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‘Please Stop Saying Red Wave’: Inside Democrats’ Takeover of the House

In the middle of September, White House political director Bill Stepien sat down in the presidential residence across from Donald Trump and delivered a wake-up call. Polling showed that Democratic voters were highly motivated ahead of the midterm elections, Stepien explained, while Republican voters were not—and Trump was feeding the complacency of his base by downplaying the threat in November. “Mr. President,” Stepien told him, according to sources familiar with the conversation, “Please stop saying ‘Red Wave.’”

Trump was perplexed. Having fully bought into the narrative of Republican invincibility—supported by boisterous crowds, a string of special election victories, and of course, his own supposedly unprecedented accomplishments and record-smashing poll numbers—the president struggled to imagine a sweeping rebuke of his government. Sensing this, and playing to his ego, Stepien and senior White House officials encouraged Trump to mobilize Republicans by making the election all about him. “Tell them that you’re on the ballot,” Stepien urged.

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The president did just that. “Get out in 2018,” he said at a Missouri rally in late September, debuting a more urgent midterm message, “because you are voting for me in 2018.” If Trump was happy to embrace the midterm elections as a referendum on his job performance, he can only be halfway pleased with the results: Democrats swept back into partial power on Tuesday, seizing control of the House of Representatives in a historically high-turnout affair that served as an emphatic scolding of the administration and its policies.

As of 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, Democrats had won back 26 seats, and were projected to win at least a handful more—putting them in control of powerful, subpoena-wielding House committees, with the authority to create all kinds of trouble for the White House.

In a sign of the markedly different terrain on which the battles for the two chambers were waged, Republicans not only held the Senate but expanded on their majority. Taking advantage of perhaps the most-Republican friendly map in a century, the White House celebrated knocking off numerous Democratic senators, including Bill Nelson of Florida, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, ensuring a sturdier Senate majority for the next two years.

But the nation’s attention was focused squarely on the House. This account—drawn from dozens of interviews over the past year with Republican and Democrat candidates, strategists, activists and voters—places Tuesday’s verdict in the context of the country’s deepening polarization and its most volatile midterm election cycle in recent memory. After two years of rollercoaster news cycles driven by a president who thrives on turmoil and governs with a showman’s attention to shiny objects, Democrats stormed back into the House majority by following a simple rule: Don’t take the president’s bait.

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Voter participation was high across ideological and demographic lines, with both parties effectively nationalizing local and statewide races. But whereas Trump sought to make the election all about himself, Democratic candidates were remarkably disciplined in focusing the electorate’s energy on the alleged failures of his party: Republican tax reform that exploded the deficit and disproportionately benefitted the wealthy; Republican efforts to take away health care access from millions of people; and Republican politicians whose acquiescence to Trump deepened the country’s partisan divide and further diminished its faith in government.

Winning the House represented the culmination of a master plan that was simple and straightforward. With Trump and his fellow Republicans expecting a full-frontal assault on the president himself, leading Democrats—from House leader Nancy Pelosi, to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Luján, to the party’s biggest donors and elder statesmen—advised House candidates to run hyper-local, non-hysterical campaigns that made little mention of the president.

“I’m not running against Donald Trump. I’m running against Erik Paulsen,” Dean Phillips, the newly elected Democratic representative from Minnesota’s 3rd District, told POLITICO while campaigning two days before the election. “I talk about what people want to talk about, and it’s much less about Trump than you’d think.” Paulsen, who lost by just over 11 percentage points, represents a suburban Twin Cities district that Republicans have controlled since 1960. He tried repeatedly to distance himself from Trump—whose approval rating in the 3rd District tumbled into the 30s this fall—but it was little use: Phillips branded him as a rubber-stamp for the White House, while the president himself was so irritated by Paulsen’s lack of loyalty that he insisted on sending not one but two tweets endorsing him.

Paulsen, still message-disciplined in mid-October, told POLITICO then: “I’ve got a good brand of bipartisanship and that’s what Minnesotans really like. It’s a salient point to make for those who may not be enamored of Trump.” On Tuesday, that rang hollow.

It wasn’t the only place where a GOP incumbent wilted in the Trump’s shadow. The midterm elections resulted in a wipeout of numerous moderate Republicans—including Mike Coffman of Colorado, Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, among many others—whose individual brands in their metropolitan districts were not sufficient to overcome the president’s devastating unpopularity.

“Republicans have lost the suburbs. I don’t know if they’ve lost them forever, but we’ve definitely lost them for now,” said Liesl Hickey, who served as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014. “The suburbs wanted to send a message to the president and they have.”

But Republicans also collapsed in Trump-friendly parts of the country. New York GOP incumbents John Faso of the 19th District and Claudia Tenney of the 22nd District—both of whom benefitted enormously from Trump’s approval ratings in the Hudson Valley—both lost their reelection bids. Democrat Max Rose brought his brash brand to Staten Island, and toppled Rep. Dan Donovan in a district Trump won by 9 points. Incumbent GOP Rep. Steve Russell suffered a stunning upset in Oklahoma, while a pair of Republican nominees vying for open seats in pro-Trump districts, Katie Arrington and South Carolina and Danny Tarkanian in Nevada, both fell short.

The broadest category of GOP losers on Tuesday was comprised of those incumbents representing conservative areas of the country where Trump’s standing was not determinative either way–and who only have themselves, and their lackluster campaigns, to blame. After nearly a decade in the majority, and enjoying the fruits of favorably drawn districts, incumbents such as John Culberson of Texas and Leonard Lance of New Jersey lacked the muscle memory to run effectively in a difficult environment.

On the other hand, Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas ran the best campaign of his career—and still lost on Tuesday.

The moderate Republican, hailing from the Kansas City suburbs, knew he had to thread his race through a needle-sized hole, made smaller every day by Trump. Hillary Clinton won the seat in 2016, and polling showed mixed messaging on how to address the president. An April 2018 poll showed that “undecided” voters wanted Yoder to stand with Trump, while “persuadable” voters wanted him to distance himself from the president—both groups he needed to win over to succeed. Still, a brutal Democratic primary left his eventual opponent, Sharice Davids, marred by her on-the-record support for abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. (She walked that comment back.) He also outraised her—a feat that dozens of his colleagues failed to match. But it was clear by Labor Day that it wouldn’t be enough.

Brimming with frustration one Sunday in September, Yoder placed a phone call to Steve Stivers, chairman of the NRCC. Word had leaked that his group, the House GOP’s campaign arm, planned to cut $ 1.2 million in TV spending that would have buoyed him in the suburban district. But the committee had a poll showing Yoder trailed Davids by high single-digits and suddenly pulled the rug out from under him. Yoder learned of the development from press reports, not the committee.

“When people ask me what I think of you, I can’t decide whether to tell them you’re a fucking idiot or a fucking liar,” Yoder growled at Stivers. “But now I think you’re both.”

***

House Republicans returned to Washington in January 2018 with a transformed outlook on the midterm elections. Much of Trump’s first year in office had been calamitous, as a combination of failed policy initiatives and presidential misadventures rendered the GOP deeply unpopular across the country. But then things perked up: Under intense pressure from party leaders and top donors, Republicans in both chambers rallied behind a tax-reform bill that Trump signed into law just before Christmas. Few GOP lawmakers seemed thrilled about the particulars, but at least they had something to show, legislatively speaking, for their unified control of the government. “Now,” Speaker Paul Ryan told his members when Congress reconvened in January, “we have something to run on.”

The president had other ideas. Even as a steady drip of positive reviews met the Republican tax plan—companies giving bonuses, small businesses hiring—Trump seemed disinterested in selling the product. Whether it was boasting about the size of his nuclear detonation button, calling himself “a very stable genius,” launching ad hominem assaults on prominent Democrats, railing against the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, or saying he would “love to see a shutdown,” Trump spent the opening months of 2018 taking seemingly every opportunity not to focus the nation’s attention on his party’s prize legislation.

This was much to the annoyance of Republicans on Capitol Hill, chiefly Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Though McConnell’s chamber was less endangered in 2018 than Ryan’s, both men privately warned Trump that their majorities were at risk—and urged him to stay on message. But often this was beyond the president’s control: The Wall Street Journal reported in January that Trump had paid hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair; in February, 17 people were shot to death at a Florida high school, sparking a passionate national dialogue about gun violence; the next month, Gary Cohn resigned as Trump’s chief economic adviser, the latest in an exodus of top White House aides.

Republicans already knew they would be running uphill in 2018. The first sign of real trouble came in June of the previous year in Georgia’s 6th District, a bloody red Republican stronghold made vacant by Tom Price’s appointment to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. What should have been a snoozer turn into a slog—the most expensive race in congressional history. The parties, candidates and allied outside groups combined to dump some $ 55 million into the suburban Atlanta district. Republicans had fought off Democratic challenges in prior special elections that were too close for comfort, but this was different: The surge of enthusiasm around a previously anonymous challenger named Jon Ossoff, and the GOP panic—dropping $ 18 million to hold a district Trump had carried by 23 points—signaled that Democrats could compete anywhere and everywhere.

“They spent all of that money early on,” said Kelly, who ran the House Democratic super PAC. “Those were away games for us, and Republicans felt they had to win them.”

The GOP held on, defeating Ossoff by three points. Yet the victory was costly—and not just because of the price tag. “We won the battle, but it might have cost us the war,” said Bliss, whose Republican-allied super PAC spent $ 6 million in the district. “We made Pelosi the issue in that race, and that’s when Democrats adapted and began running away from her.” As far as the money spent, Bliss added, “We had no choice. It was an investment in narrative. If we lost in Georgia, there would have been even more Republican retirements.”

It also presaged the avalanche of money heading toward Democratic candidates. That spring, Keenan Pontoni, who managed Ossoff’s race, would pull open his laptop around midnight most evenings and stare at the numbers rolling in from Act Blue. At first, $ 100,000 became the norm raised every day, then $ 200,000.

Democrats were destined to play offense in the battle for the House, but the GOP’s defense crumbled with a rash of retirements. Of the 44 districts left open by Republican incumbents who retired, resigned or sought higher office, Democrats targeted half of them. Recent history explains why: In the last six midterm cycles, the president’s party hasn’t retained a single open seat he failed to carry two years prior, according to a Cook Political Report analysis. The vacancies ranged from once-safe red districts that turned competitive under Trump to seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, like Washington’s 8th District that stretches from downtown Seattle into rolling farmland.

“It may have been the final nail in our coffin,” said Brian Walsh, a Republican consultant who leads the pro-Trump outside group, America First.

The most notable Republican to call it quits was Ryan, who announced in April that he was leaving Congress at year’s end. The decision to stay as a lame-duck speaker roiled some individuals in the party and uncorked a gusher of internal gossip. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, felt exposed by the decision, believing that his best chance to succeed Ryan in the next Congress was to have a running start. Sensing the same thing, allies of Steve Scalise began whispering about McCarthy’s vulnerabilities in the conference and suggesting a stealth campaign for the speakership. The tension between all three leadership officials, and between their staffs, was the talk of Capitol Hill as spring turned to summer, especially as McCarthy and Scalise jockeyed not-so-subtly to find ground on the other mans’ right flank (McCarthy aired radio ads nationwide this fall promoting his build-the-border-wall legislation, vexing local Republicans in tough races who hoped for a shout-out from the majority leader in his ads). Even Republicans loyal to Ryan wondered whether he was hurting the party by sticking around.

Ultimately, those concerns were unfounded—Ryan raised a record-breaking $ 200 million for the party since becoming speaker—though his untimely departure accentuated the narrative of Republicans waving the white flag in 2018. Although he regretted contributing to that perception, Ryan felt liberated, joking with friends that he was glad to be off that ballot with Trump looming larger over the elections.

“There are a few folks that I tried to talk [convince] to stay in that didn’t stay in,” Stivers, the NRCC chairman, told POLITICO in late August. “We have more retirements than I would have liked, but we have great recruits.”

So did the Democrats—and more of them.

***

Inside a gymnasium at Lansing Community College, less than a week before Election Day, Elissa Slotkin stepped to the stage and made a proud declaration: “I am a Midwestern Democrat.”

Inspired by House Republicans’ vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act—and the implications for her mother, a cancer survivor with preexisting conditions—Slotkin ran for Congress not as a partisan warrior but as a pragmatic moderate. Taking on Mike Bishop in Michigan’s 8th District, a gerrymandered lot stretching from Lansing to Metro Detroit, Slotkin mastered the art of rhetorical triangulation: rejecting the GOP as too extreme while denouncing the leftward drift of her own party. With her “Midwestern Democrat” pitch, Slotkin, a former CIA analyst, showed the political chops of a savvy veteran instead of a rookie candidate. The race came to embody the battle for the House: a talented Democratic recruit with no opposition research to overcome, taking on a GOP incumbent with mediocre fundraising and no experience running a tough campaign.

Slotkin defeated Bishop on Tuesday, winning by a few thousand votes in one of the country’s tightest races. Her triumph reflected the depth of the Democratic recruiting class—and the emphasis on promoting first-time female candidates.

Galvanized by Trump’s presidency, Democrats nominated a historically diverse slate of candidates. At least 133 people of color, and 158 first-time candidates, won primaries in 2018. Many won again Tuesday, promising to radically alter the composition of the 116th Congress. That diverse incoming class will include the likes of Colin Allred, an African-American former pro football player who scored an upset victory over Texas Rep. Pete Sessions in the state’s 32nd District, and also Antonio Delgado in New York, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar who was bizarrely portrayed as a “rapper” in racially charged Republican ads. But women were the engine driving the Democratic takeover. The party put forward 180 female candidates on House general election ballots—shattering the Democrats’ previous record of 120, according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

One of them, Abigail Spanberger, is heading to Congress next year after defeating Republican Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th District. She reached rockstar status the weekend before her victory, greeted by “Go Abby” chants in the sanctuary at St. Paul’s Baptist Church last Sunday. She couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being asked to take a selfie with fans. Her “moment of hyper-clarity” in the race came during a mid-October debate when, after Brat mentioned Pelosi for the two-dozenth time, she responded: “Abigail Spanberger is my name.” Afterward, she thought, “I hope that didn’t sound dumb.” But her one-liner was met with cheers, both at the debate and online. Late-night host James Corden tweeted the “Now This” video of her remark, which has 2.5 million views and counting.

Spanberger, like Slotkin, is a former employee of the CIA—and like Slotkin has said she won’t vote for Pelosi as speaker. As the debate intensifies inside the Democratic Party over how to defeat Trump’s GOP—persuading the middle or mobilizing the base—Tuesday’s recapturing of the House highlights the importance of smartly tailored campaigns that engage the center of the electorate. “You have to back to the days of Dick Gephardt and Dave Obey to find this many Democrats of this substance, of this talent, running in these districts,” said Kelly. “Partisanship is changing. These candidates approached their districts in different, nuanced ways, and the party let them run their own races.”
Bliss, whose super PAC tried to strangle these Democratic recruits in the crib, tipped his cap to the fresh faces of the opposition. “In this environment, if you’re allowed to be a nonpartisan, apolitical outsider, you’re going to win – period, end of discussion,” he said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in political science to know they’re going to win. And we knew that.”

The groundswell in Democratic enthusiasm did more than produce talented candidates—it yielded unprecedented sums of money in a midterm election.

After years of Republicans outraising Democrats in midterm elections and down-ballot races, the tables turned in startling fashion in 2018: Not only did Democratic candidates outraise their GOP counterparts on the whole, but Democratic challengers consistently outraised GOP incumbents by wide margins. This financial advantage snowballed as the election cycle progressed, to the point where Republicans had gallows-humor conversations about a “green wave” instead of a red one. According to media-buying data, as of early October, the total spending of Democratic House candidates was increasing by some $ 2 million every day—compared to $ 200,000 for the aggregate of House Republican candidates.

“Luke Skywalker defeated the Death Star not by building his own Death Star, but with one little X-wing plane, because they didn’t view it as a threat,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former DCCC spokesman. “That’s what Dem have done this cycle with small-dollar donors. We’ve combatted the death star of Republican outside money with a series of X-wings donating $ 25 at time.”

But there was plenty of big money, too. House Majority PAC and Patriot Majority, the main Democratic fundraising vehicles, unloaded a combined $ 113 million on House races. The Hub Project channeled more than $ 30 million into a smattering of state and local groups, focused on pushing a progressive message on health care and taxes. Another $ 45 million came from a constellation of outside groups, Giffords PAC, founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords; VoteVets, a progressive group working to elect veterans; The League of Conservation Voters, a pro-environmental group.

A much-anticipated entrant into the cash dash was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Having given $ 60 million in 2016 to both parties, Bloomberg, disturbed by continued gun violence and the family separation policy this summer, boosted only Democrats in 2018. Between House and Senate investments, his spending ballooned to $ 110 million.

This deluge wasn’t just felt in the districts that Democrats won, but in those Republicans held onto. With a rapidly expanding map and finite resources, the GOP was forced to make triage its incumbents—often investing in one district at the expense of another.

“They had fuck-you money,” said Bliss, the Republican super PAC chief. “They could take a risk and throw cash around at seats they know they don’t have a good chance of winning, just to make us spend there.”

***

Money was a sensitive subject for Republicans down the home stretch of 2018.

At the conclusion of Labor Day weekend, the NRCC blasted out a memo to official Washington declaring, “Republicans are well-positioned to maintain control of the House.” Beyond hyping the party’s “strong” recruits and “resilient” incumbents, the committee’s optimism boiled down to one line: “The Cavalry is Coming.” House Republicans had grown increasingly nervous about the cash deficit in their campaigns nationwide, and the party apparatus was promising that help was on the way.

It never arrived—and “The Cavalry is Coming” has become a punchline inside the GOP.

Holding the House majority in such a toxic political environment was never going to be easy. And with the parties themselves continually weakened by outside money, it’s difficult to assess the NRCC’s fundraising prowess in full and fair context. That said, Republican critics say the committee’s strategy for spending the money it had—more than $ 100 million for the cycle—was irresponsible bordering on reckless.

The biggest recipient of NRCC money in 2018 was Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, whose suburban Washington, D.C. district Trump lost by 10 points. A well-liked party insider, Comstock and her allies spent much of 2018 perpetuating the myth that she could buck the political and demographic trends in her district—that her brand was strong enough to survive a potential blue wave. But the public polling never backed this up: Comstock consistently trailed her challenger, Jennifer Wexton, by double digits. That didn’t stop the NRCC from pumping a total of more than $ 5 million into her race, all the way through October, even as everyone in D.C. knew the campaign was over. Wexton wound up winning by 12 points.

At the same time, the NRCC also invested heavily in Colorado’s 6th District, where incumbent Republican Mike Coffman—another favorite of the GOP establishment—was a dead man walking. Public and private polling, as well as focus groups commissioned by GOP-allied organizations, showed that Coffman had no chance to win, yet the party committee didn’t pull the plug until October 19. Meanwhile, the NRCC was barely spending in California—where numerous Republican incumbents were in jeopardy—as of early October. Some money came in late, but it was no help to several Republican incumbents taken down by Democratic challengers.

The expenditures of a party committee are always the subject of gossip and criticism in Washington, since much of the money comes via transfer from its lawmakers’ campaign accounts. Stivers, the NRCC chairman, came under particular scrutiny this year for playing favorites with certain members, raising insufficient funds and spending what money it did have ineffectively. Adding to the intra-party tension was the emergence of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which Stivers felt cannibalized his organization’s fundraising capacity. Bliss, who was tapped by Ryan to lead the outside group, monopolized much of the cash being raised by House Republican leaders, prompting months of backbiting between the CLF and NRCC.

The reason CLF became the preferred depository of the party’s elite was simple: versatility. When he landed the top job, Bliss pitched Ryan and the group’s board of directors on creating a field program, arguing that boots on the ground in October would make a bigger difference than the hundredth attack ad airing on television. They agreed on a trial run in Nebraska’s 2nd District, and with its success, soon began opening two new field offices each week. The structures were identical: one paid, full-time district manager, overseeing a group of volunteers, most of them college and high school-aged Republicans who spent their evening phone-banking and door-knocking in the pursuit of Amazon gift cards for the top performers. Democrats won plenty of the 40 districts where the group had a presence, but CLF’s ground game likely saved at least a few Republican seats. One belongs to Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District. The weekend before the election, three teams of a dozen volunteers each canvassed the district on foot—as they had done for months—while another dozen volunteers made phone calls. Their target list had been narrowed over the past six months, and was now down to 46,000 voters identified as loyal, low-propensity Republicans. The Democratic challenger, an impressive former Marine fighter pilot named Amy McGrath, lost by fewer than 7,000 votes.

Her loss could not diminish the Democrats’ stellar showing on Tuesday, nor could it mask the internal struggle soon to play out in the new House majority. McGrath was one of dozens of Democratic candidates to advocate a change in the party’s leadership—denying Pelosi another turn as speaker—and though she lost, many of her fellow travelers will arrive in Washington early next year sensing an obligation to follow through. With Democrats in control of the House for the first time since 2010, and Trump heading into his own reelection, the party’s approach over the next two years will echo far beyond.

“I think the Democratic Party needs to be reinvented, and its message redesigned,” said Phillips, the incoming Democrat who flipped the Minnesota seat held by Republicans for six decades. “I feel very strongly that it’s time for leadership change in the Democratic caucus. And not just generationally speaking. I don’t think the current leadership is in a position to collaborate. I don’t think that’s been demonstrated. And if this country needs anything right now, it’s collaboration—setting aside the political swords and getting back to work.”

The country also needs nuance—which is not Congress’s strong suit. “It’s easier for people to say good, bad, black, white, red, blue, bad, good, Democrat, Republican,” Spanberger said on a drive down a Virginia highway, heading to her final meet-and-greet before Election Day. “Take that open borders thing….” Spanberger then launched into a two-minute monologue on the intricacies of detention orders and arrest warrants, the Fourth Amendment and sanctuary cities, jurisdictional issues and legal proceedings involving judges.

With the Democratic Party undergoing a transformation, and Trump in the White House baiting his opponents at every turn, won’t it be difficult to demonstrate that nuance? “Yes,” she replied with an easy laugh.

Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent at Politico Magazine.

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