AGAINST THE GRAIN

The 10 Best Congressional Campaigns of 2016

Successful candidates developed their own brands, sidestepping the craziness at the top of their tickets.

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio speaks to supporters after winning reelection on Nov. 8 in Columbus.
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 20, 2016, 8:20 p.m.

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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