Politico, 01/01/2018 - The 10 must-watch candidates of 2018
By Kevin Robillard, Elena Schneider, and Daniel Strauss
President Donald Trump’s name won’t be on the ballot in 2018, but his influence will be everywhere.
Just look at the types of candidates who are running: The polarizing president has lured scores of Democratic recruits itching to challenge him and his policies, as well as Republican hopefuls taking up Trump’s “America First” banner. Moderate candidates in both parties will also have to figure out how to best position themselves vis-à-vis a commander in chief loathed or loved by their respective grass roots.
Among those hopefuls are a star African-American state House leader and romance novelist aiming to turn Georgia’s governorship blue, and a Republican congresswoman who made history as one of the country’s first fighter pilots likely to run for an open Senate seat.
As the midterm election year gets underway, here are 10 candidates you should be watching in 2018 races for House, Senate and governor, in alphabetical order:
1. Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D)
Even before Doug Jones won his Alabama Senate seat buoyed by a wave of African-American support, Stacey Abrams argued that Democrats could win statewide races in the South by building coalitions of black support, coupled with suburban Republicans and Democrats. Abrams is looking to put that theory to the test in the Georgia gubernatorial race.
Abrams served as the minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and also helped run The Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group that focused on registering African-American voters in the state. The race is still an uphill battle for Abrams. She faces Stacey Evans, another woman and a member of Georgia’s House of Representatives, in the Democratic primary before she can run against one of the handful of Republicans running for the GOP nomination. Abrams, a Yale Law graduate and successful romance novelist, has attracted national Democratic endorsements, including from former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia.
2. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.)
Barletta, who made his political name combating illegal immigration as the mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, is running for Senate with Trump’s encouragement. And if he wants to win his race against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, he’ll have to following in Trump’s footsteps.
While both Trump and Sen. Pat Toomey won Pennsylvania in 2016, they did it by following very different paths. Toomey managed to hold down Democrat Katie McGinty’s margins in the populous Philadelphia suburbs, while Trump won by running up the score in the state’s rural center.
With college-educated voters turning against the president, it’s unlikely Barletta (or any Republican with Trump’s backing) would be able to follow Toomey’s suburban path to victory. Instead, he’ll have to convince white voters who have voted for McGinty, Casey and other Democrats because of economic issues to side with him on cultural ones.
3. Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D)
The 74-year-old former Democratic governor of Tennessee is a top recruit for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. A moderate former businessman, Bredesen was once popular enough statewide to win every single county in his 2006 reelection campaign. That was 12 years ago — the same year then-Rep. Harold Ford nearly won a Senate seat.
Democratic hopes of winning the Senate may hinge on Bredesen giving the winner of the GOP primary (likely either Rep. Marsha Blackburn or former Rep. Stephen Fincher) a real run for their money and forcing the National Republican Senatorial Committee to play defense in red territory. Republicans were relieved when Bredesen said recently he wasn’t likely to use any of his own personal wealth to win the seat.
4. New York state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D)
Anthony Brindisi is an old-style Democratic challenger: a moderate who occasionally criticizes party leaders like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. After recruiting him for years, Democrats finally landed the assemblyman as a challenger to GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney in her upstate New York district.
Brindisi could be a test case for how Democratic activists, electrified by Trump, react to a centrist Democrat running in a moderate district. So far, Brindisi hasn’t attracted a primary challenger.
But Brindisi may have found a key issue for 2018, blasting Tenney for supporting the GOP tax bill. The measure doesn’t poll well in New York, a high-tax state that could be hit hard by deduction losses. Brindisi tweeted that Tenney is “celebrating the big gift she delivered to her special interest cronies. Merry Christmas Wall Street. Bah humbug middle class.”
5. Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.)
Comstock was already in jeopardy: She won reelection in 2016, even as her northern Virginia district backed Hillary Clinton by a 10-point margin. But then came 2017, when voters rejected seven Republican state delegates whose seats overlapped with hers during the November legislative elections. Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Washington Post that night, “If I’m Barbara Comstock, I’m very worried, absolutely.”
In a wave year for Democrats, Comstock could do everything right and still lose. Yet Comstock has successfully carved out a national platform that not only helps her with female voters, but also shows just how different she is from Trump: reforming sexual harassment policies in Congress. She’s co-sponsored a resolution with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) to require members and staff to complete anti-sexual harassment training and has made the rounds on national TV to talk about the issue.
Comstock, who’s a strong fundraiser, is also helped by a crowded Democratic primary that could leave her general election opponent bruised and drained of resources. If she survives 2018, she could write the handbook on how to win in the Trump era.
6. Former Kansas state Rep. Paul Davis (D)
Paul Davis kicked off his campaign for Congress in Kansas by promising to not support Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, heralding a new generation of Democrats that won’t be sticking by the California congresswoman. But Davis’ political gamble — crossing his party’s leader for the sake of competing in a bright red district — hasn’t cost him much in Washington. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Davis to the first round of its “Red to Blue” program, while Steny Hoyer’s PAC donated to his campaign.
Back home, Davis — the party’s 2014 gubernatorial nominee — has consolidated Democratic support, while a wide field of Republicans are jockeying to replace retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins. The district is still a reach for Democrats, but Davis’ separation from national Democrats could give him a serious shot.
7. Nevada state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R)
Laxalt has political DNA: He is the grandson of former Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) — and, it was revealed in recent years, the previously secret son of the late former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). Since winning the attorney general’s race in 2014, Laxalt has cut a large profile, inviting out-of-state Republican figures to his Basque Fry in northern Nevada and championing national, conservative causes.
But it’s shaping up as a daunting election cycle for GOP gubernatorial candidates, and Laxalt is running in a state that’s increasingly trending blue. Republicans expect Laxalt to win the nomination easily and, with no clear front-runner in the Democratic primary, mount a strong bid to extend Republican control of Nevada’s governor’s mansion for another term.
8. Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R)
Establishment Republicans have long said Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory over McDaniel in Mississippi’s 2014 Republican Senate primary was a shot in the arm ahead of an election that ended with them picking up nine seats and grabbing control of the chamber. McDaniel, a firebrand conservative, is now aiming to take out Sen. Roger Wicker in the state’s June primary, this time with former White House adviser Steve Bannon’s backing. The political environment is even worse for the GOP establishment than it was in 2014, and the Mitch McConnell-led cavalry just failed to save appointed Sen. Luther Strange in neighboring Alabama.
Still, there are reasons for establishment Republicans to be optimistic. Public polling has given Wicker a lead to start the race. And McDaniel’s past criticisms of Trump can be weaponized, potentially allowing Republicans to vaporize him the way they demolished Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama.
9. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)
McSally, who hasn’t officially entered the Arizona Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, is aiming to avoid the same vortex that sucked away her GOP colleague’s chances at reelection. She’s been a rising star in the House GOP in recent years: a leadership favorite with a strong biography (she was one of the first female fighter pilots in Air Force history) who held down a swing district in tumultuous political times. She was the establishment’s top pick to replace Flake.
While she never lobbed rhetorical bombs at Trump the way Flake did, she did drop her endorsement of the president after the “Access Hollywood” tape. Bannon allies have promised to oppose her — lining up, for now, behind former state Sen. Kelli Ward, who unsuccessfully ran against John McCain in 2016. Ward has led McSally in the limited public polling, though McSally's campaign released a survey showing the race tied. Any criticism of Trump is politically deadly in GOP primaries, and McSally has embraced the president in the run-up to a likely Senate announcement, repeatedly praising him on Fox News.
But can McSally successfully walk the line between appealing to Trump’s base while protecting her general election prospects?
10. Former federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill (D)
Sherrill sits at the center of the Trump-era, Democratic congressional candidate Venn diagram: woman, veteran, first-time candidate. She’s challenging New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, whose suburban, well-educated district cuts through the heart of the Democrats’ most-likely path back to the majority.
Sherrill is joined by hundreds of women who are running for political office for the first time. And Democrats have also focused heavily on recruiting veterans, like Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania and Jared Golden in Maine, to attract crossover support from moderate voters.
In New Jersey, Sherrill escaped a contested primary and coalesced Democratic support. If she wins this affluent district, Sherrill will be a part of the suburban revolution that could flip the House.