With the presidential candidates scrambling the electorate in unpredictable ways, down-ballot races required more dexterity than any in recent memory. Successful candidates needed to find a message that resonated in their states and districts, then drive it home loud and clear. By building their own independent brands, they were able to shrug off the turmoil at the top of their tickets.
So, without further ado, here’s the Against the Grain list of the top Senate and House campaigns of 2016:
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio)
Portman’s campaign was so effective that he barely needed to even worry about reelection after Labor Day. He stockpiled millions in campaign cash before the campaign, which allowed him to attack former Gov. Ted Strickland’s record early and often. His decision to talk tough against China and soften his pro-free trade views allowed him to run up the score in working-class areas, Trump-style. All told, he ran 7 points ahead of Donald Trump and lost only four counties in the state. In the afterglow of Portman’s success, his campaign manager Corry Bliss was tapped to head the American Action Network, which aims to help House Republicans retain their majority in 2018.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin)
Johnson’s victory was one of the biggest Senate election shockers in recent years. He trailed in public polls throughout the campaign, prompting Democratic groups to cut back their advertising for former Sen. Russ Feingold after Labor Day. Johnson tweaked his campaign team and altered his message after Labor Day, sanding down his conservative image and touting his antipoverty outreach to African-American constituents. He ended up coming close to matching his 2010 victory margin, significantly outperforming Trump in the Milwaukee suburbs.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida)
The biggest turning point for Senate Republicans was when Rubio decided to run for reelection after all, following an aggressive recruiting push by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Rubio’s decision made the difference between winning and losing in Florida and freed up millions of dollars to spend in other battlegrounds. He showcased his debating chops in the campaign, nimbly arguing that Democrat Patrick Murphy was more loyal to Hillary Clinton than Rubio was to Trump. Meanwhile, Rubio strengthened his standing with Hispanic voters, running 13 points ahead of Trump among Latinos, according to exit polling.
Sen.-elect Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire)
Hassan was one of the few congressional Democrats to oust a sitting Republican member of Congress, by the narrowest of margins. Hassan’s campaign effectively exploited GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s tenuous relationship with Trump; despite Ayotte’s pragmatic record, she barely ran ahead of Trump among college-educated voters. Hassan’s decision to keep some distance from the Obama administration on national security issues also helped convince voters she would be an independent voice for the state.
Rep.-elect Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey)
If there was a candidate running on Bill Clinton’s coattails, it was Gottheimer. An alumnus of the Clinton administration, Gottheimer tapped his old White House contacts to become one of the House Democrats’ top fundraisers in the country. He outspent GOP Rep. Scott Garrett, who held this suburban New Jersey seat for 14 years despite a deeply conservative voting record out of sync with moderate-minded constituents. And Gottheimer won even though the district voted for Trump. His centrist message and crossover appeal should be a model for other congressional Democrats looking for a way out of the political wilderness.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Virginia)
With Northern Virginia televisions slammed with a slew of ads comparing Comstock to Trump, it looked as if it would be difficult for the GOP freshman to survive Trump headwinds in the D.C. suburbs. But Comstock ended up winning comfortably, running a whopping 11 points ahead of Trump in the district. She’s now being touted as a possible GOP challenger to Sen. Tim Kaine, who’s up for reelection in two years.
Rep.-elect Stephanie Murphy (D-Florida)
In a year when Republicans won by nominating a presidential novice, it shouldn’t have been surprising that a political outsider was one of the few Democratic challengers to oust a sitting GOP congressman. Murphy, who entered the race late and never had run for office before, is now the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress. She defeated 12-term Rep. John Mica, who was utterly unprepared to counter Murphy’s aggressive campaign after being drawn into a new district.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado)
Coffman has long been the model of how House Republicans win campaigns by appealing to voters outside the GOP base. He taught himself Spanish so he could better appeal to Hispanic voters in a redrawn district after 2012. In two elections since, he’s faced two of the top Democratic recruits in the country. And in both elections, he’s coasted to victory—by 9 points in a suburban Denver district that comfortably backed Clinton.
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minnesota)
A handful of House Republicans managed to win handily despite facing tough Democratic opposition. Others won districts that Clinton easily carried. Paulsen did both. He won 57 percent of the vote against state legislator Terri Bonoff, who unsuccessfully challenged him once before. And he ran 16 points ahead of Trump in his suburban Twin Cities district, one of the biggest gaps in targeted House races. Don’t expect Paulsen to face difficult opposition again in this seat.
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minnesota)
Minnesota’s Iron Range was Trump country this year, giving the GOP presidential nominee 54 percent of the vote after backing Barack Obama twice. But that didn’t stop Nolan from eking out his second straight victory over Republican Stewart Mills, surviving by a mere 2,011 votes. Nolan’s populist messaging was highly effective against Mills, whose profile as the wealthy scion of his family’s Fleet Farm stores wasn’t a good fit for the district.
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