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2018, a symbol of hope for Democrats

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U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., should be feeling safe heading into this year’s elections: He’s a two-term incumbent in a rural-suburban district that hasn’t elected a Democrat since the 1960s. Donald Trump had a 17-point margin of victory here over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But last year, Grothman – a longtime state legislator from the 6th Congressional District that stretches from Lake Michigan through the center of the state north of Milwaukee and Madison – told people he could be facing the “toughest race of my political career.” Fundraising was lagging and a potentially viable Democratic opponent – Dan Kohl, the nephew of former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl – was mounting a challenge.

At a recent town hall meeting in Theresa, a village about 40 miles north of Milwaukee, Grothman heard constituents fret over Social Security, immigration, the debt, farming and more – and not all of them happy with the direction of a Republican-led Congress.

“The truth is, I’ve always been a Republican, but I’m starting to feel like the Republican Party does not represent me at all,” said 57-year-old Anne Rinzel, who raises crops in nearby Lomira. She’s an advocate for the Affordable Care Act, saying it’s helped pay her daughter’s medical bills.

“There doesn’t seem to be any balance in Washington,” she said after the meeting. “It just flip-flops from two extremes.”

Another such flip may be coming.

Across the nation, Democrats have appeared increasingly bullish on taking back one or both chambers of Congress, fueled by low approval numbers for President Donald Trump and high voter enthusiasm among their supporters. Qualified candidates seem to be lining up to take on entrenched Republicans or vie for open seats not only in toss-up districts in California, New York or New Jersey – which Hillary Clinton won easily — but in areas that Trump won by a comfortable margin, particularly in suburban enclaves or around university centers in the Midwest and elsewhere.

As more Republicans drop out – like House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey did in late January after 23 years in the House – Democrats become more hopeful of winning not only toss-up elections but those in districts like the Wisconsin 6th, where victory has been out of reach.

“Normally you’d think Grothman’s district is safe,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll. “But when we see a real wave election, safe seats don’t stay safe.”

With that in mind, the consulted voters, analysts and handicappers, academics and experts spread across 14 states to put together a list of 25 bellwether races – campaigns that, over the next nine months, could help indicate whether Democrats are riding a wave that could give them control of Congress.

Those races stretch from Southern California to upstate New York, from a South Florida House race to statewide Senate races in Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. Some involve special elections – like one in southwestern Pennsylvania, scheduled for March 13 – in staunchly Republican districts.

Not all of them are toss-ups, either: Democrats would have to win especially close districts – such as those for Republican-held seats in Southern California, South Florida or Northern Virginia where Clinton beat Trump – to have any chance of retaking Congress.

To come up with the list– like Grothman’s in Wisconsin – where Democratic signs of life may indicate a sea change even if they don’t capture them.

Many see political newcomers, especially women and veterans, vying for seats. Most, though not all, are in areas where, if Trump won in 2016, he did so by a margin that Democrats or local experts believe they can overcome. In many, Democrats already appear to be in a position to compete.




–In the 1st district seat in Iowa, represented by two-term U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll showed dismal approval ratings for Trump and a 47%-29% edge for a generic Democrat. Four Democrats – including state Rep. Abby Finkenauer and former Labor Department official Thomas Heckroth – make up a potentially strong slate of challengers for Blum.

–In Michigan’s 8th district outside Detroit, where Trump won with 51% to 44% for Clinton, U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop has drawn a Democratic field that includes a former assistant Defense secretary and intelligence officer, Elissa Slotkin, who served Democratic and Republican presidents, did three tours in Iraq and has posted strong fundraising numbers, outraising Bishop in each of the last two quarters.

–In Kentucky’s 6th district, where Trump won by 16 points, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr faces a Democratic field that currently includes the mayor of Lexington, a sitting state senator and a retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel and pilot, Amy McGrath, whose initial campaign video went viral as she walked down a runway with jets lined up behind her, telling the camera, “Some are telling me a Democrat can’t win that battle in Kentucky. We’ll see about that.” Local political experts believe Barr is in trouble.

–In New Jersey’s 11th district, where Trump eked out a 49%-48% win over Clinton and Frelinghuysen stepped down, the Democratic slate includes Mikie Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor, Navy helicopter pilot and mother of four. Voter anger in the state over the tax reform bill – which Frelinghuysen rejected but his party embraced – is running high.

–In Ohio’s 1st district in southwestern Ohio, longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot drew a challenge in late January from Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval – who had been courted by Democrats after beating another entrenched Republican for his current job. Chabot served 14 years in Congress before getting knocked out of office in a Democratic wave in 2008, then regained the seat two years later. Trump won the district in 2016 by a 6-point margin.


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2018, a symbol of hope for Democrats