Rep. Tom Emmer spent last Monday in a briefing on an email hack that plagued the National Republican Congressional Committee this year. As that news broke the next day, the incoming chairman faced a public back-and-forth with a fellow member who declared plans to play in primaries to combat the party’s dwindling number of women.
Meanwhile, lawyers prepared him for the increasing likelihood of a new election in a North Carolina district rocked by election-fraud allegations against a Republican operative.
“I’ve had a pretty interesting week,” Emmer said in an interview at the committee’s headquarters.
If 2020 proves to be a comeback year for House Republicans, the foundation for the successful cycle starts here in the midterm ashes and amid the fog of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into President Trump.
Emmer, who was just elected to a third term in Minnesota's 6th District, is more upbeat than some of his colleagues. Republicans in the lower chamber have begun a public hand-wringing over the future of the party after an electoral drubbing that handed Democrats dozens of districts in suburban areas that were once Republican strongholds.
The GOP lost 40 seats in all, with casualties from Seattle to San Diego to Miami to Maine, and generally in areas where the president is less popular.
“There’s a narrative that people are trying to build out there that somehow there’s been this shift, this political realignment in the suburbs,” Emmer said. “That’s not true. It isn’t there.”
Emmer's analysis of the midterms pins the blame on the Republican Party at large for failing to win over independent voters with a cohesive message on the booming economy. He stressed that the party’s focus on immigration in the final days repelled moderates, but he disputed attempts to fault the president specifically and pushed back on assumptions that Trump would be a liability in 2020.
“You’re definitely impacted, but you don’t rise or fall based on the executive,” he said. “You get to run your own race, but I think this is a customer-service business. You have to have your own independent brand.”
That sentiment isn’t shared across the Republican consultant class. Responding to Emmer’s comments, one pollster said it’s clear that women and suburban voters cast their midterm ballots based on how they felt about the president, and there is little reason to believe that either Trump or those voters will change their behaviors in two years. While it may be fixable, the pollster said, the party at least has to admit the problem.
Others agreed with Emmer that the party’s losses can’t wholly be blamed on a suburban realignment. One media consultant pointed to specific tactical errors by both the NRCC (not spending enough in some places, sinking too many resources elsewhere) and the Congressional Leadership Fund (unmemorable ads) that pushed Democratic gains higher.
As Republicans turn to recruitment, it's unclear whether Trump will hinder the party's efforts to rebuild. Emmer said he would begin enticing ousted members to run again in January. But in interviews with about a dozen of them, few sounded eager to mount comeback bids and some raised issues more deep-seated than the national environment.
Rep. Mike Bishop, a second-term Michigan Republican, said in an interview last month after his defeat that he was most concerned about the party’s appeal to women.
“They were generally dissatisfied and maybe even a little bit repelled by the Republican Party,” he said in an interview. “And we have to now be honest with ourselves and figure out what we need to do. So it’s up to these guys to figure it out.”
Some House Republicans have openly called for a thorough examination into their 2018 losses, but Emmer declined to say if there would be such an autopsy.
There are compelling signs that Trump proved to be a massive drag on Republicans, and that disadvantage could potentially increase as he wages a national reelection campaign, as House Democrats open multiple investigations into his administration, and as Mueller presumably wraps up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Democrats flipped all but three of the 25 GOP-held seats in districts won by Hillary Clinton, felling battle-tested incumbents such as Carlos Curbelo in South Florida and David Valadao in California's Central Valley.
Emmer said his target list will include many of the 31 Democrats in Trump-won seats. He identified Oklahoma's 5th District, Illinois's 14th District, New York's 11th and 22nd Districts, and Virginia's 2nd and 7th Districts as some obvious offensive opportunities. However, the majority of Trump-district Democrats are in predominantly urban and suburban seats where the president's popularity has tended to sag.
He intends to effect some structural change within the committee to allow for more member input, particularly in fundraising and recruitment. And he described plans to further decentralize NRCC operations through more-robust regional leadership teams that could divide some operations based on rural, suburban, and urban areas in each region.
“We’re regionalizing the NRCC,” he said. “We’re trying to take it closer to the Main Street that it represents, closer to the members themselves.”
He has already involved Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, the incoming minority leader and whip, in putting the NRCC leadership team together, and intends for them to participate heavily in fundraising and recruitment, comparing their roles to that of a board of directors.
“We’re asking them to be incredibly supportive of the program that we’re putting here, so they need to have ownership of it, and we’re trying to make sure that they feel like they have ownership of it,” Emmer said.
Other ideas include replicating the “suburban caucus” that former Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois created in the mid-2000s, and forming NRCC teams to focus on Texas and California, where Republicans lost a combined nine seats.
Republicans in the conference have called for an effort to match the success of ActBlue, the Democrats' online-fundraising platform. An in-house fundraising apparatus or an outside vendor could work, Emmer said, and members are already creating proposals.
They also want a review of the independent expenditure decision-making process. On calls to drum up support for the chairmanship, Emmer said he was inundated with complaints about the $5 million spent on TV ads to help Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia. It was the committee’s largest expenditure in any district, and Comstock lost by 12 points.
But Emmer has a few messages for his fellow Republicans, too. He said they must work their districts, raise campaign cash, give him a heads-up if they plan to retire, and, despite complaints, pay their NRCC dues for the good of the party’s policy priorities.
“You’re contributing because you want the opportunity to govern, because you believe in our agenda and you believe it will improve people’s lives,” Emmer said. “If you truly believe that, then grab ahold of the rope and pull it with me, because it takes a lot of resources to get that thing moving.”