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USA Today / News - Politics

For Democrats, path to majority runs through New York, New Jersey

House Democrats have targeted all but one Republican in the two states, where Democrat Hillary Clinton beat President Trump in 2016.


A recent poll of registered voters says an endorsement from Trump or several GOP leaders in Congress will make people less likely to vote for a candidate. Buzz60

Bob Karp/Staff PhotographerOver 100 members of the grassroots group NJ 11th for Change came to the Morristown office of U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in January. They will meet with him in Washington.Over 100 members of the grassroots group ?NJ 11th for Change? came to the Morristown office of U.S. Rep. Rodney Freling-huysen.Over 100 members of the grassroots group 'NJ 11th for Change' came to the Morristown office of Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen to ask questions on behalf of his constituents. January 27, 2017, Morristown, NJ.(Photo: Bob Karp/Staff Photographer)

WASHINGTON — If there’s going to be a Democratic wave in the 2018 midterm elections, look for it to wash ashore in New York and New Jersey.

House Democrats have targeted all but one Republican — Rep. Chris Smith in New Jersey’s reliably conservative fourth district — in the two states, where former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat President Trump in 2016. They need a strong showing there and in other states, such as California, to win back the House majority – a prospect that, while difficult, increasingly looks possible.

“There is no path to the majority for Democrats without making inroads in the New York and New Jersey suburbs,” said Jesse Ferguson, a former deputy executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or DCCC. “There are too many Republicans (in office) in a blue state whose voters don’t approve of the Trump agenda for them to be re-elected.”

Nationally, Democrats are buoyed by their Dec. 12 special election win in Alabama, where Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate seat in 25 years. They also scored big wins in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races in November and had better-than-expected performances in other special elections.

The president's party generally loses seats in mid-term elections, and President Trump's historically low approval ratings leave reason for Republicans to fret going into  2018.

“I see a historical trend cutting against us,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 19. “We’ve got the wind at our face.”

To win the majority, House Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats, and Republicans who now hold a 241-194 majority have more seats in play, including several in New York and New Jersey.

The districts held by GOP Reps. John Faso, of Kinderhook, N.Y., Claudia Tenney, of New Hartford, N.Y., and Frank LoBiondo, of Ventnor, N.J. — who is not seeking re-election — are rated toss-ups by the non-partisan election newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Several other Republicans in the states and one Democrat — Rep. John Gottheimer of New Jersey — are also considered vulnerable.

“A good night for Democrats is probably picking up four or more seats combined between the two states,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

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Kondik said prime targets for Democrats in New York and New Jersey will be GOP districts that haven't been competitive recently and those where Clinton won more votes than former President Barack Obama — such as Reps. Leonard Lance and Rodney Frelinghuysen’s districts in New Jersey.. Also targeted will be districts where Clinton underperformed Obama — Tenney and Faso’s districts — that are traditional House battleground districts. To win the House, Democrats need to win both types of districts, he said.

In the two states, Democrats stand the best chance of flipping South Jersey’s 2nd District, an open seat in 2018. That district flipped for Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in the last two elections. Democrats are encouraged by the candidacy of State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, someone they have wanted to run for a long time, Kondik said.

“If Democrats don’t win New Jersey 2, it means they’re in for an underwhelming night,” Kondik said.

There are positive signs for Democrats in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, which gave Democrat Phil Murphy a more than 13-percentage point win over Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, said Brendan Gill, who ran Murphy’s campaign.

“Our race was a referendum on Gov. (Chris) Christie and President Trump,” Gill said. “We saw gains in both working class communities and suburban communities ... there’s just a lot of positive news in the 2017 result that I think will help define some of these 2018 congressional races.”

Rep. John Faso, right, speaks with a member of the public following Wednesday's Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce Contact Breakfast at the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel in the City of Poughkeepsie.  (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)

Republicans see a dozen opportunities nationally to go on offense in Democratic districts that Trump won, including Gottheimer’s in New Jersey and Rep. Sean Maloney’s district in New York, said Chris Martin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP campaign arm. The NRCC is also helping shore up 20 incumbents nationally in tough races, including Tenney, Faso and Rep. John Katko, of Syracuse.

Democrats in upstate New York could be hurt by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., he said, citing polls that show they’re unpopular there. The two announced a campaign in June to win back seats in New York.

“It’s hard to make a case that they’re not going to be an anchor on these challengers in upstate New York,” Martin said.

In several cases, Martin added, Democrats’ crowded primary fields could leave them with candidates that are too far to the left or “beaten and bloodied” by the process, and they’ll have to face off against well-defined and organized Republican incumbents.

For example, eight Democrats have filed to run in four New York districts, each, including Faso’s.

“I think all of the dynamics say that it’s going to be a tough election year,” Faso told USA TODAY. “But I’ve run in tough elections before. This prospect doesn’t at all faze me.”

Based on 2017’s election results, the question for New York and New Jersey will be whether Democrats see a surge in turnout and defections among higher-educated, white-collar Republicans, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Another factor could be the recently passed GOP tax bill, which could hurt high-tax states like New York and New Jersey by limiting deductions for state and local taxes.

“We’re looking at the basic demographics that have been positive for Democrats and you add on that this tax bill, which is not going to play well in New Jersey and New York, specifically,” Murray said. “It really makes it prime pickup territory for Democrats in those two states, at least.”

Faso voted against the tax bill. But Democrats are attacking him as being part of the Republican Congress that passed the bill.

In November, Faso released fundraising ads on social media, accusing national Democrats of lying about his record, according to Albany's Times Union.

“I’m just going to be assertive in terms of my positions and I’m not going to let opponents mischaracterize them,” Faso said. “But this is politics, so I understand the game they play. I’m not intimidated by it at all.”

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