WASHINGTON – Moments after she flipped a longtime Republican congressional seat in 2018, Iowa Democrat Cindy Axne declared that “Washington doesn't have our back and we deserve a heck of a lot better.”
Now seeking a third term in one of the most competitive House races, Axne is sounding a similar tone, telling voters she's delivered for Iowans “while Washington politicians bicker.”
But Axne and other Democrats from the class of 2018 are campaigning in a much different political environment this year. The anxiety over Donald Trump's presidency that their party harnessed to flip more than 40 seats and regain the House majority has eased. In its place is frustration about the economy under President Joe Biden.
And many districts that were once competitive have been redrawn by Republican-dominated state legislatures to become more friendly to the GOP.
“It was a very different world," pollster John Zogby said of 2018. “Inflation's now where we haven't seen in 40 years and it affects everybody. And this is the party in power. With campaigns, you don't get to say, ‘But it could have been' or ’But look at what the other guy did.'”
Many swing-district Democrats elected four years ago were buoyed by college-educated, suburban voters, women and young people shunning Trump. That means many defeats for second-term House Democrats could be read as opposition to Trump no longer motivating voters in the same way — even though the former president could seek the White House again in 2024.
Trump continues to shape politics in a far more present sense, too. He's dominated the national Republican Party despite spreading lies about 2020's free and fair presidential election and now facing a House subpoena for helping incite the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol last year.
Tom Perez, who headed the Democratic National Committee from 2017 until 2021, noted that midterm cycles are historically tough for the president's party and that — plus grim U.S. economic news — would normally raise the question “are Democrats going to get shellacked?"
Instead, Perez thinks many of the toughest congressional races remain close because of the strength of Democrats elected four years ago.
“All these folks from the Class of ’18, what they have in common is they’re really incredibly competent, accomplished and they’ve earned the trust of voters in their districts across the ideological spectrum," said Perez, co-chair of the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century. “That, to me, is why we have a chance here, not withstanding the headwinds of the moment, is that incredible combination of candidate quality contrasted with the extreme views of the people who are running against them.”
In all, 66 new Democrats won House races in 2018, flipping 41 Republican seats. Their party gave back many of those gains in 2020, with Republicans taking 14 new seats. Those GOP victories included defeating a dozen Democrats elected to the House for the first time the previous cycle.
The Democratic House losses were overshadowed by Biden beating Trump. But this time, the ranks of the 2018 Democratic House class further dwindling may draw more attention — especially if it helps the GOP gain the net five seats it needs to reclaim the chamber's majority.
In addition to Axne, Democrats who may be vulnerable include Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Elaine Luria of Virginia. Another Virginia Democrat, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, as well as Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Angie Craig of Minnesota and Sharice Davids of Kansas all also may face tough reelections.
“The question is, is it going to have similarities to ’18 or not in the sense of democracy being on the ballot and a reaction to Trump,” former California Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, who was elected in 2018 but narrowly lost his reelection bid, said of next month's election. “Based on polling and the primaries, it doesn’t seem like the voting public is holding Republicans responsible for the Big Lie."
Perez is more sanguine: “The midterm election is supposed to be a referendum on the president, but Donald Trump continues to inject himself" into the nation's politics.
House turnover is common among both parties. By early 2018, almost half of the 87 House Republicans newly elected when their party took control of the chamber during the 2010 tea party surge were gone. More lost that November.
Still, the 2018 class was notable as the largest influx of first-year House Democrats in four-plus decades, and the chamber's youngest and most diverse ever.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said 2018 was also the largest class of new women elected to the House since 1992, with 35 Democrats and one Republican. But 2020 also saw 28 new women elected to Congress, and some were Republicans who defeated Democrats who'd won for the first time the last cycle.
"We had a couple of very strong years in a row, one for Democrats and one for Republicans,” Walsh said of women in the House. She said that means that even if the 2018 House Democratic class gets smaller this year, ”I would not look at one election cycle and say the face of Congress is going back to old, white men.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have 32 Hispanic nominees and 23 Black nominees running for the House this cycle — both party records. They say their chances of winning the chamber's majority are built more on high inflation and crime rates rising in some places than Trump or last year's insurrection.
“We have a choice between commonsense and crazy,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement. “And Americans will vote for Republicans up and down the ballot as a result.”
The Democrats' 2018 House class won't dissolve completely. Some incumbents are seeking reelection in safely blue districts, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Lucy McBath of Georgia and Colin Allred of Texas, who was the class’ co-president.
Democratic Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, the other co-president, beat fellow 2018 Democratic House class member Andy Levin when the two incumbents squared off in this year's Democratic primary based on their state's new map.
One Democratic 2018 House class member ousted in 2020, former New York Rep. Max Rose, is now running to get back to Congress. Another member, New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, has since become a Republican.
Former Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman was a Republican elected in 2018 but lost his 2020 GOP primary. Riggleman is now appearing in a TV ad praising Spanberger.
“She's trying to change Congress and make it work,” Riggleman says in the ad. “She puts country first.”