‘Everything became about Donald Trump…’
(Katie Glueck, Alex Roarty and Adam Wollner, McClatchy Washington Bureau) It was the day of a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, and the Republican candidate was missing.
Never mind that national Republicans were spending millions on the Pittsburgh-area race, desperate to avoid a humiliating defeat in a district that President Donald Trump had won by nearly 20 percentage points. As Republican Rick Saccone’s watch party got underway that March night, according to three sources with direct knowledge, his own campaign couldn’t find him.
“We had panicked calls from our folks in the state being like, ‘We can’t find him.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, we have an hour left until he loses,’” said one senior GOP official heavily involved in the national House fight. “It was fitting. At that point, we could just laugh and have a nice little encapsulation of the campaign.”
It was just one seat. But Republicans would later recognize it as the beginning of the end.
“Rick Saccone was a terrible candidate, but he was still a harbinger of things to come,” said Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based GOP strategist. “The suburban wipeout he experienced repeated itself across the country on Tuesday.”
This is the behind-the-scenes story of the race for the House. It is based on interviews with more than 30 Republican and Democratic officials intimately involved in the midterm campaign, who described a battle marked by sudden strategic recalculations, Republican finger-pointing and persistent, if private, Democratic anxiety.
This reporting revealed that the GOP’s acute panic about 2018 began as early as the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. Internal Democratic data, which has not previously been reported, showed a path to a wholesale realignment of the political parties by summer. And even as Democrats tried to focus their campaigns on pocketbook issues, behind the scenes they were also preparing for Trump’s late push on immigration.
Ultimately, Conor Lamb’s victory in that western Pennsylvania district offered a template for the eventual Democratic takeover, as a telegenic, well-funded Marine Corps veteran with no voting record and a profile independent of the national Democratic Party beat out a GOP politician who couldn’t keep up in fundraising. Even in a conservative district, Lamb managed to capitalize on anti-Trump sentiment without fully alienating Republican voters.
Republican candidates in competitive districts, meanwhile, could never fully claim independence from Trump’s polarizing presidency.
“Everything became about Donald Trump,” said retiring GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. “And we did not find a way to assert a separate identity as a Congress, or more in particular, for those members in competitive districts.
“We became victims,” he added, “of the 2016 election.”
Don’t do town halls.
It was advice bordering on directive. And it came from National Republican Congressional Committee officials within the first three weeks following Trump’s inauguration, according to two senior GOP officials closely involved in the House fight.
On that January weekend, Republican members of Congress were starting to panic.
Anti-Trump women’s marches and other protests were happening across the country, with thousands of people taking to the streets. Spooked members, watching this unfold, hounded GOP leaders including NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers, demanding to know how the party planned to handle the anger on the left.
The decision of many members to follow party staffers’ private town hall guidance infuriated their constituents. But GOP officials feared “terrible visuals,” and advised that members do events at VFW halls and hospitals instead — places where protesters would look bad for showing up. Members who insisted on doing town halls received tips such as: don’t enter and exit through the same door; make sure that there’s security, and that attendees are from the district; have someone hold the microphone, in case questions get out of hand.
Soon, Republicans had another problem. Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas announced that she wouldn’t seek re-election, the first incumbent from a potentially competitive seat to do so. That kicked off a retirement season that would put dozens of previously safe Republican seats into jeopardy.
And it was still only January. Of 2017.
“The most decisive moment of the campaign happened in the off year, when an avalanche of Republican incumbents decided to retire,” said John Ashbrook, a seasoned Republican strategist closely involved in the midterm fight. “It’s much, much harder to defend a seat with a brand new candidate in a wave election, than it is to defend an incumbent.”
In March 2017, a third problem came into sharp relief: The Republican base was apathetic, and it was Congress’ fault.
House Republicans had abruptly pulled a vote on a bill to repeal Obamacare, reneging on a core promise that helped power their GOP majorities in the first place. The damage was immediately clear to insiders. In a special election in Kansas unfolding at that time, according to Republicans watching that race, they lost a net of 16 percentage points on the generic ballot — overnight. Later GOP efforts to make good on their pledge to repeal the health care law would fail, too, further demoralizing their base.
And as early as January, Democrats saw that their base’s unbridled enthusiasm would allow the party to compete for dozens of once-unexpected districts. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it was targeting 59 seats as potential pickup opportunities.
The group’s announcement sparked skepticism, even from within the Democratic Party.
“I had a former colleague of mine email me and say to me, ‘I really respect you, think you’re going to do a phenomenal job, and you may have just given yourself enough rope to hang yourself,’” said Dan Sena, executive director of the DCCC.
But the aggressive posture was considered necessary by DCCC officials, who wanted to build a much larger battlefield in 2018 than they did in 2016, when House Democrats gained only six seats.
To them, the only way the party could succeed amid the chaos of a Trump presidency — and the ever-shifting political environment it produced — was to recruit and support as many quality candidates in as many competitive seats as possible, in the hopes of building multiple paths to victory.
“One of the things we learned from ‘16 in particular is (Trump) can shake the snow globe at any point in time,” Sena said. “And as things fall back down to earth, you need a strategy that can really withstand that as all those pieces come back down.
“We wanted a strategy that is much larger and much bigger than the building has done before and the Democratic Party has done before,” he added.
The DCCC would eventually expand its target list to more than 100 seats.
Even as Democratic confidence grew over the summer and into the fall of 2017, many of the party’s most senior strategists were still cautious, harboring doubts that would weigh heavily throughout the campaign.
Democrats had momentum, despite falling short in a Georgia special election runoff. But a majority of battleground seats still ran through Republican territory where many voters had never backed a Democrat for federal office.
“I don’t think that anybody had a doubt that we would pick up seats in the House. But early on, the level of confidence that we’d win a majority was not that high,” said Mike Bocian, a Democratic pollster. “We thought it was possible, and we were hopeful, but we were not sitting there with tremendous confidence.”
Then came the scandal that paved the way for Lamb in Pennsylvania.
After reports surfaced that Tim Murphy, the conservative congressman from Pennsylvania’s 18th District, had an affair and had encouraged the woman involved to seek an abortion during a pregnancy scare, Murphy announced on Oct. 5 that he would resign.
The next month, in an upset, Saccone became the GOP’s nominee for the special election.
Republicans were unenthused by Saccone, whose sluggish fundraising and scraggly mustache irritated operatives and members of Congress (the mustache, Republicans say, even came up as a negative in focus groups). But they had a plan: tie Lamb to national Democrats and play up the newly passed tax bill, a two-pronged approach they intended to deploy across the country.
Lamb threw a wrench in the first part of their strategy by telling local newspapers on Jan. 8, 2018, that he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi as the House Democrats’ leader. Publicly rebuking the polarizing House minority leader, a face of the party and prolific Democratic fundraiser, was a significant risk. But Lamb upped the ante again on Feb. 26 when, in a direct-to-camera ad, he said, “I’ve already said on the front page of the newspaper that I don’t support Nancy Pelosi.”
Lamb’s fundraising did not dry up — far from it — and some Republicans now concede that his approach to distancing himself from the national party worked. It would be copied nearly verbatim in races from Ohio to North Carolina throughout the rest of the cycle, as candidates felt similarly emboldened to break with D.C. Democrats.
“He said, ‘Hey, I’m not 100 percent in the tank for my side. Know how you know that? I’m not with Pelosi, I don’t support her liberal bull—-. But I also don’t support everything those right-wingers say. We’ll fight the establishment on both sides, together,’” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former White House official. “Boom. That’s a winning message. That, to me, explains the strength of a lot of these Democrat candidates.”
“The process of Pennsylvania 18 is emblematic of this cycle,” added Corry Bliss, the executive director of the super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, Congressional Leadership Fund. “A member of Congress disgraces himself and is rightfully forced to resign. Then we get saddled with a nominee who is a total embarrassment, and we have to bang our heads against the wall trying to get him elected.”
For Democrats who saw parallels between Lamb and many of their other first-time candidates with military backgrounds, Lamb became a case study for the whole election, proof of the potency of so many prized Democratic recruits with compelling biographies.
“We were excited about PA-18 because it was an unforeseen way to do a test run of our existing strategy, and see what we could achieve with a good message on health care, a good message on the tax bill, and a fresh-faced veteran,” said Meredith Kelly, the DCCC’s communications director.
But what also excited DCCC officials about his victory was how little the GOP-backed tax law appeared to help Saccone.
After the tax law passed, Democrats publicly predicted electoral disaster for the GOP. But in private, they feared that voters would start to see a larger paycheck and credit Republicans for a strong economy.
Sena emphasized that Democrats had been especially concerned about the tax law when it was still being debated in Congress, when they feared its benefits might be slanted more toward the middle class. But even after passage, DCCC officials still warned campaigns that the law would become more popular, and during their Monday meetings before the law took effect, the committee’s leadership would remind themselves when people would start to see a bump in their take-home pay.
“We had a countdown clock,” Sena said. “When do people actually see it in their paychecks for the first time?”
“There was this moment very early on about, once people have money in their pockets, what’s going to happen to the generic? What happens to everything?”
But DCCC officials breathed a sigh of relief when Republicans shifted away from ads about the tax law during the Saccone-Lamb race, turning their message to other issues.
Democratic strategists would later argue that the GOP’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act had convinced voters — even before they tried to cut taxes — that Republicans were there to support the wealthy, not the middle class.
“Here’s how toxic Republicans are right now: They managed to give people money and f—ed it up anyway,” said Ian Russell, a former senior official at the DCCC now working as a strategist on House races.
Republicans strongly dispute that, and indeed many GOP candidates continued to talk about the tax bill in the final days of the campaign, on TV and in campaign appearances. It’s just that they kept getting overshadowed by Trump.
The GOP narrowly lost Pennsylvania 18 on March 13. (Saccone, in an interview, didn’t recall his campaign struggling to find him.)
But the GOP’s problems weren’t over.
On April 11, the House GOP’s biggest retirement of the cycle was announced. Speaker Paul Ryan wouldn’t be seeking re-election either.
For Republicans, summer 2018 highlighted a central tension of the Trump era: good economic news overshadowed by a barrage of negative headlines.
“If the election were in June, we would have kept the House,” Bliss said. “The numbers were good, the economy was good. Then we had a summer of s—.”
There was the controversial Trump administration policy of separating families at the border, and the Helsinki summit where Trump appeared deferential to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Later in the summer, there were indictments of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, and of longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen.
The bad news wasn’t all about the president, either.
One June day, Bliss was at a board meeting, discussing improving Republican prospects. When he walked out of the meeting, he learned that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg planned to spend $80 million on an effort to help deliver Democrats the House (in the final weeks of the campaign, the name that scared Republicans most was Bloomberg, who was in fact putting staggering sums into House races across the map).
“That was a perfect example of, nothing’s been easy this cycle,” Bliss said. “It’s been one step forward, two steps back.”
For Democrats, meanwhile, it was a summer of suburban opportunity. But it hadn’t always looked that way.
Democrats once expected a battle against a “three-headed trident,” as Sena put it, of GOP legislative accomplishments: a tax bill, an infrastructure package and a repeal of Obamacare. (Only the tax law actually materialized.) And despite Hillary Clinton’s strength with moderate, well-educated suburbanites in 2016, some Democrats doubted they could win over those longtime Republican voters down-ticket.
That skepticism began to wear off for officials at House Majority PAC, a super PAC with close ties to Pelosi, when it partnered with the Democratic consulting firm Global Strategy Group to conduct a series of conversations with suburban voters who had previously voted for House Republicans but were open to Democrats in 2018.
The group had held online discussions with 25 suburban voters followed by in-person focus groups with a similar set of mostly white, college-educated voters in Orange County, Calif., and the Minneapolis suburbs. Even though participants liked some of Trump’s policies and generally credited him for the strong economy, his abrasive style bothered them. “Money can’t buy you class,” one female participant commented.
But to take full advantage of the opening the president provided, Democrats also realized they couldn’t rely on anti-Trump messages alone — a change from the party’s strategy in 2016.
“Everyone was going to come to their own conclusions about Trump, and nothing we were going to say was going to be the decider in that conclusion,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic operative who worked on the research.
They found that these voters would be receptive to messages about protections for people with pre-existing conditions and higher premiums for older Americans — which the AARP branded the “age tax.” And they saw an opening to cast the tax bill as benefiting only the wealthiest Americans and contributing to a growing deficit.
The dual focus allowed Democrats to talk about pocketbook issues on their terms, avoiding a larger argument about a growing economy that these targeted suburban voters generally considered strong.
These themes would become staples of ads from Democratic outside groups and candidates throughout the campaign. Even liberal groups not normally focused on health care, such as the League of Conservation Voters, were including the issue in ads.
House Majority PAC stayed in touch with a network of more than a dozen outside groups with a weekly phone call as it attempted to coordinate messages and spending.
“The two moments that mattered were health care and taxes,” said Charlie Kelly, House Majority PAC’s executive director. “Because Trump does what Trump does. It’s just all noise.”
By early summer, Democrats were running ahead of or even with Republicans in House Majority PAC’s polling in GOP-held suburban districts across the country, from Colorado to Illinois to Virginia.
“All these places kind of solidified, and it was like, wow, this suburban stuff is real,” Kelly said.
Democrats concluded that the GOP’s controversial legislative push, combined with constant White House drama, overshadowed Republican efforts to take credit for the strong economy.
“If you go to a restaurant and you see the chef chasing around a rat, does it really matter what he puts in front of you?” Sena said. “There’s too much chaos.”
By the end of the summer, once-cautious Democrats were starting to believe they were on track to win a majority.
Even Democratic officials didn’t expect their candidates to raise as much cash as they did.
The fundraising surge — some candidates were raising more than $3 million in a quarter, sums unprecedented for House candidates — allowed many Democrats to hit the airwaves in August and early September, defining themselves ahead of a coming barrage of Republican attacks.
Through September, DCCC officials say they saw negative opinions of Democratic candidates rise much more slowly than their GOP counterparts despite the negative ads, in part because — as Lamb had months earlier — they had the money to run TV ads defending their record.
Republicans watching the Lamb race in his newly redrawn Pennsylvania district said that even against Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Republican better-regarded than Saccone, Lamb’s negatives weren’t moving much. (House candidates usually don’t respond to specific attacks in part because they normally have a limited budget.)
“They unambiguously lost September,” said Russell, the former DCCC official.
Meanwhile, the Republican blame game was already underway.
In Washington, the questioning of the NRCC’s spending decisions grew heated. Sometimes, the drama got personal.
Operatives and members of Congress privately questioned Stivers’ decision to hire a college friend with relatively little national experience to run the NRCC’s independent expenditure arm. They dinged him for not traveling enough. They vented about the money as Democrats posted astronomical cash hauls.
As Election Day arrived, knives were out for the NRCC.
Stivers did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
Bliss, of Congressional Leadership Fund, had his own detractors. Some Republicans thought CLF officials were too quick to dismiss — publicly or privately — candidates they were no longer supporting, from Mike Bishop in Michigan to Greg Gianforte, the Montana congressman who assaulted a reporter. And Democrats accused his organization of being too eager to take credit for completing basic campaign work.
“They tie their shoes, they’re proud of it,” said Kelly, executive director of the super PAC aligned with Pelosi. “I mean, that’s a bunch of silliness, right? They get out of bed, they’re proud of it. These are all just sort of things we do day-to-day. I made toast. It was hard. I’m the best.”
CLF allies say Bliss and his team have significant accomplishments to tout: namely, the organization announced Friday that they have raised $160 million, a haul that’s more than three times the size of its 2016 total. By the end of the cycle, no party committee or outside group had spent more on the 2018 campaign than CLF.
“CLF is doing God’s work,” said Costello, the retiring Pennsylvania Republican, pointing to their efforts on “grassroots voter contact and data work.”
Yet nothing seemed to be blunting Democratic momentum. And then a September surprise landed.
Despairing messages flew across private Slack conversations, ricocheting around Republican operative circles and pinging strategists at the GOP’s national headquarters for House races.
Christine Blasey Ford was testifying a few blocks away before the Senate Judiciary Committee, delivering what Republicans saw, in that moment, as an effective and devastating blow to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
He’s going to have to withdraw, campaign operatives both in and out of the NRCC building worried to each other. This will sink us.
And then Kavanaugh started to speak.
As his angry denials of sexual misconduct sent Twitter ablaze, staffers inside the NRCC building started to clap and cheer. When he finished his opening statement, applause erupted in the committee’s large central workspace, where staffers from different departments sat watching the televised proceedings. And when Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina delivered his defense of Kavanaugh, someone whooped, “Yes, Lindsey!”
“Given how bad things were in September, ‘better’ didn’t mean, ‘great, woohoo, popping champagne,’” said veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger. “It meant, ‘OK, we’ve got a shot, we’re back in this thing.’”
Within a week, the GOP saw its numbers tick up in internal polls, as Republicans grew more energized and some swing voters felt newly uneasy with Democrats.
“If they’d been on the fence questioning whether or not to be activated this cycle, watching Democrats’ behavior, watching someone they agreed with ideologically come under attack by a bunch of 2020 wannabes — it instantly invigorated them,” said NRCC press secretary Jesse Hunt.
And over the subsequent weeks, Trump’s approval rating, and GOP fortunes, would rise — from Mia Love’s Utah district to a spate of Texas House seats where both sides were spending millions, according to Republicans watching internal numbers. A late-summer internal poll for Republican candidate Mark Harris, running in a Charlotte, N.C.-area seat, had him down 7 percentage points and losing unaffiliated voters. Soon after the Kavanaugh hearing the race was tied and he was up with those voters.
And after writing off Republican Rep. Rod Blum and cancelling planned ad spending in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, the DCCC was forced to hit to the airwaves there a few weeks after the hearing.
Trump’s campaign travel was also heating up, keeping a newly awakened GOP base energized and furious at what they called the Democratic “mob.” It added to Democrats’ discomfort.
“When he’s out there, it pushes people to their 2016 corners, and it’s a helpful thing in a lot of places,” said Canter, the Democratic operative. “He’s always going to be able to make things about him.”
Many Democrats argued that the poll movement, especially in seats where Trump performed relatively well in 2016, was inevitable, reflecting Republican-leaning voters who were simply coming home. Still, some believed Kavanaugh helped nudge them in that direction.
“Some of that is natural, but I think it’s also probably true that Kavanaugh sped up some of that process and crystalized it for some people,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action. “It just made it a more partisan environment.”
On Oct. 12, House Majority PAC’s internal analytics model — developed with the Democratic firm Civis Analytics — showed Democrats had an 82 percent chance of winning the majority. By Oct. 17, the odds had fallen to 73 percent.
Even as Republicans reveled in the improving mid-October poll numbers, some operatives had a nagging sense that the post-Kavanaugh bump wasn’t sustainable in such a rapidly evolving news environment.
According to Trump, that came true on Oct. 26.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” he wrote on Twitter, after a series of Democratic leaders and CNN were targeted with pipe bombs.
The news that week would only grow darker, culminating the next day in the most deadly anti-Semitic act in American history: the murder of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The country was sharply divided and deeply rattled as Election Day neared, and there were political consequences for the sense that the nation was on the wrong track.
“The last week was a reminder of just the displeasure with our politics,” Costello said. “If that’s the case, who do you blame it on, the president and the party in power, or not?”
As Bliss had said, for Republicans, the theme of 2018 was one step forward, two steps back.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates in the top 60 races were getting outspent in the final week by $27 million, according to a memo Bliss wrote to donors the Friday before Election Day.
“Four days from Election Day, Republicans are facing many unknowns and a green wave of Democratic spending,” he wrote. “After the Kavanaugh hearings, surveys showed the best environment for Republicans in more than a year. It is impossible to know how events of the last two weeks have impacted the improving environment.”
Democrats one week out were again confident: The wariness from early and mid-October had mostly vanished, replaced by a conviction that they would win the House majority as polls showed improvement.
By Nov. 1, House Majority PAC’s internal analytics showed Democrats had a 90 percent chance of victory, the party’s best odds of the fall campaign, according to data shared with McClatchy. (On Aug. 1, the model had put the chances of a Democratic takeover at just 60 percent.)
Democrats did not run a flawless campaign in 2018.
Highly touted candidates such as Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District and Aftab Pureval in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District committed errors that damaged their campaigns. Some strategists complained that the DCCC and House Majority PAC spent too much money for too long in left-leaning districts such as Virginia’s 10th and Colorado’s 6th. And other operatives grumbled that the party erred by not focusing more on Trump.
But by the end of the campaign, the DCCC’s strategy of expanding the number of battlegrounds paid off, with new possibilities opening up in strong Republican territory in South Carolina’s 1st and Pennsylvania’s 16th districts, keeping Republicans on defense on an ever-expanding map. CLF even had to make a late play in Alaska, in a seat no one had expected to be competitive.
Republicans adopted a scattershot approach to their messaging in the race’s final weeks — their ads included attacks on a caravan of migrants, liberal “mobs,” taxes, single-payer health care and Pelosi.
But Democratic candidates in the country’s most competitive seats allowed Trump to rage while they stayed relentlessly focused on health care and taxes, the two issues they vowed to emphasize when the year began.
Sena said the DCCC had nonetheless prepared extensively for Trump’s late-campaign immigration pivot, convinced the president would turn to it to motivate his base. The group shared polling memos with campaigns, rehearsed how candidates would talk about it, and some of the individual campaigns even developed possible ads ahead of time that would respond to Trump’s attacks.
But it was clear by the end of the campaign that Trump’s immigration attacks wouldn’t be enough to derail their push toward a majority.
Rick Saccone eventually showed up at his campaign watch party. He would lose narrowly to Lamb hours later.
“President Trump won that district, but he was running against far-left Hillary Clinton,” Saccone said. “I was running against a guy who tried to be like me.”
And on Tuesday, Democrats across the country indeed won in red districts as they, like Lamb, emphasized biography — and health care — over their party ID, while benefiting from a country seeking a check on Trump.
“Frankly, the template is not to say too much, lead with your bio, don’t identify yourself as a Nancy Pelosi Democrat, and keep your head down,” said Costello, the retiring Pennsylvania Republican who followed the Lamb-Saccone race closely.
In the coming days, Democrats with their eyes on the 2020 presidential campaign will debate whether that template applies to candidates jockeying to take on Trump himself.
But more immediately, the focus turns to Congress. Veteran Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said the party’s newfound majority means the GOP can’t repeal the Obamacare or prevent investigations into the Trump White House.
“With Democrats in control of the House,” he said, “repeal is dead and oversight is alive.”
©2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.