How Democrats Who Beat Republicans Last Year Plan to Keep Their Seats

LEAWOOD, Kan. — Representative Sharice Davids stared out at the large water treatment plant construction site, one animated by cranes, concrete pumpers and scores of workers, a testament to the exponential growth of a county that helped her sweep to victory last year.

Leawood is the sort of place where she — like many of the 64 Democrats who helped their party take back the House in 2018 — will need voters from every spot along the political spectrum to keep her job.

Desperate to maintain their one perch of power in Washington, House Democrats are moving aggressively to defend their majority. Incumbents, under intense pressure from the party to begin their campaigns, raised a record $11.6 million in the first quarter of the year and are moving quickly to protect the 31 seats they hold in districts where President Trump prevailed in 2016.

“We have a solid operation,” said Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the House. “We are investing in field operations already — we have never done that this early — and we know how we are going to spend our resources. Everything is front-loaded.”

While much of the attention paid to the House freshmen has centered on its most liberal and outspoken members, who mostly come from safe Democratic districts, the battle for control of the chamber rests with majority-makers, like Ms. Davids, who picked off Republican incumbents in more conservative districts.

Those members — many of them women — are eager to create an impression among constituents that they are essentially customer service representatives for the government, often distancing themselves from their party’s most liberal impulses to maintain their hold on the suburban voters who were greatly responsible for their victories.

“I am not doing this to be the Democrat from the Third District of Kansas,” Ms. Davids said. “I am doing this to be the representative of the Third District.”

She and other lawmakers spent April donning hard hats and surveying infrastructure projects, visiting health care centers, and racing from breakfasts with veterans to meetings with mayors, all in an attempt to recreate the alchemy of hyperlocalism and a focus on health care that proved a winning formula for Democrats during last year’s campaign.

“I try to spend as much time in this district as I can listening to constituents,” said Representative Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota, who also beat a Republican last year, and whose district voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.ImageRepresentative Angie Craig of Minnesota, who also defeated a Republican incumbent, has concentrated on health care and local issues.

She largely stays out of the controversies that have unfolded among other freshmen over potential primaries for the insufficiently liberal and positions on Israel. The majority of her staff is in Minnesota, rather than Washington, and her media strategy hinges almost exclusively on the tiny newspapers in the district’s suburban and rural areas.

“You won’t find me with one of the most active Twitter accounts,” she said over coffee in Eagan, Minn., 15 miles yet a world away from the district of Representative Ilhan Omar, her Minneapolis neighbor, whose national profile exceeds Ms. Craig’s about in the manner of a pumpkin to a blueberry.

Ms. Craig concentrates on health care — she is a former executive from the industry — and local issues. She has sponsored the State Health Care Premium Reduction Act, to address soaring costs, and the Local Water Protection Act, which would give every county in her district grants to protect its water.

Republicans, on offense, are nonetheless seizing on some of the more liberal ideas of House Democrats, like “Medicare for all” and the Green New Deal, an expansive climate change proposal promoted by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Theirs is a fairly un-nuanced approach they hope will work in most districts: Call all Democrats socialists, and hope the moniker sticks.

“Socialism is a good narrative to get us back to the majority,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is equally concerned with the Trump-won districts that Democrats picked up last year. “Democrats are being good partners in getting that message out.”

While congressional Republicans may not have a counter policy agenda on health care — they failed repeatedly in the last Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act and have yet to offer an alternative plan — Mr. Pack conceded, “We are more focused on the politics of what the Democrats are doing.”

The attack, though partisan in its frame, reflects a broader debate within the Democratic Party writ large over its political and policy agenda.

This group of House freshmen, the most racially diverse ever, is also politically and geographically heterogeneous, with members hailing from strip mall America, semirural districts and politically mixed exurbs, as well as liberal cities.

Many of the more moderate members, like Ms. Davids and Ms. Craig, would like to focus on bills to curb health care costs and on a modest climate change measure to prevent the United States from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. They would prefer to work with the administration when possible on things like infrastructure programs and prescription drug prices, while otherwise ignoring Mr. Trump as though he were an unpleasant appliance noise radiating from somewhere in the back of the room.

The Democratic presidential primary fight will only underscore these tensions, as voters choose from a wide range of candidates who fall at various points on the ideological spectrum.

“The Democratic nominee will start to define the Democratic Party,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan analysis organization. “It will be up to candidates to define themselves before someone defines them. They want to be known as independent thinkers, but it is harder not to get lumped in with the broader party brand.”

For her part, Ms. Omar said she saw no conflict between a liberal legislative agenda, even one that has no chance for moving forward in a Republican-controlled Senate, and the re-election prospects for her colleagues in more conservative districts.

“We have to continue pushing forward for the people,” she said. Once “everyone can see we are fighting for their prosperity,” she added, “everything else will fall into place.”

While Democrats are divided on how to manage the question of Mr. Trump, one area they agree on is that they have an edge on the health care issue.

Polling backs this up. In a recent survey of 1,108 adults, conducted by The Associated Press and the University of Chicago, 40 percent said they trusted Democrats more to handle health care, while 23 percent said they trusted the Republicans. The vast majority of House Democrats who were victorious in 2018 homed in on voters’ concerns about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

At a town hall last month in Cottage Grove, Minn., Ms. Craig focused on her health care bill and her support for both turkey hunting and gun control legislation. She spoke of how she had helped an older constituent with his Social Security.

A Republican tracker with a video camera taped her every move. “Angie and her staff hate me, but they can’t stop me,” he told an attendee.

Ms. Davids is socially liberal, but like Ms. Craig, she has taken a pass on the “Medicare for all” bill. One of only two Native American women to ever win a seat in Congress and the first lesbian to win a congressional seat in Kansas, Ms. Davids ran on a strategy that worked for many Democrats in 2018: motivate the base, lure Republicans who are leery of Mr. Trump, but also don’t say his name a lot.

During her campaign, Ms. Davids reached out to voters in largely working class Wyandotte County, who had long felt ignored by her predecessor, former Representative Kevin Yoder.

At the same time she was able to make inroads here in Johnson County, which includes Leawood. Like many counties that have taken on new educated residents from urban and rural areas, the area can be friendly to Democrats. Ms. Davids’s district narrowly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, the only one in the state to do so.

Among Johnson County’s 410,301 registered voters, 110,683 are Democrats and 182,004 are Republicans (the rest are libertarian or unaffiliated). Five years ago, there were 374,501 voters in the county, 84,243 Democrats and 172,768 Republicans among them.

“We are a microcosm of what we have been seeing nationwide,” said Greg Shelton, vice chairman of the Johnson County Democratic Party. “This next election is going to be really telling — whether this is short term, or if there is a growing new normal where more and more people are saying, ‘My parents are Republicans, my grandparents were Republicans, but I am starting to grow away from the party.’”

Over a two-day stretch in her district last month, Ms. Davids attended a job fair and youth mentoring meeting in urban Kansas City and visited a commercial airport and a water treatment plant to assess their infrastructure needs.

One of the days would be capped off by an inclusion festival in an increasingly diverse suburb where children convinced Ms. Davids, a one-time mixed martial arts fighter, to do many push-ups.

Chatting over an end-of-day sandwich and a bag of Doritos in her Kansas City office, she left the door open in case a constituent decided to wander in.

“I have a record now people can look at,” she said, pointing to her work with the House on cleaning up elections and protecting voter rights. “And I think people will be able to say, ‘She’s doing a good job for her constituents.’”