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by Daniel Brinkman and Jack LaMorte
When you try and find something on the GOP’s odds to retake the house really all you can find are 30,000-foot projections for the entire country or lists of the districts that are rated to be “toss-ups” by RealClear or Cook or 270ToWin. None of them bother to show their math as to how they came up with these lists (mostly they’re derived from a microdata read on the D/R/I splits into these districts or how the districts performed on a macro level last cycle) So my friend Jack and I decided to try and remedy that absence by researching each of these districts and talking about them individually as well as each race and both candidates. We are going to watch hours of their debates and appearances so you don’t have to!
Below are the first four that we researched. If you have greater information on any of these districts or races please let us know, we are confined to what we are able to research so if you are actually living these races or being bombarded with ads, please let us know what we got wrong or are off about.
I have been working on campaigns every cycle since 2007, doing everything from write-in campaigns to getting a buddy elected for the library board to hustling delegates for a presidential candidate. I got to know Jack LaMorte from working on Jeanne Ives’ campaign for Congress in 2020, and we have worked together quite a bit on other races since.
A note on redistricting
All these districts we are reviewing are brand new, some more new than others (in the sense that they are greater departures from the previous districts’ iteration). Redistricting has advanced quite a bit in terms of effectiveness over the last 30 years. If you look at maps prior to 1980, they changed much less from decade to decade and those drawing the maps were less able in terms of tools to pack these districts. Today, as Churchill said in a different context the “lights of perverted science” (ahem, data science) are used to more accurately pack Republicans into as few districts as possible or Democrats depending on who is drawing the map.
One shouldn’t despair, however; there is a conceit in those doing the drawing as well as map drawing in itself requires one to make certain bets on whether certain segments of voters will trend one way or another, during Trump’s presidency for instance we saw one of the largest realignments of voters of any kind since Franklin Roosevelt, so mappers needed to “bet” on whether Trump’s voters would revert to voting democrat after he left or whether it was a more permanent shift. Or whether suburban voters who in 2016 and 2018 largely abandoned the GOP would return. Unlike other things in life, these maps are zero-sum, so betting on one eventuality locks one in.
There are other shifts in demographics like among Hispanic voters, which have remained largely unforeseen in these maps. Small shifts in monolithic groups can spell doom for the democrat coalition, whether among Hispanic or black voters, working-class whites, or others. There simply aren’t enough college-educated whites to carry progressive ideas across the finish line. Regardless, one should never count on their opponent failing as a strategy for success.
#1 Arizona’s 4th Congressional District Greg Stanton Democrat vs. Kelly Cooper Republican
This district comprises part of Phoenix and some of the Phoenix suburbs stretching out to Tempe. In Arizona, their redistricting is done via an independent commission despite their legislature and governor being GOP controlled.
The incumbent in the 4th is Greg Stanton, a Phoenix native and former Mayor of the city. Stanton surprisingly overperformed Biden in 2020 by 2 points where nationally congressional democrats tended to underperform. Stanton has held elected office since the age of 30 “A cynical political watcher might say that Stanton often picked neighborhood interests over special interests, carefully measured each decision and weighed its political ramification with an eye to someday making a bid for mayor.”
From viewing Stanton’s previous debates one can see he is fairly cool under pressure, and seemed fairly unfazed when attacked by his GOP challenger.
He does a decent job making himself sound more moderate than he is. He has voted with Joe Biden 100% of the time. He talks also of being pro-business and his record as mayor in that regard while having a 100% economic liberal voting record in congress.
Kelly Cooper, his GOP challenger, is a restaurant owner and former Marine. He has a pretty hands-on and open approach sitting down for quite lengthy interviews with no limits to the questions asked of him. Cooper has a likability advantage and sounds less like a politician than Stanton. Cooper has also put out decent ads with high production value.
In terms of fundraising, Stanton has a little over $3 million on hand and Cooper $918,000. We will also note to not be too terribly discouraged when Republicans are getting outspent. Obviously it’s not ideal but as long as the GOP candidate can get their message out, the disparity is less of a problem than it might appear. You see candidates quite often getting outspent 10-1 making it competitive or even winning, what matters most is how they are spending their money and the quality of the candidate we are fielding.
Stanton is formidable and a veteran campaigner but can sound too scripted. Cooper sounds genuine, has a decent grasp of the issues and, having run a business, can appreciate the struggles people are going through with inflation. Current polling has Stanton with a 46-39 advantage. While polling tends to be more unreliable the more local it is, it’s important to note that as long as the Democratic candidate is below 50% is a decent place for us to be. In a climate like this, in an off-year with a Dem president who is unpopular, quite often the vast majority of undecideds break in one direction. We would also expect Stanton to have a significant advantage coming out of the gate with near-universal name recognition as Mayor of Phoenix against a relatively unknown challenger.
#2 CA 13 John Duarte Republican vs. Adam Gray Democrat
Where the Midwest is the breadbasket of the country (or the corn basket if there is such a phrase), the 13th Congressional District encompasses much of what we could call the fruit basket of the country, it’s a very Ag district inland near Fresno and Merced.
The seat is currently open, meaning there is no incumbent. It would be good to note here as well that California lost a congressional district in the census so some districts that were uncompetitive before are now more so.
The Democrat in the race is Adam Gray, a current state assemblyman whose demeanor is kind of boring in his appearances and ads. He went after a previous opponent on increasing taxes and showed an ability to bring issues down to how something would affect the average resident. Adam boasts about voting to eliminate a tractor tax on farm equipment and getting a med school built in Merced. He is far more absent in terms of an online presence, and promoting his position on the issues than one would expect. But you do see a lot of websites scrubbed for candidates for congress wishing to hide their views.
John Duarte, the GOP candidate, has been in the national spotlight before having been featured by Reason for having his farm nearly bankrupted six years ago by the Obama Administration. He has been in business and a farmer for 30 years. His ads are fairly slick, he highlights water rights being a major issue in the district. He has hit Gray on inflation and for not showing up to vote to lower the gas tax, in a state which routinely boasts the highest-in-the-nation gas prices.
In terms of campaign finance, both candidates are nearly at parity with both having around $400,000 on hand currently. Duarte, the Republican, has actually outraised Gray this quarter by over $100k. Current polling has this race at a 37-37 tie.
#3 California’s 47th Congressional district Katie Porter Democrat vs. Scott Baugh Republican
This district centers around the coastal parts of Orange County, once the most republican county in the country its incumbent Katie Porter boasts her election as proof that progressives can win competitive districts, she has been featured on Bill Mahr and has gone viral on multiple occasions for gotcha questioning in committee hearings. She is fairly left wing, and seems to be a poster child for white guilt, having grown up on a farm and attended Phillips Academy before Yale and Harvard Law. She was a law professor before becoming a congresswoman and counts Elizabeth Warren as her mentor, even naming one of her children after her.
She is certainly a true believer in her ideology. She has a strong online presence with more videos uploaded than any of the other members we have researched so far. Although she seems to revel a little too much in her credentials telling Jamie Dimon CEO of Chase Bank that “I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the textbook that I wrote.” If her opponent can get her doing more of this self-aggrandizing he will be in good shape. Porter has a 100% pro-abortion rating from NARAL and voted with Biden 98.2% of the time. Porter has a legion of small-dollar donors from her fan service brand of politics.
Luckily her opponent Scott Baugh is not a newcomer to politics, he was previously the GOP chairman for Orange County, while also a lawyer, he will be less likely to tell you about it. He was also an assemblyman back when the GOP was still a force in California. Scott seems like a fairly gregarious candidate, far more likable than Porter while still being fairly conservative in his positions. He does not mention whether he is pro-life on his page, however many GOPers have been pulling that info of late out of fear, sadly. Scott has caught some heat for some of the political tactics he has employed over the years (putting up patsy candidates to draw votes away from others) and lobbying for Philip Morris. But his experience in the dog fights of politics will be welcome and needed against Porter.
The financials in this race are not great, Porter has a legion of small-dollar funders and has $19 million on hand against Baugh’s $1.15 million. However, Porter in 2020 underperformed Biden by 2 points. Hopefully her more extreme politics are anathema to the recently GOP bastion of Orange County.
#4 Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District Hillary Scholten vs. John Gibbs
This District Centers around the more suburban city of Grand Rapids, once home to President Gerald Ford. The seat is currently held by Republican Peter Meijer and was the center of a hive of primary activity between Meijer and Gibbs, who Trump backed. Meijer voted for impeachment after the Jan. 6 riot, which earned him Trump’s ire. Money flooded in from Democrats as well, hoping to prop up Trump’s candidate Gibbs who they viewed as easier to beat in November. The district is a large manufacturing district, especially for office furniture whose main buyer oddly enough is China.
Hillary Scholten, is a Democrat named Hillary so that is disadvantage number one. She seems pretty left-wing, her occupations read like a wish list of progressive pet projects. She has worked as an immigration rights attorney as well as helping “me too” claims in the area of employment law. She seems fairly likable though in her ads. And even invokes a faith in God which is unusual to see in a Democrat ad. She ran previously against Peter Meijer in the old iteration of this district and lost. Her ads focus however on things that voters largely don’t care about, such as voters’ rights.
John Gibbs has a great biography, he was a software developer for Apple working on the first iteration of the iPhone. He also spent time as a missionary to Japan. Trump appointed him as undersecretary for community development and homelessness. He speaks like a regular person and is fairly knowledgeable. He also speaks well on the issue of fatherlessness. An African American, he appeals to parts of the Democratic coalition we have a hard time breaking into. He sometimes speaks a little too frankly and has been on the record saying things Democrats will surely use against him. Hopefully voters take the full measure of him and give him a chance.
So far, this is a lower dollar affair in the 3rd, Scholten has $970,000 on hand and Gibbs bled nearly dry from a primary has only $145,000. But there is still plenty of time for Gibbs to catch up. Gibbs certainly has the talent as a candidate to win and hopefully, with funding from the former president, we can keep this seat.
Hope you enjoyed the first four of the districts we examined, I’ll try to post another district every day or so until we clear through all 32 that RealClear lists as their tossups. If you want greater depth on any of these Jack and I also record our conversations on each district, below is our conversation on these first four.