WASHINGTON - To win the House majority in the midterms, Democrats will need to make big gains with suburban voters, defend incumbents in rural districts where President Donald Trump remains popular, topple a handful of Republicans in the Sun Belt and probably win a handful of seats that still aren't on anyone's radar.
The opposition party needs to win 24 seats to take control of the House in 2018. Understandably, operatives and handicappers have focused on the 23 districts that Republicans hold, which voted for Hillary Clinton last year. But some of the incumbents are very popular, with brands that are distinct from Trump's, and they are unlikely to lose no matter how bad the headwinds become.
In other words, it's inconceivable that Democrats run the table in those 23 districts. Even if they did, they'd still be one short. And Democrats must defend 12 seats in districts that Trump carried in 2016.
Third Way did a deep dive to try to understand what the 2018 playing field will look like. The center-left think tank focused on 65 "Majority Makers," the battlegrounds where a majority would most likely be won. Using 48 Census data points, two experts from the moderate group looked at variables such as how many people moved into a district over the past year, what percentage of residents have access to broadband Internet and how many houses are vacant.
They divided the swing districts into four categories: Thriving Suburban Communities, Left Behind Areas, Diverse/Fast-Growing Regions, and Non-Conformist Districts.Their report was shared first with The Daily 202.
The numbers underscore how different even the 23 GOP-held Clinton districts are demographically. Many are suburban and overwhelmingly white. Others are rural and heavily Latino. Within the broad categories, there are stark differences on income, educational attainment and employment rates. More than half of adults in New Jersey's 7th District, for example, graduated from college. Only 17 percent in California's 10th District did.
"The most important takeaway is that there is no one kind of voter or district that can deliver the House for Democrats in 2018," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way. "There's been a lot of focus on suburban districts. There's no doubt that those are important, but there are not enough of them to win the House."
Hatalsky, who co-authored the report with Ryan Pougiales, emphasized that Democrats still would not win the House even if they could get every single 2016 Clinton voter who backed a Republican House candidate to turn out again in 2018 and cross over.
"You can't get to a House majority without winning over Trump voters," she said. "There are some people who definitely want to believe that they can because they still don't know how to deal with Trump voters and are intimidated by the idea of appealing to them."
Third Way's new study is an interesting contribution to the debate that's now raging among elite Democrats about what the party's theory of the case should be going into 2018. It may seem early to some, but this is prime candidate recruitment season. Decisions that will be made in the coming weeks about who the Democratic establishment coalesces behind could make the difference 16 months from now between whether Nancy Pelosi retires, stays on as House minority leader or becomes speaker again.
National Democrats have lurched to the left in recent years. Clinton felt she needed to become more liberal during the 2016 primaries to fend off an unexpectedly robust challenge from Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist from Vermont, and reactivate the unenthusiastic coalition that powered Barack Obama's two victories. Even Bill Clinton found himself on the defensive over his third-way roots.
Hardcore progressives have been the loudest voices in the debate over the party's future since November. The tea-party-like "resistance" movement that has erupted in response to Trump has put growing pressure on elected Democrats to call for a new era of big government by embracing proposals like single-payer health care, a $15 national minimum wage and tuition-free college.
There is palpable concern among moderate Democrats that the party will squander precious pick-up opportunities in the midterms, and even allow Trump to get reelected in 2020, by nominating unelectable liberals. One episode that gives credence to their fears: When House Democrats went to their February retreat in Baltimore, several progressive groups protested that a Third Way executive was even invited to speak about how the party could find its way out of the wilderness.
Third Way believes Democrats must embrace ideological diversity to take back legislative seats that were lost during the Obama era at the federal and state level. "There are a lot of different kinds of candidates and policies we're going to have to welcome into the coalition to win," Hatalsky said. "There's no single kind of candidate that would resonate in all these places. The idea of purification - that we just need one kind of person who is going to bring us the majority - is not borne out by how different these places look. . . . The upshot from our perspective is that we need an all-of-the-above strategy. We need to take a wider look at the kinds of candidates you need and the sort of agenda to address."
When I spoke by phone with Hatalsky, she was between interviews with voters in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. It's part of a national tour that she has embarked on to better understand the dynamics in GOP-held Clinton districts and Democratic-held Trump districts. Little Havana is in the heart of a Florida district that has been represented by retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen since 1989. Clinton won there by more than 20 points.
"Both in thriving suburban communities and fast growing diverse regions, these folks are mostly not in poverty," Hatalsky said. "They're in the growing middle class. They see their fortunes rising. They have different perspectives about how the economy impacts their life. They're not looking for more safety nets. They're looking for more opportunities."