Dan Canon and Liz Watson (top) in the 9th CD; William Tanoos (lower left) in the 8th CD and Mel Hall in the 2nd CD will try and take advantage of the "blue wave."
Dan Canon and Liz Watson (top) in the 9th CD; William Tanoos (lower left) in the 8th CD and Mel Hall in the 2nd CD will try and take advantage of the "blue wave."
WASHINGTON – Conor Lamb’s stunning upset in last week’s special election in a deep red western Pennsylvania congressional district is triggering a frenzy of speculation and activity in Washington. Democrats are convinced the victory signals the coming of a “blue wave” that will carry their party to a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and possibly even in the U.S. Senate.  

Republicans, meanwhile, are characterizing their Pennsylvania embarrassment as a wake-up call. GOP lawmakers are scrambling to deliver legislative results in hopes of stemming a blue tide.

Most independent political prognosticators, however, believe current objective factors already point to big Democratic gains in 2018. Stuart Rothenberg writes this week in Roll Call that Republican and Democratic strategists agree a blue wave has already formed and that most expect the GOP losses in the House to be in 30-45 seat range, well above the two dozen seats needed for majority control.  

For Hoosier Democrats, a wave would present an opportunity similar to the 1980s and in 2006 when they were able to win several congressional seats in districts drawn to protect Republican incumbents. Since 1964, Indiana Democrats have only been able to post gains in midterm and special elections during a Republican presidency. After Tim Roemer defeated John Hiler in the old South Bend-based 3rd CD in 1990, for example, Democrats held eight of Indiana’s 10 U.S. House seats after having picked up four Republican held districts during the Reagan-Bush 41 era. In the 2006 wave election, Democrats knocked off three Republican incumbents in the 2nd, 8th, and 9th districts during Bush 43’s second midterm election. 

With the stars seemingly lined up in their favor, the only thing left, perhaps, for Democrats to worry about is the quality of their candidates.  Democrats nationally have fielded strong candidates with impressive resumes in each of the races they have won over the almost past year. The likelihood of a Democratic wave is attracting a wave of Democratic candidates, some better equipped to win a tough general election than others. But multi-candidate primaries are notoriously unpredictable, meaning Democrats may not always wind up with the best or most electable candidate in every targeted race.

In Indiana, the quality of Democratic candidates challenging incumbents varies but none appear quite up to the level of the candidates who took Republican seats in 2006 (Joe Donnelly, Brad Ellsworth, and Baron Hill) or who won tough races in Republican-leaning districts in the 1980s (Frank McCloskey, Jim Jontz, Jill Long, and Tim Roemer). Certainly, they are not as experienced.

The three districts that have been historically competitive — the 2nd, the 8th, and the 9th — have been rendered almost out of reach for Democrats by the Republican controlled extreme gerrymandering that occurred before the 2012 election. None of those districts is currently on the list of competitive races compiled by either the Cook Report or Inside Elections, the most reliable handicappers of congressional elections, though the 2nd district was moved last month by Cook from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican.”

ν In the 2nd CD, three major candidates are vying for the chance to take on three-term incumbent Jackie Walorski: Mel Hall, Yatish Joshi, and Pat Hackett. Former governor and South Bend mayor Joe Kernan has endorsed Joshi, calling the wealthy businessman “an extraordinary person.” 

But Hall, a minister turned corporate CEO, is the acknowledged frontrunner and appears to be running the most professional campaign, having hired the former campaign manager for both South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Joe Donnelly. Hackett, who trails the other two in fundraising, has the strongest ties to the area’s progressive base and could surprise.  

Rep. Walorski has not been seriously challenged since she narrowly defeated Brendan Mullen in 2012. The GOP advantage according to the Cook Report is now plus 11 and Trump carried the district by 20 points. However, Walorski is still not terribly popular in heavily Democratic St. Joseph County and would need some breaks to survive a big blue wave.

ν In the 9th CD, the two major Democratic candidates are lawyers Liz Watson and Dan Canon. Watson recently released internal polling showing her leading Canon by 13 points, 40% to 27%. Canon disputes the poll but didn’t release his own numbers to contradict it.  

Both candidates are solid and articulating well- thought-out Democratic messages focused mostly on economic fairness. Watson has done an impressive job winning union endorsements. Canon has a compelling personal story and ties his story very nicely into his message. But Watson’s endorsements, Washington experience, and sheer determination seem to be working for her with district Democrats. 

Incumbent Trey Hollingsworth, who moved to the district to run in 2012 and virtually bought the seat, is almost a stranger in this district. He would be highly vulnerable in many districts. But the Republican advantage here is plus 13 and neither Democratic candidate seems interested in moderating their progressive politics to fit a more conservative electorate.

ν The race in Indiana’s 8th CD is on nobody’s radar. The Cook Political Report gives Republicans a plus 15-point advantage in this district that was at one time so volatile it was known as “the Bloody 8th.” Donald Trump walloped Hillary Clinton here by 33%. Nonetheless, Larry Bucshon in many ways could be considered vulnerable. His record of accomplishments is thin and he is looking increasingly out of touch. He has struggled to handle angry constituents and tough questioning in town hall meetings (though some acknowledge that unlike many of his colleagues at least he holds them!). And, recently Bucshon moved his family out of Indiana and into a large house in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. His small Evansville condo usually appears vacant. 

Bucshon has also been a reliable vote for corporate special interests, especially Big Coal, and he has been generously rewarded for his loyalty with campaign contributions, though he represents one of the worst areas in the nation for air quality. He backed a short-lived move by House Republicans to gut an independent ethics committee of its power to hold members accountable for misconduct.  The Evansville Courier & Press reluctantly endorsed Bucshon in 2016, observing that if no progress is made on tackling key issues facing the country by the new Congress and president, Bucshon “should be removed” from office. There was a rumor going around after the 2016 election that Bucshon was angling for a top post in the new administration. The plan apparently was to recruit Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke to run this year in order to keep the district in Republican hands. But for whatever reason, the job never materialized.

The Democrats have only one candidate, Terre Haute attorney William Tanoos, running for the 8th CD nomination. Former Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weizapfel walked up to the line but decided not to take the jump, reportedly because Tanoos refused to drop out. Tanoos not only has Hollywood looks, but actually starred in a 2014 film about the fictional grandson of socialist Eugene V. Debbs running for office. Tanoos might sneak up on Bucshon if voters are looking for a fresh face and new energy in 2018.

Hoosier Democrats will probably fall short in picking up any of the Republican held congressional seats in 2018 unless the predicted “blue wave” nets closer to a pickup of 45 seats rather than 30. Those districts have become too Republican through redistricting and general conservative trending. And, it is difficult to predict whether any of the Democrats, all first time candidates, have what it takes to survive a tough campaign. But in a big wave year, it sometimes doesn’t matter. It remains to be seen whether 2018 will be that kind of blue wave year. 

Sautter is a Democratic media consultant based in Washington.