Politico

'The weirdest election I've ever been a part of': How the GOP almost blew the House

Seven weeks before an Election Day that many expected to be a GOP blowout, House Republicans got unsettling news: Their own internal statistical modeling was warning for the first time that they might suffer a shocking loss.

The numbers fed a nagging fear that had started to creep over top party officials, according to two people who described the data: Had Republicans peaked too soon?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted in November 2021 that his party could pick up as many as 60 seats the following year. But control over the midterm started to slip away from the GOP in June when the Supreme Court revoked a 50-year constitutional right to abortion, igniting a previously disengaged Democratic base. Cash-rich Democrats began a TV ad onslaught centered on abortion rights as national generic ballots tightened.

The House GOP campaign arm convened its top strategists in late summer to weigh how to react. After some debate, a fateful consensus emerged among the party’s top messaging pros: They wouldn’t respond at all. The group decided it was imperative Republicans stay trained on the economy and voters’ cost-of-living pain. The National Republican Congressional Committee urged candidates to maintain their focus there even when under attack on abortion.

“We can’t make emotional decisions,” said Mike Thom, the Republican campaign arm’s political director.

It was a complicated choice — between taking punches without throwing them back or diverting focus from their top issue to engage on one that was negative for Republicans.

Both parties soon thought the Democratic surge had passed. The GOP’s modeling went back to predicting a win two weeks later, suggesting the strategy had paid off. But now, a week after the election, lawmakers are back in Washington under once-unthinkable circumstances: After historical trends and polls pointed squarely toward a red wave, control of the House still hasn’t been called, though Republicans are on the cusp of securing a slim majority.

In hindsight, both parties were armed with data that pointed to that very outcome, but Democrats limped to November weighed down by pessimism about President Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings and skyrocketing inflation. Fueling some of that fear was a glut of GOP spending that ultimately toppled only a few endangered incumbents, including House Democratic campaign chief Sean Patrick Maloney.

The 2022 election upended conventional wisdom. People who didn’t like the direction of the country or the economy did not punish Biden’s party for it as harshly as expected. Suburban voters still largely backed Democrats, even without former President Donald Trump in office.

The large number of Democratic incumbents who retired complicated the party’s chances of winning some districts but only outright wrecked a few.

No one moment was the singular undoing of House Republicans’ lofty hopes. But GOP leaders, in their confidence about winning the election, underestimated how much abortion and concerns over extremist candidates would galvanize the Democratic base, shrinking the battlefield. The handful of bluer-leaning seats in New York and elsewhere that Democrats did lose didn’t herald a red wave, but instead became confounding outliers.

“This is the weirdest election I’ve ever been a part of,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who serves on the GOP campaign committee.

Republicans also grappled with an emboldened MAGA base, egged on by Trump, that elevated far-right — and unelectable — candidates in key battleground districts. The GOP’s successes in boosting the strongest recruits yielded crucial pickups that may yet make the difference between winning and losing the chamber. But the impossible task of shaping every primary meant weak nominees cost them in several places.

This account of an election that saw historical headwinds redirected by unprecedented political developments is based on more than 60 interviews with lawmakers, candidates and strategists from both parties.

Chaos on election night

Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s (D-Va.) race was widely considered the harbinger of what was to come across the House map.

The call of her win, which came after 10:30 p.m. on election night, elicited cheers and screams from staff at the DCCC’s headquarters, a sleek building in D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood. Over at House Majority PAC, the party’s flagship outside group, staffers were banging cowbells as endangered incumbents from Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) to Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) held on.

It made for an awkward split-screen as Maloney, who had returned to D.C. to be with his DCCC staff on election night, watched his own reelection chances crash amid the delight around him. In a call with staff the day after he lost, Maloney told them the cheers lifted his spirits because he knew the party was doing well even as he feared he was going to lose himself.

“Those motherfuckers wasted a lot of money on me,” Maloney told his staff in a call shortly after conceding his race the next day, according to a person listening.

That jubilation was in stark contrast to the scenario many Democrats were preparing for: a Republican wave. One Democratic outside group prepared a 13-page memo almost entirely devoted to how the party should handle the fallout from huge GOP gains, according to a source familiar with the document.

Under “good scenarios,” which the group imagined as narrowly losing the House, there were three bullet points prepared.

“For most people, the turning point was Spanberger. Everyone thought she was DOA, so when she was surviving, everyone said, ‘holy shit,’” said Tim Lim, a Democratic consultant who works on races across the country.

At an upscale hotel ballroom across town, McCarthy’s victory party never fully materialized. Gathered with his close allies, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich, McCarthy watched the results and dialed up GOP candidates every time a race was called in their favor, according to a Republican who attended the event. But he wasn’t making nearly as many of those calls as the party had hoped.

Senior GOP staff were growing nervous as many of the contests that would have signaled a wave turned into Republican losses, including a McCarthy favorite: former Cranston Mayor Allan Fung in Rhode Island.

In the days and weeks before Nov. 8, McCarthy had been crisscrossing the country visiting districts like Fung’s — seats that backed Biden two years ago, but seemed poised to fall into GOP hands.

The final results shocked nearly everyone.

There were Democrats openly questioning their party’s decision to lean so heavily into abortion advertising ahead of the midterms. In the days after, some Republicans admitted it was their party which had miscalculated.

“We missed that as a party. Some of the states went really extreme with their health care for women, and it hurt us,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the leader of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership. “Kansas should have been a wakeup call. And I know we thought it had peaked, but it had not peaked, obviously.”

Warning signs

Almost exactly one year before Election Day, Democrats’ first alarm bells rang out: a Republican upset in Virginia’s governor’s race, a GOP rout in local races on Long Island and the defeat of New Jersey’s most powerful Democratic state legislator by a local truck driver.

Hours after election night 2021, dozens of rattled House Democrats huddled in the Capitol for an intervention. Party leaders worried their message wasn’t breaking through even before the results in Virginia, and had scheduled a special meeting to change course, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.

“Stop talking in Hebrew and start talking in Yiddish,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries instructed members — a New Yorker’s way of advising his colleagues to be more conversational and less poll-tested. A few minutes later, Rep. Matt Cartwright, who had just watched the GOP make local gains in Pennsylvania, offered a warning. Cartwright said the party needed to better communicate an agenda focused on “jobs,” “tax cuts,” and “lower costs.”

If not, he said, “we’ll lose our majority.”

Democrats were growing nervous that their party lacked a strategy to show the public how it was combating inflation. Those fears escalated after a December meeting in the Capitol, when Democrats complained that White House officials had little more to offer on the economy than a handful of PowerPoint slides focused on supply chains and “inflationary pressure.”

Those few months with their agenda in flux, according to many Democrats, were among the lowest points in the election cycle. The party’s shaken confidence helped fuel a large number of retirements from Democratic members thinking they saw a potential wave building.

Then came the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.

A clear momentum shift built over the summer. Biden’s approval ticked up. Democrats were gaining in national generic ballot polls. And voter registration in numerous states shifted younger and more female.

Voters in Kansas overwhelmingly rejected an August referendum that would have opened the door to revoking access to abortion in the red state. Then New York Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election for a closely divided Hudson Valley district while campaigning heavily on abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates and outside groups began a TV ad campaign that would carry through the fall. Since July, Democrats have spent some $120 million on abortion-focused advertising, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

Republicans’ internal surveys conducted before Dobbs showed a massive win in November brewing. One example: Slotkin was trailing by a high-single-digit margin in her opponent’s private polling in June. But by mid-September, Republican Tom Barrett was down in his polls, and Slotkin beat him by 5 points on Election Day.

“I don’t think that was all Dobbs, because he had a lot of negative spending going on at the same time,” said Jason Cabel Roe, Barrett’s consultant. “But I don’t think you can ignore the role Dobbs played in it.”

Overturning Roe motivated huge segments of the Democratic Party, especially younger voters — and especially in Michigan, where abortion was literally on the ballot in the form of a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to the procedure.

Democrats still had to grapple with inflation and a looming recession, and their candidates aired numerous ads assuring voters they felt their pain. The DCCC’s strategy was for candidates to fight Republicans “to a draw” on the economy and then talk about abortion rights, extremism or guns to pull ahead. One of the closest midterms in history, instead of the usual party-in-power wipeout, was vindication.

“The goal was to break even on the Republican advantage on the economy while using stronger-hitting abortion negatives to move voters,” DCCC executive director Tim Persico said.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who weathered $8.7 million in spending from Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC, said her reelection largely came down to Dobbs.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a catalyst like that in a long time,” Wild said.

The race turns on its head

On his weekly Sunday night phone calls, NRCC Chair Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) fielded questions from rattled GOP candidates watching Democratic attacks on abortion on their TVs back home.

He urged them to stay the course. Unless there was empirical data demonstrating the need to respond on abortion, Emmer said, candidates should not veer from the economy.

“In every survey we’re doing, the economy was by far the No. 1 issue,” said George Nassar, a veteran pollster who attended the GOP’s summit where strategists decided how to handle the issue of abortion in the 2022 campaign. Ultimately, he recalled, the decision felt simple: “Let’s stay laser-focused on the economy, and we’re going to win this thing. Why even get dragged into any type of debate on anything else?”

The Dobbs decision not only drove engagement among younger and less-frequent Democratic voters, but it gave Democrats a potent political argument to make to independents. It’s possible Republicans could have stopped the bleeding from the middle — but there was little they could do to stop the Democratic base from turning out in big numbers.

The Congressional Leadership Fund saw the same Democratic surge in data. But it stabilized some as Election Day drew near. In the end, the races remained tight — but a surprising amount broke against the GOP.

“There were two completely different elections that happened. It was a red wave in blue state America,” said Dan Conston, the group’s president, citing GOP gains in New York, New Jersey and Oregon. “And then we hit a brick wall in the swing states that had major statewide contests with underperforming Republican nominees. That created an entirely different dynamic.”

Indeed, Republicans came within thousands of votes of flipping seats in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland.

Abortion was likely a deciding factor in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Republicans controlled the legislature, according to candidates and party operatives in those states.

But in New York, where those rights are enshrined into law, it seemed to play less of a role as Republicans zeroed in on crime, specifically cash bail. Election night in New York felt like it was taking place in a parallel universe to the rest of the country.

The GOP felled Maloney, while Republican Marc Molinaro flipped a redrawn district that included some of the turf he lost in a summer special election. And Long Island turned completely red, with Republican Anthony D’Esposito flipping a seat held by retiring Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice that backed Biden by double digits in 2020. Republican George Santos captured another open seat nearby.

Republicans were able to capitalize “on people’s fears and insecurities,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.). “I think that the Democrats need to be more empathetic about how people feel on public safety and education.”

Rice, a frequent critic of her party’s leadership, had been sounding the alarm about Long Island for months to the DCCC and New York Democrats. “All you heard was, ‘Crime is out of control and bail reform.’ It was hard to run away from that,” she said, noting losses up and down the ballot. “It was a repudiation of Democrats on Long Island.”

Attempting to build the bench

Jen Kiggans was one of the GOP recruits who scared Democrats the most. But before she could take on Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in Virginia, Kiggans had to win a crowded GOP primary — and one rival was lurking at Mar-a-Lago, angling for a potentially decisive endorsement.

Jarome Bell was a pro-Trump Navy veteran with a history of incendiary remarks, including a tweet calling for the execution of people involved in voter fraud. Republican operatives worried Luria could rally a district full of military personnel and political moderates if Bell was the GOP nominee.

Then McCarthy stepped in. In a chat with Trump, he stressed that he’d endorsed Kiggans, a state senator and former Navy helicopter pilot, because he felt she was the strongest candidate for the district, according to two people familiar with the conversation. The former president stayed out of the primary, which Kiggans won before unseating Luria last week.

Over seven months of primaries, the GOP faced a constant challenge securing palatable nominees in swing districts, where the party base often favored MAGA firebrands. The Congressional Leadership Fund and other groups aligned with McCarthy had to wade in repeatedly to help preferred challengers and protect incumbents, who were seeing a record number of serious primaries.

Those preferred candidates suffered some primary losses, and yet more lost in the general election. Candidate quality sabotaged the GOP in other potentially winnable races, too.

But overall, the recruiting efforts may have saved the GOP’s campaign: Touted candidates who faced crowded primaries were responsible for a number of the flips Republicans managed in November.

McCarthy’s successful intervention with Trump over Kiggans’ campaign followed years of relationship-building. In early 2020, McCarthy and several aides gathered in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House with Trump to highlight some top House recruits the then-president might consider endorsing, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

McCarthy and Trump have since met roughly a dozen times to discuss candidates, which helped lead to Trump’s endorsement of key recruits like Monica De La Cruz in South Texas — and to his neutrality in other races, including Kiggans’.

McCarthy was sold on one star recruit, Juan Ciscomani, at a Wyoming donor retreat where Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey pitched his former aide eyeing a congressional seat — a first-generation American and father of six who helped foster trade relations between Arizona and Mexico.

Later, when several of Ciscomani’s primary rivals were angling for Trump’s backing, McCarthy touted him to the former president, according to two people familiar with the conversation, and Trump again declined to endorse in the race.

The House GOP super PAC jumped into primaries to boost each of Ciscomani, Kiggans and De La Cruz, who flipped previously Democratic districts, and John Duarte, a battleground nominee in California whose close race is still uncalled. It also spent money shoring up Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Young Kim (R-Calif.), who finished narrowly ahead of a Republican challenger before winning reelection.

“We were doing constant sweeps of primaries to ensure there were no surprises,” Conston said.

Outside help also helped push through Rep. David Valadao — one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 — even as the super PAC’s polling saw him plummet by double digits a week before his primary. Valadao’s race is still uncalled, but the heavily pro-Biden seat likely wouldn’t have been competitive if he’d been knocked out in the primary.

The interventions didn’t always work. Two other swing-seat impeachment supporters, Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) and Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), fell to pro-Trump challengers. Meijer’s loss likely tipped his Democratic-leaning district: John Gibbs, who won the nomination over Meijer, lost the seat on Tuesday by double digits.

And in one of the biggest upsets of the election, Joe Kent, the Republican who ousted Herrera Beutler, went on to lose the GOP-leaning seat to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez.

But the problem wasn’t isolated. Far-right nominees in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio tanked their chances in swing seats there. Even firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose seat was on virtually no one’s watch list before Tuesday night, is locked in a tight race in western Colorado.

“The voters liked us on policy and they rejected Biden by and large but they weren’t ready to embrace us,” said one GOP lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the party’s troubles. “So this should be a little bit of soul searching.”

A warped battleground map

In the final weeks of the election, allies of the DCCC chair — including the organization’s executive director — approached party groups with a sensitive request: Could someone come bail Maloney out?

Their entreaties for help, described by two people familiar with the conversations, came as Maloney was dragged into a battleground race in the lower Hudson Valley. With his fundraising responsibilities as the House Democratic campaign chief diverting his focus beyond his newly redrawn seat in New York, Maloney was now watching a GOP super PAC drop $6 million on his head in the hope of dealing him an embarrassing personal defeat.

Meanwhile, Democrats were facing a cash crunch as Republican money poured into bluer and bluer districts, and they had few resources set aside to save a district Biden carried by 10 points in 2020.

Maloney became the first DCCC chairman to lose reelection in decades, but the political squeeze most other battleground Democrats were feeling in October wasn’t the death grip they feared.

And several races where Democrats never spent — thinking they did not have a chance — were among the closest contests in the House.

John James, a vaunted GOP recruit in Michigan, won by less than 1 point against an underfunded Democrat. The party quietly gave up on trying to keep retiring Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-Wis.) district and ousted Rep. Kurt Schrader’s (D-Ore.) seat, both of which were closer-than-expected losses.

And in Arizona, a close Tucson race was a particular source of tension in the party.

In the final stretch of the midterms, a pair of Arizona Democrats — Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Ruben Gallego — pleaded with their House campaign arm to spend on behalf of the party’s nominee to succeed Kirkpatrick. She can win, they said.

Privately, Republicans agreed.

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s own polling throughout the fall showed Ciscomani, McCarthy’s prized recruit, essentially tied with Democrat Kirsten Engel. But to some Republicans’ surprise, Democrats’ House Majority PAC started slashing its planned ad buy to help Engel. The DCCC’s independent expenditure arm never made a reservation.

“They had it tied, we had it tied here. The DCCC didn’t want to invest it there,” Gallego recalled. “I was very clear that this was a winnable race.”

It was just one of a slew of districts, many of them open seats, in which national Democrats didn’t — or couldn’t — invest.

Looking back, it’s possible spending more cash in those places could have swung the House. But the party was struggling to handle some $230 million in spending from the Congressional Leadership Fund that had completely warped the map.

The super PAC’s goal was to dump money into Biden-won districts, hoping a favorable environment and financial pressure would wear down vulnerable Democratic candidates. The group spent $57 million in 14 districts Joe Biden won by double digits, which Democrats felt forced to match amid dangerous-looking polling.

Republicans did manage to knock down a half-dozen Democratic incumbents, with a few more races still uncalled. But dozens of others survived.

Democratic polling showed all of their battle-tested incumbents were still in the fight by the closing weeks of the midterms. The data wasn’t wrong — but the assumptions were. Operatives from both parties assumed undecided voters and the districts would break against the president’s party in his first midterm. They did not.

“We have so many coin flip races right now. And we could lose them all for sure, but we could win them too,” Persico said a few days before the election. “We don’t have a single member who’s outside the margin of error. That is not really the world that I thought we’d be living in at this point.”

Party operatives always knew they were very likely to lose at least four Democratic incumbents: Reps. Cindy Axne of Iowa, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey. Many assumed they would simply be the first dominoes to fall — but when the results settled, they were among the only ones.

It wasn’t Republicans’ primary intention, but as Democrats raced to match their spending against incumbent members, they were cash-strapped and distracted away from others.

The number of open seats Democrats had to defend threatened to be their biggest liability, with tested incumbents like Reps. Cheri Bustos, James Langevin and Peter DeFazio backing out. Democrats did manage to keep nearly all of those seats while felling GOP incumbents in Ohio and New Mexico, but it took more effort — and money — than it might have otherwise.

Now, the House is set to be in the same place for the next two years as it was for the last two: finely balanced, with a bare majority and little room for error in the next election.

“If Democrats lose the majority,” said Kelly Ward Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, “we have the ability to get it right back in ‘24.”

Olivia Beavers, Christopher Cadelago, Jordain Carney and Nicholas Wu contributed. 

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