Veteran House incumbents cling to seats as districts evolve

As he logs another campaign season piloting his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza around his vast, crimson-red Minnesota district, voters greet Rep. Collin Peterson by name. But something else is hauntingly familiar as the Democrat seeks a 16th term in Congress.

"There are so many Trump signs out here you wouldn’t believe it," Peterson, 76, said recently.

Much of the focus in this year’s fight for House control will be on dozens of freshmen Democrats who gave the party its majority in 2018 by capturing Republican-held seats. But there’s a smaller category of lawmakers like Peterson and GOP Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio who also merit attention: long-term incumbents of both parties fighting to preserve their careers.

Like their newer, more vulnerable colleagues, these congressional veterans are confronting the country’s growing partisan fragmentation.

This trend, which President Donald Trump has intensified, has seen conservative rural districts turn increasingly Republican while suburban voters exhausted by his discord-driven presidency flee the GOP in droves.

Peterson represents a district Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election by 31 percentage points, his biggest margin in any of the 29 House seats Democrats hold.

"These days for many voters, just seeing an ‘R’ or ‘D’ next to a name, that’s enough," said Gary Jacobson, political science professor emeritus at the University of California San Diego.

Over 90% of House incumbents are usually reelected, thanks to name recognition and campaign fundraising advantages. But they’re not immune to defeat. In the 2018 Democratic wave, 30 representatives seeking reelection — all Republicans — were defeated, including seven who’d served at least five terms. One, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., had served for 30 years.

This year, around a dozen House members who’ve served at least a decade, or five terms, have potentially competitive contests. Most are Republicans, whose numbers in this category would be higher if eight others who faced difficult races in states including Georgia, North Carolina and Texas had sought reelection rather than retiring.

Rep. Don Young of Alaska, 87, first elected in a 1973 special election and the longest serving Republican in House history, is favored but faces a well-financed opponent. Other GOP representatives eyeing close races include David Schweikert of Arizona, reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee for campaign finance violations; Mike McCaul, whose Texas district includes suburbs of Houston and Austin; and Jaime Herrera Beutler of southwest Washington state.

Other close races for long-serving Republicans may loom in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Texas.

Among Democrats, Reps. Ron Kind, a 12-term Wisconsin veteran, and Peter DeFazio, who’s served 17 terms from Oregon, are seeking reelection in closely divided districts but seem likely to win.

In Peterson’s western Minnesota district, which stretches from the Canadian border to the Minneapolis exurbs, he faces former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, one of his most serious GOP challengers yet.

"Collin has been there a very long time," the Trump-endorsed Fischbach, 54, said in an interview. To paint him as out of touch with voters, she’s employing the widely used GOP playbook of linking him to liberals like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and to violence that’s marred some of the nation’s racial justice protests, including in Minneapolis.

"Do you stand with Nancy Pelosi and the liberal mob?" says the announcer in Fischbach’s first TV spot amid pictures of buildings aflame.
Peterson emphasizes his deep local ties and chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee, pivotal for his farming district. "I take care of my people," he said in an interview.

Peterson has one of the most conservative voting records among House Democrats, including opposing Trump’s impeachment and backing gun rights. He’s survived close reelections, including a 4-point win in 2018, and says he expects to win again, but admits his party label could hurt him.

"These people who’ve been elected in our party have made it hard to be a Democrat," he said. "Some of these so-called progressives that have been elected and their Green New Deal and all this other stuff, that’s a problem."

In Ohio, the 12-term Chabot faces his own difficulty: a Cincinnati-area district in strongly Republican Warren County with suburban voters whom Democratic rival Kate Schroder hopes to woo. Chabot, touting his conservative voting record, carried his district by 16 points in 2016 but just 4 points in 2018.

"There are people who traditionally voted Republican who don’t identify with the current Republican Party," Schroder, 43, a businesswoman and local public health official, said in an interview. "They don’t want a bully in the White House."

Schroder says Chabot, 67, has achieved little. An ad released Wednesday by the House Majority PAC, aligned with the chamber’s Democratic leaders, says, "Congressman, it’s time to come home."

In a campaign dominated by mutual allegations of ethical lapses, the tag lines on Chabot’s TV ads is: "Bad judgment. Big risk." Chabot aides did not make the lawmaker available for an interview for this article.

Democratic and Republican campaign committees and other organizations allied with party leadership are aiming the bulk of their spending at each others’ softest seats and defending vulnerable incumbents.

Underscoring how this can mean targeting long-term lawmakers, through last week the National Republican Congressional Committee — the House GOP’s campaign arm — had reserved $2.7 million in advertising against Peterson, according to the ad tracking company Kantar/CMAG. The Congressional Leadership Fund, aligned with House GOP leadership, planned to spend $3.3 million more, which Republicans said could grow.

Democrats’ House Majority PAC had reserved $3 million to help Peterson.

Former Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who lost a 2016 bid for a 13th term, said in an interview that incumbency "isn’t the asset it used to be" because "once you’re elected, you’re identified today as part of the problem" by some voters. He warned long-serving lawmakers to be vigilant.

"Don’t get outspent, don’t get outgunned and just keep working until the last vote is counted," he said. Acknowledging this year’s expected flood of mail-in ballots could delay final election results, he added, "And that may be a long time."