interview. “I certainly disagree with colleagues, Alexandria among them. But that’s fine. We don’t have to agree.”

    Credit…Julia Rendleman for The New York Times

    Despite the success of the frontliners, Mr. Emmer said he was optimistic and saw a “narrow path” back to control of the House should Mr. Trump perform “at or near 2016 levels.” Mr. Emmer said he believed many polls were off because they were missing a significant number of Trump supporters who don’t typically vote.

    He noted that some of the frontliners were still in peril.

    “They claimed they were going to go to Washington to be moderate problem-solvers,” Mr. Emmer says. “They didn’t do it.”

    But his argument does not appear to have resonated in dozens of crucial districts.

    In Michigan, Representative Haley Stevens is favored to win re-election; in New York, Representative Antonio Delgado’s main rival dropped out of the race because he couldn’t keep pace in fund-raising; and in California, Representative Katie Porter is a dominant favorite in a seat Republicans had held since the 1980s before she won it in 2018.

    Ms. Stevens has pressed a pro-manufacturing agenda for her district dominated by the auto industry in the Detroit suburbs. She pushed for her party to come to an agreement with Republicans on the United States-Mexico trade deal “early on, when it wasn’t popular,” she said, because she thought it would create jobs that “my district would overwhelmingly benefit from.”

    Others carved out their own identities separate from the national party, said Ms. Porter, one of the few progressives in the group, who is known for breaking out a whiteboard during congressional hearings and dressing down witnesses accused of profiteering or corruption.

    “We didn’t all fall out of the same playbook,” she said. “We established a level of credibility that we’re going to fight for you and we’re not going to be bought.”

    Back in Ms. Spanberger’s district, Ms. Catron said having a counterbalance to Mr. Trump and Republicans was a big reason she supported her Democratic congresswoman.

    “Thank God we have the House,” Ms. Catron said. “Without it, I can’t even imagine where we’d be right now.”

    Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.


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