How the economy is playing in five close House races

No election happens in a vacuum.

All of them play out against the backdrop of whatever’s going on in the economy, and whether voters feel they have more jobs and better wages because of the party in power.

On the eve of the 2018 midterms, unemployment is at a nearly 50-year low and there are more jobs than unemployed people to fill them, which bodes well for the party in power. Still, wage growth has been slow, and the rising tide hasn’t reached everyone: Only 38% of respondents to a Bankrate survey from October said their personal financial situations had improved over the two years Donald Trump has been President.

Voters typically don’t respond to the economy in midterms as much as they do in presidential elections, but Trump has made this election into a referendum on the economic policies he and the Republican Party have implemented, from tax cuts to tariffs.

And here’s the thing: The economy isn’t a monolith. Conditions vary across congressional districts, many of which still have pockets of poverty even a decade into America’s recovery from recession, and have industries that variably benefit or suffer from tax cuts, tariffs, and regulatory change.

On the whole, according to an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, close districts are in more diverse, faster-growing, and relatively healthy parts of the country — characteristics that more closely resemble safe Democratic seats than Republican ones.

That’s why we’re taking a look at five tight House races in five different states to see how local economic conditions are playing, as each candidate seeks to turn statistics to their advantage.

The Kentucky 6th

In some ways, Kentucky’s 6th Congressional district is a microcosm of the whole state. It contains its second-largest city, Lexington, and the wealthy Thoroughbred country that surrounds it — as well as poor, rural counties still looking for their next economic driver now that the tobacco industry has shrunk to almost nothing.

Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, a political neophyte who leans heavily on her 24-year career as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, has tried to capture both realities in her campaign against three-term incumbent Andy Barr.

“We’ve had a strong recovery that started several years ago and has continued, but the working average people just aren’t feeling it, they’re having a tough time making ends meet,” says Kentucky political consultant Kathy Groob. “That’s the message I’ve been hearing from her.”

McGrath put out a detailed, 30-page economic plan aimed at transitioning Kentucky’s economy away from coal and towards renewable resources like solar energy and high-tech agriculture. It emphasizes federal investments in transportation and broadband, harkening back to New Deal-era electricity projects that brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

While distancing herself from party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, she hasn’t shied away from taking progressive stances like supporting immigrants and a higher minimum wage. And at a time when Republican Governor Matt Bevin is trying to pare back the Medicaid expansion pushed through by his Democratic predecessor, McGrath promotes the creation of a public option under the Affordable Care Act — pointing out that as a member of the military, she had government-provided insurance for decades.

Republican incumbent Barr, meanwhile, has held up his success in bringing millions of dollars into the state for treating opioid addictions, which have ravaged the district’s workforce. Although most of his television ads have either focused on his constituent service or slammed McGrath for her stances on abortion and funding for a border wall, his one video about the economy centers on tax cuts passed last year.

That’s not much insulation for another big issue facing the district: The trade war. Central Kentucky had scaled up its bourbon production to supply the thirsty Chinese market, and has been hit hard by duties imposed in response to Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel. Soybean farmers have been nearly locked out of the Chinese market as well.

Taking heat on tariffs from McGrath in their only debate, Barr said that he supported a bill that would give more trade powers to Congress. But that may not end up speaking louder than his joint appearance with President Trump in October in the district. “With Donald Trump and this congress, Kentuckians have found hope,” Barr said.

The Texas 7th

Although it may just look like a 13-lane highway lined with glassy office parks that fade into sleepy, low-slung bungalows, Houston’s 7th District is the nerve center of the oil industry.

Energy giants like BP and Shell call the corridor home, and their engineers and project managers live in some of the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods surrounding their corporate homes. These voters tend to be conservative, but also very pro-trade — something that Texas has seen the good side of, exporting $264 billion worth of goods in 2017.

Oil and gas came roaring back from its two-year downturn and President Trump has done the industry many favors, but his brinksmanship on trade with Mexico and China have put Republican incumbent John Culberson in a tough enough spot that he skipped Trump’s rally alongside Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Houston last month.

“Although they don’t hold Culberson to blame for these trade issues,” says University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus, “the fact that the party become a stand-in for these policies may mean that those voters vote for a Democratic candidate, especially in a competitive cycle.”

And it is a competitive cycle. Democrats chose the relatively moderate Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a lawyer who has supported progressive social causes but also inoculated herself against charges of being against the oil industry by representing some of its largest corporate members.

In a district with a growing population of elderly voters, Pannill Fletcher has hammered Culberson on his many votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act along with its protections for pre-existing conditions.

But the key to this election may actually be in the top of the bizarrely G-shaped Seventh — less affluent neighborhoods that have welcomed enough Hispanic residents that they make up nearly a third of the district. Culberson has supported a zero-tolerance immigration policy that would deport all undocumented immigrants.