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Other measures also suggest that Democrats are now holding more defensible ground. In 2009, 49 House Democrats represented seats that had voted for John McCain in 2008. Even after November’s gains, only 31 Democrats now hold seats that voted for Donald Trump. Moreover, Republican DNA was more deeply engrained in those earlier split-ticket seats: Of the 49 Democratic-held seats that voted for McCain, 47 also voted for George W. Bush in 2004. This time, only 14 Democrats represent districts that voted for both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012, according to calculations by Tom Bonier, the chief executive officer of the Democratic voter-targeting firm TargetSmart. Just 13 House Democrats are in seats that Trump won by five points or more, Bonier calculates.
On social issues in particular, this heavy urban and suburban tilt should produce much greater unity than Democrats managed under Obama in 2009 or during their two years of unified government control under Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1994. In those Clinton years, the party faced widespread defections from rural and southern House members over gun-control measures. Now the party’s majority is rooted in suburban districts filled with white-collar and minority voters who lean left on most social issues, like gun control, gay rights, and immigration. “Certainly social issues are not going to divide the party, including guns,” says Gary C. Jacobson, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist who studies Congress.
To Jacobson’s point, Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords PAC, the gun-control organization founded by former Representative Gabby Giffords, said flatly in a post-election analysis that “Americans now have a gun safety majority in the House of Representatives.” According to the group’s count, 40 incoming House Democrats, almost all from urban and suburban seats, defeated Republicans with “A” rankings or better from the National Rifle Association. That’s a very different world than in 2009, when most of the rural House Democrats were determined to avoid crossing the NRA.
Similarly, it’s been revealing how few House Democrats have expressed concern about Trump’s attempts to portray the party as soft on border security during the government shutdown, which was triggered by his demands for $5 billion to fund a border wall. Democrats have even resisted efforts from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to draw them into a more comprehensive negotiation that would link the wall to broader immigration reform. It’s difficult to imagine that the blue-dog Democrats could have been so confident or quiescent 10 years ago.
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“In 2018, immigration did not hurt House Democrats in the places they won,” says Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “Arguably, the issue hurt Republicans. As Trump closed by hammering on the caravan and immigrants as dangerous, the evidence is that a bunch of Republican and independent voters broke late for Democrats. Today’s Democrats just aren’t afraid of this issue the way many blue-dog Democrats were a decade ago.”