If current polling stands, Republicans may soon be eyeing some of their most historic losses in modern politics. These losses will be felt both literally and symbolically on all echelons of government.
Emboldened by the national fervor of anti-Trumpism and amassing a tenable coalition of progressives, center-left liberals, and Trump-skeptic conservatives, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot will no doubt deliver gut-wrenching blows to Republicans in regions with shifting political climates. Some of these results will accompany years, if not decades, of Democratic inroads. Others will take place in areas imagined inconceivable just two years ago – Phoenix, Indianapolis, and the Dallas and Houston suburbs.
In addition, Democrats are vying to claw back in numerous rural locales whose historical Democratic brands have fallen prey to the temptation of Trumpian populism. Whether or not these efforts will bear fruit remains a subject of widespread debate.
There are, however, regions which in the modern age are almost completely out of grasp for Democrats. Many of them held once-thriving Democratic support. That has subsequently fallen through the cracks as a result of failed policies and economic instability. These areas are characterized both by their deep-seated ties to Democratic policies, which in some cases linger on the local level to this day, and their newfound resistance to the party’s leftward lurch. They represent populaces which are demographically parallel to one another. They oftentimes embody the spirit of a “forgotten America,” as our president puts aptly. But there is one other precondition that unites many of these far-flung citizens, one which is largely arbitrary: a great number reside in their state’s first congressional district.
There is nothing strictly within the nomenclature that produces this observation; it is purely a matter of circumstance and occasional coincidence. Regarding this statement, several misconceptions must be addressed. First, some states with at-large congressional districts and sizable blue-collar constituencies, such as Delaware and Montana, witness this reality by default. Additionally, congressional districts are not always enumerated with specific regard to geography. Take the neighboring states of Nevada and Arizona as an example. Arizona’s congressional districts ascend in a clockwise spiral, with the first district located in the northeast and following districts tracing the state’s periphery before descending into the population-dense Phoenix metropolis; Nevada’s first district on the other hand, concentrated in urban Las Vegas, is enclosed by the third and fourth congressional district while the distant second constitutes Reno and the state’s sparse northern counties.
With this said, I intend to construct an analytical argument addressing why these homonymous districts have proven elusive for Democrats in the modern political age. I will be examining four districts in particular which adhere to this narrative. These districts are in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and, New York.
One of many districts in the state, California’s First encompasses the state’s rural forested territory in the Northeast. It extends down to near the banks of Lake Tahoe and includes the cities of Chico, Oroville, and Redding.
The district is highly distinguishable from the state’s numerous other Republican-leaning seats in its stark rurality and gargantuan size. The current representative is Doug LaMalfa, a farmer by trade who has served since 2013. He is a quieter member of the congressional delegation who has voted largely in lockstep with the Republican establishment. Despite the prominence of notable glaciers and wildlife in his district, he has been a vocal opponent to the notion of man-made climate change.
California’s Reddest Seat
The logging industry is prominent here, and its workers typify blue-collar realignment towards Republicans in modern times. These counties, unsurprisingly, were friendly to Democrats on the presidential level as recently as the 1990s. Bill Clinton secured pluralities in the counties of Tehama, Butte, and Plumas in 1996. Ross Perot actually ate away heavily from both major parties in these counties and got upwards of 30% of the vote in some) George W. Bush performed respectably here in 2000 and made considerable gains in 2004 by clearing 70% in Modoc and Lassen counties. McCain’s 2008 performance presented a dip from Bush’s margins, but Mitt Romney improved modestly upon previous margins.
CA-01’s emergence as one of the most right-leaning districts in the state is a testament to the rapid erosion of the Republican Party throughout the state in recent years. This was one of the few districts in the state to shift towards Trump from 2012. Mitt Romney won a lower share of the vote here than in the now-blue Orange County-based 45th and 48th districts. Trump’s 19.7% margin was exceeded by businessman John Cox’s 22.4% win here. On the congressional level, however, the district has been both inelastic and competitive.
A Perennial Underperformer
Despite its nature as Safely Republican, it has given underwhelming results to LaMalfa in recent elections. From a high of 61% in the 2014 race, LaMalfa squeaked by in 2018 by single digits. This was his worst result in any of his congressional bids. This is made possible by Democrats running up strong margins in the district’s aforementioned cities of Chico, Redding, and Oroville while paring Republican margins in sparsely-populated territory.
Doug LaMalfa is a sure favorite to win reelection in 2020. It will be noteworthy to examine whether his margin of victory continues to linger in the high-singly digits or if it will more closely parallel Donald Trump’s stellar 2016 margins. It is expected that Donald Trump will perform worse here than in 2016. However, CA-01 will most assuredly remain one of the state’s only remaining bastions of red within a sea of blue. Democrats will be hard-pressed to replicate Bill Clinton’s results here. Whether it swings left in November, it will regardless continue to trend rightward in relation to the state.
MN-01 is the state’s southernmost district. It traces the entire length of the southern border from the Sioux Falls metro area to La Crosse, Wisconsin.
The current representative is Jim Hagedorn of Blue Earth, who flipped the seat red in 2018. This meant it was one of only 3 districts of the nation to flip in that direction. His predecessor, Democrat Tim Walz, vacated the seat to run for Governor. Notable cities located within the district include Rochester, home to the Mayo Clinic, and Mankato. However, the district is mostly rural.
Hagedorn has emerged in many respects as a labor-friendly, rank-and-file supporter of President Trump. He has voiced approval over many of the administration’s tariff policies in this rural, agrarian seat. The district is overwhelmingly white and has a median income which places it above the national average. This can be credited in part to Mayo Clinic’s importance as a hub of science and medicine.
The Quintessential Obama-Trump Seat
On its face, the district appears to be a typical rural Obama-Trump district. However, its politics are far more nuanced than would be suspected. Historically, the 1st has voted similarly to the Minnesota’s Iron Range, a traditional nexus of Democratic support. It has supported Democratic candidates for Congress and the presidency for much of its history.
Bill Clinton performed exceptionally well in the district, much of which sits in the general area known as the “Driftless Area”. This region of the American Midwest, overlapping sections of northeastern Iowa, southwest Wisconsin, and southeast Minnesota, went heavily for Democrat Michael Dukakis following the disastrous Farm Crisis of the mid-1980s. It also held strong for Bill Clinton in both of his presidential campaigns. This expansive region, much of which sits in MN-01, has historically turned out for Democrats in large numbers. The one exception was highly-educated Olmsted County, home of Rochester and a longstanding unionist Republican county.
George Bush came close to winning the state of Minnesota in both of his election pursuits. In doing so, he carried the district twice, by 4% in both 2000 and 2004. Meanwhile, Democratic contenders for Senate and row offices carried the district with large margins. Barack Obama won the district by an identical 4% in 2008 and fared slightly worse in 2012, emerging by 1.4%. At this point, Olmsted had established itself as a Democratic-leaning county while other counties were shifting rightward. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump carried the district in a landslide – by 14.9%, a margin seldom seen before by any Republican. His lingering support in the district facilitated a Republican flip in 2018. This marked the first time the region had been represented by the GOP since Gil Gutknecht, who snagged victory amidst the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.
A Competitive District
The district has witnessed a string of competitive congressional elections in recent years. Tim Walz, who flipped the seat in 2006, faced his fair share of narrow victories. He won by less than 5% in the 2010 Republican wave and eked out a 0.7% win in 2016. Given diminishing returns for Democrats, a Republican flip was inevitable in due time. When it finally occurred in 2018, the 1st became ground zero for one of the most competitive races in the nation, largely due to candidate quality.
A rematch between Rep. Jim Hagedorn and Army veteran Dan Feehan is in store this year. Even though Trump is anticipated to win the district once again, declining Republican fortunes broadly and the emergence of ticket splitting could make this seat competitive once again. Prevailing trends nonetheless indicate that MN-01 is a seat which is quickly becoming out of sync with the modern Democratic Party. Its rightward trend will only accelerate with a Democrat in the White House and a GOP that steadily orients itself towards blue-collar causes.
WI-01 marks the stomping ground of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who held the seat from 1999 until his retirement twenty years later. It takes in approximately half of Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois and includes the city of Janesville, located in solidly blue Rock County. It also includes Kenosha, Racine, and much of Milwaukee County’s southern suburbs, including Franklin and Oak Creek.
The current representative is Bryan Steil, who, like Ryan, hails from Janesville in the western portion of the district. Steil a standard Republican who has seldom deviated from his party’s traditional stances. Unlike Rep. Hagedorn, however, Steil has consistently voted against numerous pieces of legislation endorsed by the AFL-CIO despite the heavy union presence in his seat. His lifetime score with the organization is lower than the Republican average.
Presidential and congressional voting patterns here underscore a partisan realignment decades in the making which has rendered the district, like Wisconsin as a whole, viable for Republicans following years of Democratic dominance. Gore won the district by a hair in 2000, largely off his decent performance in Kenosha County, a heavily industrial county with a sizable minority population of African Americans. Bush flipped the district with 54% of the vote in 2004 before Obama slightly outran Gore’s 2000 performance in 2008, securing the district by a slim 3%. With suburban and rural municipalities rallying against President Obama’s sweeping first-term policies, Mitt Romney won the district handedly in 2012 with 52% of the vote. It helped that his VP candidate was none other than native son Paul Ryan. Donald Trump, however trounced his opponent in 2016 by an even stronger margin of 11%.
Since his initial race to this seat in 1998, Paul Ryan continually demolished Democratic opponents in his reelection pursuits. Interestingly, he was given his lowest margin of victory in 2012, during his candidacy for the Vice Presidency. That candidates who vied for national office received decreased support from their constituents was a phenomenon that befell numerous 2012 presidential candidates including Ryan and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
A Safer Seat
When Speaker Ryan shocked the political world by announcing his intent to retire in 2018, WI-01 was made truly competitive on the congressional level for the first time in decades. Steil was pitted against ironworker Randy Bryce in what was anticipated to be a highly contentious race. While numerous internal and third-party polls painted this picture, the result proved disastrous for Democrats. Bryce proved too leftist for this right-of-center district and Steil breezed to a 12 point victory. This exceeded even Trump’s impressive margins from two years earlier. All reputable election forecasters rate the First as a safe Republican seat for the upcoming election.
Democrats may blame the district’s egregiously gerrymandered structure for its continued Republican dominance and increasingly inhospitable conditions for Democrats. This is true in part. Indeed, state legislative Republicans drew the congressional district to dilute its mid-sized liberal cities with a wealth of exurban Milwaukee GOP votes. But make no mistake: Republicans have made substantial gains throughout the region on account of burgeoning disillusionment with the progressive policies of the Democratic Party. It would be prudent for Democrats to direct their attention elsewhere in the state, specifically the wealthy western Milwaukee suburbs of Wauwatosa and West Allis, and finally forgo their chances at placing Wisconsin’s First back into the Democratic column.
New York’s First
NY-01 is located on the furthest tip of Long Island in Suffolk County. It is located on Long Island and entirely within Suffolk County, stretching from Smithtown to Montauk. The district, though predominantly white, houses a multitude of income demographics. Median incomes range from triple digits in the Hamptons to the mid-to-high double digits in the district’s more urbanized, blue-collar areas.
Its current representative, Lee Zeldin, is one of three New York Republicans who flipped a congressional seat in the state from blue to red in the 2014 midterm elections. Zeldin is one of two Jewish Republicans serving in the House, the other being David Kustoff of Tennessee, and he has established himself as a pragmatic backbencher who has become closely aligned with President Trump particularly on foreign policy.
NY-01 is emblematic of Long Island’s pendular political preferences and peculiar swings. The district narrowly voted for George H.W. Bush in 1992 before delivering comfortable margins to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, respectively. Voting patterns in the 2000s were unusual. However, they distinctly reflected several state developments and were thus mimicked in other New York districts like the Staten Island-based 11th.
George W. Bush rebounded in 2004 on account of his resolute handling of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in nearby New York City, to which many of the district’s residents commute for work. With severe economic woes four years later, Barack Obama regained lost territory and won the district by a four-point margin. In 2012, while Mitt Romney ran well-ahead of Obama’s 2008 numbers throughout the country, Long Islanders praised President Obama’s swift and effective response to Hurricane Sandy. The First held on for Obama by a narrow 1% margin. This energy changed drastically in 2016 as Donald Trump’s appeal to blue-collar audiences buoyed him to a twelve-point victory in the district, the largest margin for any party since 1996.
The First’s working-class roots historically lent victories to Democrats on the congressional level. However, this has mostly dissipated as Republicans have made significant ground. From 2003 to 2015, the district was represented by Tim Bishop, a Democrat who ran numerous times on the Working Families ticket and who maintained a close relationship with Democratic leadership throughout while making bipartisan strides – he voted in favor of Cap & Trade, the 2013 Fiscal Cliff, and the Keystone Pipeline Amendment while voicing opposition to the 2013 government shutdown and a repeal of Obamacare. For most of his tenure, his voting record reflected the persuasions of his constituents, who leaned Democratic on the presidential level but favored consensus and bipartisanship.
A Trumpy Seat
But the district’s rightward trend predates even Trump’s 2016 victory. In 2014, Tim Bishop was faced with his largest reelection hurdle yet – State Senator Lee Zeldin. While polling showed a close race, Zeldin ultimately romped to a nine-point victory. Since then, Zeldin has faced varying degrees of competition. He won reelection by nearly twenty points in 2016 but scraped to victory in 2018 by only four points. This is mostly a consequence of national resentment against the Republican status quo. It is not exactly attributable to any idiosyncrasies to the district that Zeldin may have.
Zeldin will likely face another close reelection battle this time around, though given the trends and demographics of his district, which are highly favorable to Trump, Zeldin remains favored in his bid. If Zeldin manages to secure reelection, and Joe Biden wins the presidency, he will plausibly face minimal competition in 2022, a year which may be more propitious for Republicans nationally.
NY-01 is unlikely to turn back to the Democratic column and become a reliable haven for Democrats anytime soon. Republicans have secured strong footing in this neck of the woods. They will strive to use the First as a launching point towards other, more difficult, prospects throughout the state.
The Common Thread
The four districts presented in my argument present massive political and demographic burdens for Democrats. They are united by a certain few details. These include an overabundance of caucasian residents, strong blue-collar ties, and a general anti-establishment sentiment which has placed them solidly into the Republican camp. As the party has pivoted towards isolationist stances on economic and foreign trade, greater sympathies with labor unions and the working class, and a rigidly populist vitriol (effectively pitting “The Swamp” of the D.C. establishment against ordinary Americans), voters in these varied First districts came to discover their natural home beneath the umbrella of the GOP. Disenfranchisement from the progressive-trending policies of the Democratic Party will undoubtedly cement these districts within the Republican camp for years – if not decades – to come.
The modern incarnation of the Democratic will prosper because of its glowing appeal among centrists and progressives from a variety of income brackets. The Party of Jackson seeks to become a vibrant, big-tent coalition of diverse urbanites and suburbanites. But in doing so, it has relinquished its influence over those areas typified by the nation’s numerous First congressional districts. A party which forsakes the backbone of an overlooked America is one that is ripe for earnest introspection and crucial electoral change.