Against the Grain

The Shrewdest Political Plays of 2018

From Democrats running on health care to Rick Scott’s Hispanic outreach in Florida, here are the decisions that made the difference in the midterms.

California congressional candidate TJ Cox attends at the Take It Back California event where former President Obama campaigns in support of California congressional candidates on Sept. 8 in Anaheim, Calif.
AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Dec. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

Last week, I wrote about the biggest campaign blunders of the midterm elections. This week, in the spirit of holiday cheer, I’m focused on the smartest political plays from both the campaigns and outside groups.

1. Democrats avoiding the Trump temptation. Even as Republicans eagerly equated the Democratic Party to the progressive resistance, the messaging from most Democratic candidates was disciplined and focused on issues—namely health care—that directly affect voters’ lives. Very few of the Democratic campaign ads even mentioned Trump. House Democratic operatives understood that none of their voters needed to be reminded of the president’s flaws; their anti-Trump base was showing up regardless of how the campaigns transpired. And Senate Democratic officials appreciated that most of their vulnerable senators were running in conservative states where the president still is fairly popular.

2. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's California power play. Because of California’s unique all-party primary system, Democrats faced a real risk of losing some of their most winnable races back in June. In certain contests, they had too many candidates running, with the divided Democratic vote threatening to shut their candidates out of the November ballot. The DCCC worked aggressively to avoid that outcome, endorsing favored candidates, encouraging others to drop out, and even arranging a truce between two feuding candidates. They also organized early in the state, dispatching full-time staff to Orange County in early 2017 and spent money to target low-propensity Hispanic voters in battleground districts.

The maneuvering worked. Democrats netted seven seats in the state, well beyond their own expectations. The onetime conservative heartland of Orange County is now entirely represented by Democrats in Congress. And they urged one candidate, T.J. Cox, to run in a tougher race against GOP Rep. David Valadao instead of a more-crowded Democratic field against GOP Rep. Jeff Denham. Cox is now headed to Washington, winning one of the biggest upsets of the election against the battle-tested Republican congressman.

3. Rick Scott’s early and aggressive outreach to Hispanics. Scott’s decision to run for the Senate was itself a huge political risk, given how difficult the overall political environment was for Republicans. He pulled off the upset victory thanks to his early outreach to Hispanic voters, who (in a glaring exception to the national trend) turned significantly more Republican since the 2016 presidential election. Scott won 45 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote, a 10-point improvement from Trump’s victorious performance in 2016.

The improvement was no accident. Despite all the GOP’s vulnerabilities on immigration, Scott campaigned relentlessly for Hispanic votes. He traveled to Puerto Rico eight times during the year, a sign of his commitment to the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. He aired Spanish-language ads during the World Cup introducing himself to new Puerto Rican voters displaced from the storm. His hawkish views on Cuba and Venezuela won him widespread support from the exile communities. All told, Scott ran a masterful campaign while benefiting from widespread Democratic neglect towards these politically significant constituencies.

4. The National Republican Senate Committee's recruitment of Kevin Cramer in the North Dakota Senate race. Cramer wasn’t always seen as a grade-A recruit, given his propensity for gaffes and relatively short tenure in the House. But Republicans rightly understood that a candidate with statewide name identification and a record of working with Trump was precisely what the party needed to defeat well-liked Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. In the end, the race wasn’t even close: Cramer won by an 11-point margin, finishing the race with a much higher favorability score than the embattled incumbent.

5. Mike Bloomberg’s investment on long-shot candidates. Bloomberg was an unheralded asset for House Democrats, with 21 of the 24 Democratic candidates he invested in prevailing. He was the largest Democratic spender in some of the biggest upsets in the country, offering critical assistance to Reps.-elect Lucy McBath of Georgia, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, and Lauren Underwood of Illinois. We’ll see if those investments will lead to some early supporters as he mulls a 2020 presidential campaign.

6. Senate Democrats’ sneak attack against Evan Jenkins in West Virginia. A mysterious Democratic super PAC popped up during the West Virginia Senate primary that focused almost all of its attacks against the GOP congressman Jenkins. The Duty and Country super PAC spent over $1.8 million in ads against Jenkins—and likely made a difference in state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s narrow 6-point win in the primary. This move was reminiscent of Senate Democrats boosting Todd Akin in a contested 2012 Missouri Senate primary, but got much less national attention.

Democrats were right to worry about Jenkins. He won elections in his district by attracting registered Democrats who were stalwart Trump supporters. He reflected the state’s populist brand of conservatism much more effectively than Morrisey. And Manchin was clearly vulnerable, only prevailing with 49.6 percent of the vote.

7. Mike Braun’s outsider play. Braun understood that given today’s antiestablishment political mood, it’s good not to be a congressman. Facing two members from the state’s congressional delegation, Braun smartly did everything he could to portray himself as the outsider—even going to debates without a tie to cultivate a more informal image.

Starting out as the underdog, he won the primary against Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer with 41 percent of the vote. And in the general election, he easily beat expectations of a close contest against Sen. Joe Donnelly, winning by a comfortable 6-point margin.

8. The relentless independence of the moderate Republican governors. Despite the blue wave, Republicans won governor races in some of the most unlikely places: Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, and even New Hampshire. While it’s easier to stake an independent record as a governor, these Republicans still had to worry about the anti-Trump mood in their blue states coming back to haunt them. They managed to inoculate themselves by governing to the middle, criticizing Trump when appropriate, and got a little luck in drawing less-than-imposing Democratic challengers.

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