WASHINGTON — Since the day he became Congressman-elect, Ben McAdams has been in the sights of the GOP and conservative PACs.
In 2020, they want his seat.
After the 116th Congress is sworn in Thursday, every statement and vote by McAdams and others like him will be scrutinized to make the case that these incoming Democrats represent their party, which will control the House for the first time in about a decade, and not their conservative constituents in historically Republican districts that Democrats captured in November's midterm elections.
It means McAdams from Utah and new lawmakers from Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia, New Mexico and other Republican leaning districts lost to Democrats in the 2018 mid-terms must balance their conservative districts against the agenda of a new Democrat-controlled House, seek for relevancy as low-ranking House members, and do it while the national Republican machine revs up to take back their seats even before they’ve cast a single vote.
“For these incoming freshmen House Democrats representing Republican leaning districts, one bad vote on an important policy issue could be the difference between winning and losing in 2020,” warned J.T. Mastranadi, political director for Citizens United, which lends campaign support to conservatives who support President Donald Trump’s agenda.
McAdams doesn't appear to mind having a bull's-eye on his back after he narrowly ousted two-term incumbent Rep. Mia Love in Utah's largely conservative 4th Congressional District. He responds by confidently outlining his strategy to win a second term by focusing on the needs of a district where more than 80 percent identify as Republican or unaffiliated, while building bridges with colleagues in Washington who lean left or right of his views.
To navigate what one former Utah congressman described as "political no man's land," McAdams is taking advice from former Congressman Jim Matheson, who served seven terms as Utah's lone Democrat in Congress, surviving two unsuccessful attempts by Utah Republicans to gerrymander him out of office before he stepped away from electoral politics in 2014.
"I talk to him a couple times a week right now," said McAdams, sitting at a conference table last month strewn with papers from packing up the Salt Lake County mayor's office, where he served since 2013.
The counsel has been from the personal (put your family first when you are home) to the political (put the interests of the people in your district before the party and politics). While the advice may sound trite, it's key to building an independent brand and immunity to partisan attacks, according to one scholar on Congress.
"It's actually pretty straightforward ... and that is always do the right thing for your constituents," Matheson said. "It's the politics I was raised on and I think it's the politics people are looking for today. ... I think the majority of people really are looking for folks who put the interest of their constituents and interest of the country above interest in party."
2020 is now
Utah's 4th Congressional District is among several House seats that election observers said shouldn't have been lost by Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, based on their political makeup. Others are Oklahoma's 5th District (Democrat Kendra Horn defeated Republican incumbent Steve Russell), South Carolina's 1st District (Democrat Joe Cunningham beat Republican Katie Arrington, who had defeated the GOP incumbent in a primary), Georgia's 6th District (Democrat Lucy McBath beat incumbent Republican Karen Handel), and New Mexico's 2nd District (Democrat Xochitl Torres Small captured this open seat that was held by a Republican who ran for governor.)
McAdams represents a district that is just 15 percent Democrat, according to state data, and the Cook Political Report gave it an R+13 partisan voting index, meaning its residents historically vote 13 percent more Republican than the rest of the country.
Those numbers have conservative groups both inside and outside of Utah already sizing up candidates to win the district back in 2020.
"The recruiting process of a GOP candidate to take on McAdams began the morning after he was officially declared the winner of the 4th Congressional District," said a source who was recruited to run but declined and asked not to be identified. "There will be significant money spent over the next two years in an effort to recruit the right candidate to retake the seat in 2020."
Citizens United, one of the most influential PACs involved in recruiting and supporting the election campaigns of conservative candidates, may be among those outside groups.
“Citizens United Political Victory Fund will continue to support change agents from around the country who want to shake up the status quo in Washington and fight for common sense conservative reforms,” Mastranadi said.
Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said the party has begun its search. "I heard a few names but I don't think they want those to be public, yet. But we are actively recruiting."
In response to a request to explain its strategy to take back seats like Utah's 4th District, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jack Pandol issued this statement: “Ben McAdams is a liberal, pro-abortion Democrat. Once Utahns start seeing him vote that way, Ben will seal his own fate as a one-term congressman.”
His office responded: "Ben McAdams is a bipartisan problem-solver who puts the people of Utah first, ahead of party or politics. That's how he has governed and will represent Utah's 4th District."
McAdams' first test to prove his independence will be his vote this month for party leadership. During the campaign, he promised to vote for someone other than House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for speaker.
He said he met privately with Pelosi during orientation in November and told her he thought it was time for new party leadership and he would not vote for her.
"It was a pleasant conversation. And she said, 'Well, there's still time to change your mind,'" McAdams said, adding he will keep that promise to voters even though no one is running against the party's longtime House leader who served as speaker from 2007-2011.
That conversation took place before Pelosi appeared to have secured the votes to be elected speaker, which would render McAdams vote against her as symbolic. But his no vote may be, counterintuitively, necessary for Democrats to hold on to their majority after 2020, some congressional watchers said.
"Now that she knows she has her votes she is going to quite sensibly and without malice release a certain number of Democrats to vote against her because she doesn't want to lose these districts, either. She would much prefer McAdams be there," said Matt Glassman, a senior fellow and political science professor at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute.
He explained that leadership works with members in swing districts to allow them to vote against the party's agenda, speak out against leadership and secure committee assignments that serve their constituents. "The party doesn't love it ... but (political) parties are nothing if they're not realists and they don't want to lose these seats," Glassman said.
Matheson, who repeatedly voted against Obamacare, said he had a different experience when he went against the party mainstream during his 14-year run. He didn't sense leadership needed to accommodate him.
"I was just real straightforward and upfront about what I was going to do," he said. "I think that developed a level of respect quite frankly on both sides of the aisle in Congress, whether it was Republican leadership or Democratic leadership."
But calculated political maneuvering is not the most important priority for a first-term member of Congress. Instead, it's the nonpartisan, day-to-day "constituent case work" that will ultimately win voters over come election day, members of both parties agree.
Locating a Social Security check, resolving questions about veterans benefits or expediting a passport application don't generate headlines, but helping constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy is key to building a following that has nothing to do with ideology, Glassman explained.
"If you represent a district that is ideologically distinct from you, you can't screw up on the nonpartisan stuff," he said.
For politicians in McAdams' position, Glassman said, getting constituent services in order will do more to establish themselves as someone who cares more about the people he represents than his party, which will fend off challengers in the next election. He sees Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who famously shot a hole in a climate change bill with a rifle in a campaign ad, as the model. He comfortably won relection in November in a state that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016.
"Voters aren't thinking I'm voting for a Democrat, they're thinking I'm voting for Joe Manchin. This guy is my guy in Washington," Glassman said.
Anderson, of the Utah GOP, contends that while the main reason for losing the 4th District was "couch Republicans" in Utah County who didn't vote, the big takeaway from feedback after November's election is to find a challenger who values "constituent interface."
While traditional town halls have backfired as public spectacles for some elected officials in the recent past, Anderson said he believes they are necessary to let constituents know you can handle tough questions, listen to their concerns and relate to voters. "You've got (Rep. John Curtis) in District 3 holding three or four town halls when he's back home and people love him for it," Anderson said of the first-term Republican and former Provo mayor.
McAdams said as a local government leader who needed to partner with federal agencies he knows firsthand the importance of a responsive congressional delegation. He said the need is the main reason he decided to run for Congress rather than finish out his mayoral term or run for governor in 2020, which many expected.
"I think there's a untapped role of being a convener on state and local issues of federal agencies that have a key to unlock some of our challenges here," he said.
He said as mayor it was common to run into a "brick wall" in getting federal agencies to respond to requests. McAdams praised retiring Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch's staff as a model in handling constituent requests, but wouldn't single out any of the current delegation, whom he now has to work with, for not representing Salt Lake County.
"I hope to play a role to be more actively engaged on local issues, whether it's trying to address some of our transportation challenges around the air quality issues or … just making the federal government more accessible to solving local issues," he said.
Making his mark
Past first-term members of Congress from Utah haven't made recent history, but there have been a couple of notable freshmen. In 1995, Enid Mickelsen (then known as Enid Greene Waldholtz) was the first frosh to be appointed to the prestigious House Rules Committee since the 1920s and was the second member to become a mother while serving. After his appearance on Comedy Central's Colbert Report in 2009, Jason Chaffetz became a go-to lawmaker for cable-TV news outlets in his first year. He now works for Fox News after resigning in 2017 less than a year into his fifth term.
There are no indications McAdams will make a big splash in his first term.
While he anticipates the possibility of voting on politically charged issues such as health care, immigration or possibly impeachment of Trump, he said his main focus will be on addressing issues in his home district. A securities lawyer who took coursework in engineering before changing his major to political science, McAdams has requested to sit on either the Transportation and Infrastructure, Financial Services, Science, Space and Technology, or Energy and Commerce committees.
He said he has built a reputation as a consensus builder and he has good relationships from his time as mayor with other members of the delegation. His office is down the hall from Republican Reps. Rob Bishop and Curtis.
He said he has joined the Blue Dog Democrats and New Democrats caucuses, which champion fiscal responsibility, strong national defense and economic growth. And he will work on building relationships with people who lean left or right of his centrist approach to governing.
"As a Democrat in Utah, I had to build bridges and friendships with people on the Republican side," he said. "But some of that now is going to have to be finding common ground with people to the left of me."33 comments on this story
He said in his sit-down with Pelosi, he described the need for a bipartisan investment in transportation infrastructure, which he said was sorely needed in the fast-growing, primarily suburban 4th District.
"It's going to take some time to build the relationships and have the seniority to actually lead on major piece of legislation," he acknowledged. "I think immediately I can jump in and have a role bringing solutions to bear in the district where there are already federal resources available."