A Few Long-Serving House Democrats Face Surprise Election Fights
(Bloomberg) -- Representative Peter DeFazio is part of an exclusive club of senior House Democrats facing a surprisingly close re-election contest in 2020 for a congressional seat he’s held for a generation.
The 17-term Oregon Democrat is one of three longtime House incumbents that Republicans are targeting in districts where President Donald Trump performed well in 2016 by putting up strong candidates that have the potential to pull off upsets on what polls suggest could be a dismal Election Day for the GOP.
DeFazio is facing his toughest challenge in years from Alek Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon National Guard and an Afghanistan veteran who gained fame in 2015 for stopping a gunman on a train between Paris and Amsterdam.
“The competitiveness of the district has really been masked by the terrible quality of DeFazio’s opponents in the last two decades,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “For several elections in a row, he faced off against a pseudo-scientist who believed that urine held the secret to human life extension.”
Cook still rates the race as lean Democratic, while nine other Democratic seats are rated as toss-ups. Most of those, however, are held by Democrats who were first elected in 2018 in GOP-leaning Districts. Two other senior House Democrats -- Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Collin Peterson of Minnesota -- are also facing unusually tough races. Like DeFazio, Cook rates Kind’s race as lean Democratic, but Peterson’s race is a tossup.
Democrats are expected to retain control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even expand their majority, in part by capitalizing on frustration with Trump’s response to the coronavirus and other controversies. But DeFazio, Kind and Peterson are trying to hold districts that have trended right in recent years.
Part of the dynamic this year is that GOP recruiting has improved, allowing them to field serious contenders in these races, according to Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of Inside Elections.
“There are districts where, on paper, Republicans should be competitive, but they’ve struggled to find credible candidates,” Gonzales said. “They have more credible candidates this cycle.”
Kind, who has represented Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District since 1997, is facing Republican Derrick Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL who says he decided to enter politics when the Democratic House impeached Trump in December. Trump won the district with 49% of the vote four years ago.
“We have been in office for a little bit, people have gotten a chance to know us and see what type of job that we’re doing,” Kind said in an interview, referring to his two colleagues. Republicans “may try to create a different image, but most folks aren’t buying it.”
Minnesota’s Peterson, the chairman of the Agricultural Committee, is running against the state’s former lieutenant governor Michelle Fishbach. Trump endorsed Fishbach, the first woman president of the state Senate.
Peterson is the only current House Democrat who voted against both articles of impeachment last year. His district gave Trump an overwhelming 61% of the vote in 2016.
“Peterson is campaigning on his bipartisan record of getting things done, his leadership as chair of the House Ag Committee and representing the wide and varied interests of his constituency,” said Sue Dieter, a spokeswoman for the Petersen campaign. “He’s known as being frugal, for being bipartisan, and for standing up for the rural way of life for his constituents in the Seventh District.”
The DeFazio campaign declined an interview.
Democrats are on the offensive in other districts, looking to pick up from five to 15 seats to expand their current 232-197 majority. Sixteen Republican districts are rated as toss-ups by Cook
“It’s generally easier to defeat a member in their first re-election because they haven’t had an opportunity to ingrain themselves in a district,” Gonzales said. “But after a member wins for a decade or more, there’s a higher threshold to defeat them because of the name ID gap.”
DeFazio’s record and his work forging a diverse political coalition -- blue collar voters that have equal disdain for both parties -- may be his best hope for hanging on to his seat.
“Oregonians are kind of tough and anti-elitist but they’re also kind of loyal too,” said Priscilla Southwell, professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon. “Unless they chose to step down, or unless there’s some scandals, most senators and representatives have a pretty safe seat year-in and year-out.”
Oregon’s fourth congressional district trends much more conservative than the rest of the state. Largely rural, it covers a huge swath of western Oregon, peppered with small towns and two college cities. In 2016, Donald Trump lost the district by only one point.
“This district was the closest congressional district in the country that did not go for Donald Trump,” Skarlatos, DeFazio’s opponent, said in an interview. “It’s very competitive or should be considered a toss-up.”
Skarlatos was awarded the nation’s highest honor for non-combat action and played himself in a Clint Eastwood movie about the event. He has made inroads in the district and raised nearly $4 million, according to his campaign.
Skarlatos said it will be an close race, “Within two percent either way.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.