With the final congressional election of the year now complete, it’s time to look back at the best and worst of the midterms. This column will focus on the lows—the biggest blunders by candidates and the most egregious tactical mistakes by party leaders.
1. The GOP’s decision to make the midterms a culture war rather than a referendum on the economy. After Republicans passed a package of tax cuts last year, top party strategists proclaimed it would be the centerpiece of the party’s midterm messaging. Instead, despite a booming economy, Republican candidates chose to talk more about immigration and other cultural grievances. It’s not a coincidence, then, that House Republicans in the suburbs nearly got wiped out.
2. Red-state Senate Democrats’ opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Four Senate Democrats lost reelection in states Donald Trump had carried in 2016, and all of them decided to oppose his second Supreme Court nominee. Their decisions marked a tipping point in the campaign, pushing once-competitive races in the GOP’s direction. The battle over Kavanaugh became less about his jurisprudence and more a national clash between Red and Blue America over deep-seated values. That wasn’t a fight that red-state Democratic senators like Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly were seeking.
3. The NRCC spending nearly $6 million to help embattled Rep. Barbara Comstock. Few moves generated more confusion than the House GOP campaign committee spending more money on behalf of Comstock than any other member of Congress. Representing a Washington D.C. suburb where Trump is deeply unpopular, Comstock looked vulnerable from the outset of the election cycle. Yet despite polling showing her down double-digits, the National Republican Congressional Committee kept investing in her candidacy. Even with the financial help, she lost by 12 points to Democrat Jennifer Wexton.
4. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp naming victims of sexual abuse in an ad without their permission. Heitkamp, one of the most well-liked senators, torched her image back home with this self-inflicted blunder. After taking heat for opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the Democratic senator tried to turn the tables on Republican Kevin Cramer. She took out a newspaper ad attacking Cramer for dismissing the allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, in a letter that was signed by dozens of victims. The only problem? Some didn’t give their permission for the senator to use their names, and others said they weren’t victims of abuse at all. Heitkamp was already trailing Cramer before the blunder. By Election Day, Heitkamp’s reputation had suffered, too. Only 43 percent of North Dakota voters viewed her favorably, according to exit polling, a steep decline from her bipartisan image of years past.
5. Rep. Joseph Crowley not showing up to campaign. The biggest primary upset of the year was largely a result of a congressman going AWOL in his district. Speaker-in-waiting Joseph Crowley skipped several debates against a then-unknown insurgent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That lack of basic constituent service was a factor in his stunning defeat against a candidate who has since become a progressive superstar.
6. Martha McSally tying herself to Trump. Arizona's McSally was the GOP’s strongest Senate recruit on paper. But as a candidate, she closely tied herself to a polarizing president—a move that was at odds with her record as a moderate congresswoman. That may have been the logical strategy in a competitive primary, but it didn’t make much sense in the general election. McSally didn’t just agree with Trump on policy. She also emulated his personal pugnaciousness, slamming the media for unfair coverage and even refusing to acknowledge home-state senator John McCain’s role in the 2017 defense authorization bill. It’s not a coincidence that Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won 12 percent of Arizona Republicans, many of them moderates who shared McCain’s brand of politics more than Trump’s.
7. The GOP not taking sides in West Virginia’s primary. The National Republican Senatorial Committee remained neutral in the primary race to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin—at least until disgraced coal baron Don Blankenship emerged as a possible nominee. But by failing to rally behind former Rep. Evan Jenkins, who represented the swing southern part of the state, Republicans missed a golden opportunity to defeat the popular senator. The GOP nominee, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, ended up with an abysmal 38/57 favorability rating, despite running in the solidly Republican state. Even with his baggage, he still came within 3 points of defeating Manchin. A more capable challenger would have pulled off the upset.
8. The Democrats’ Scott Wallace problem in Pennsylvania. House Democrats had a sterling recruiting class this year, but they made one glaring blunder in Pennsylvania. Instead of getting behind a female military veteran, they became enamored with a wealthy progressive philanthropist with tenuous ties to the swing suburban Philadelphia district he was running in. Scott Wallace poured millions of his own money into the campaign, but was dogged by a recorded comment in which he compared police to dogs (among other controversies). It’s not a coincidence that GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is one of only three (or four, pending the final tally in California-21) remaining House Republicans representing a district that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.