Can Democrats “Minnick” John Katko and Erik Paulsen?

Stuart Rothenberg November 16, 2017 · 11:46 AM EST

New York Rep. John Katko and Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen have been very popular with voters. Unbeatable? Maybe not, but certainly well-entrenched and able to win in very challenging environments.

But even popular incumbents have been swept from office during partisan electoral waves, and Republicans Katko and Paulsen should be on your radar as potential canaries in the coal mine – early indicators of whether a big wave is building.

Katko, first elected in 2014 in New York’s 24th District, a Syracuse-area seat, and Paulsen, first elected in 2008 in Minnesota 3, a suburban Twin Cities seat, both sit in swing or Democratic leaning seats. Both of their districts went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Barack Obama twice.

Katko, who defeated an incumbent Democrat by 20 points in 2014, was reelected with 61 percent of the vote last year even though Clinton was carrying the district by more than three points. Paulsen, who has been re-elected repeatedly by double digits, won a fifth term with 57 percent in 2016 at the same time Clinton was carrying his district by nine points.

But wave elections have buried incumbents who were popular with grass roots voters and supposedly had personalized their districts. The most obvious example of this is Walter Minnick, whom I’ve pointed to repeatedly over the years.

A moderate Democrat, Minnick narrowly defeated Idaho 1st District GOP incumbent Bill Sali in 2008, the same year that Obama was elected president. John McCain carried the district by 28 points at the same time that Sali, a controversial conservative, was losing narrowly to Minnick.

While in the House, Minnick, a businessman who had worked in the Nixon Administration, joined the Blue Dog Caucus and often sided with Republicans on high profile issues. For example, he opposed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, the House Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill and the Affordable Car Act (“Obamacare”).

Because of his voting record, Minnick was endorsed for a second term by the Tea Party Express, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Early polling showed the popular Minnick likely headed for reelection. A mid-July 2010 survey by GOP pollster Bob Moore found Minnick leading by double-digits, while a survey later that same month for the Idaho Hospital Association had the Democrat leading by more than 20 points.

The congressman’s Republican challenger, Raul Labrador, wasn’t regarded as a political heavyweight. Indeed, shortly before Minnick’s 2010 reelection bid ended in defeat, the New York Times ran a piece titled “A Democrat in Idaho Not Hindered by Incumbency.” 

If Minnick was so popular and had voted against the Democrats’ top three legislative agenda items, why did the Democratic congressman lose handily, by almost ten points, to Labrador?

The answer is obvious: the 2010 election was not about individual nominees or members of Congress. It was about partisan control of the United States House of Representatives.

Voters in Minnick’s district may well have liked him and appreciated his votes, but they wanted to put the brakes on the Obama presidency and fire Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. The only way to do that was to dump Minnick and elect Labrador. So, Republicans and Independents, both nationally and in Idaho’s 1st District, turned out to vote Republican.

There was nothing that Democrat Minnick could have done to survive in his conservative and Republican district.

The lesson of Walter Minnick surely is not lost on Democratic strategists preparing for 2018 or on the Republican consultants helping Katko and Paulsen try to survive in the current hostile environment.

To be sure, the Democrats need decent nominees in both districts to win. But if they get them, those challengers need only convince voters that the midterm election is about the need to check Trump and the GOP Congress’s agenda.

Of course, Katko and Paulsen will try to survive by insisting they’ve been independent and hard-working.

But while Paulsen voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, his overall record is that of a generic GOP loyalist. Katko has more ammunition to document his independence, since he voted against his party’s efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Car Act, against the repeal of a key environmental rule on energy company emissions and against the fiscal 2018 Budget Resolution.

But Walter Minnick found that casting a number of high-profile votes against his party was not – and is not — enough to save an incumbent from the “wrong” party in a wave election.

If the midterm election is a referendum on Trump, Paul Ryan and GOP control of the House, as now appears likely, both Katko and Paulsen will be in serious trouble. They are, after all, Republicans in Clinton districts. And if Virginia is any indication of turnout in 2018, both Republicans, no matter how successful they’ve been so far, could find themselves “Minnicked” next year.