How Donald Trump could cost the GOP the US House

The Congressional district where I live, Virginia’s 5th, doesn’t make any sense.

Already stretching from the North Carolina state line up through Greene County before the 2010 Census — making it larger than the state of New Jersey — Republicans added Madison and Fauquier counties to the north end of the district when the maps were redrawn.

This latest round of redistricting ballooned the district to over 10,000 square miles, further diluting the influence of relatively liberal Charlottesville by pairing it with a greater share of rural, conservative territory to its north and south.

When the map was redrawn, it was largely seen as an effort to protect incumbent Congressman Robert Hurt, who won the seat in the Republican wave of 2010. However, Hurt has announced that he will retire at the end of this term, leaving the seat open.

Normally, this wouldn’t be newsworthy. Given an evenly-matched presidential contest, we would expect VA-5 to elect a generic Republican to Congress by about seven or eight percentage points. However, this year does not present an evenly-matched presidential contest. With Donald Trump at the top of the ticket — trailing Hillary Clinton by roughly seven points nationally — and the incumbent Hurt gone, Democratic candidate Jane Dittmar has an outside shot at winning the open seat, which has moved from “safe” Republican to “likely” Republican in the Cook Political Report’s House ratings.

Her case may not be unique.

The formula for winning a seat like Virginia 5 in a year like 2016 is twofold: nationalize the opposition and localize yourself. Whichever of the four Republicans competing for their party’s nomination will likely be more Tea Party than Republican “establishment” — whatever that word means now — which means that their politics will track closely with Donald Trump’s. And while a fair share of citizens in Virginia’s 5th District are worried about immigration, crime, Muslims and the rest of the “scare white people” planks of Donald Trump’s platform, those issues seem distant relative to a much more pressing issue: rural Virginia has woefully inadequate broadband penetration.

Dittmar has made this the central focus of her campaign. A quick visit to her website’s issues section shows that she doesn’t have sections on immigration, abortion or guns — the subject of many a Facebook thread nationwide — but she does have three different jobs-related sections along with one devoted to Internet access. In an interview last week, she told me that this was by design. As she explained, in a district as diverse as ours, both geographically and ideologically, there aren’t too many common denominators; citizens’ priorities in Martinsville are much different than their priorities in Warrenton, which is nearly four hours away by car. However, one of the few things that ties the entire district together is that, with few exceptions, “Internet is not available, or it’s unreliable, or it’s too expensive.” She’s running to change that.

Jane Dittmar

Jane Dittmar

There’s a reason why the United Nations has declared Internet access a basic human right for the 21st Century: Without the Internet, practically everything is made more difficult. Members of Congress talk quite a bit about education, job training, business growth and other mechanisms for growing human capital and, by extension, improving living standards, but without Internet access, all of those buzzwords are just white noise. If a student in a rural area has to take an hour-long bus ride in order to get the Internet access necessary to do homework that other students can do from their bedrooms, that kid is at a massive disadvantage. If a worker gets laid off and wants to retrain for a new career, that retraining process is made exponentially easier if they can search for new opportunities — to say nothing of completing the training process itself — online.

And while Tea Party Republicans will generally insist that any and every project isn’t within the proper scope of government, broadband penetration is exactly the kind of utility that the government has a natural monopoly over. Internet companies clearly aren’t going to build the infrastructure necessary to provide Internet access to rural communities — if it was profitable in the short-to-mid term, they would have done it already. This being the case, if anyone’s going to expand broadband in central and southern Virginia, it’s going to be the government. As she said, “the private sector needs a partner” if it’s going to expand into areas with low population density. We have no problem accepting the government’s role in building roads and maintaining the power grid; there’s no reason to think of Internet cables any differently.

Dittmar plans on spending the next six months making this case. While Donald Trump spends the next six months talking about making life more difficult for brown people elsewhere in the country while her opponent nods and yells, she’s going to talk about making tangible improvements in the lives of everyone in the 5th District.

If Democrats are to win the House in 2016, they’re going to need to win a lot of races that look like the one playing out in VA-5. With congressional maps around the country as gerrymandered as they are, a Democratic House will require winning in districts where conservatives outnumber liberals. The best way to do that is to contrast the Republican Party’s fundamental lack of seriousness about governing with tangible, ideologically-neutral goals that practically everyone agrees are worth achieving.

If we catch lightning in a bottle — and by lightning I mean Trump — we just might pull it off.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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