House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (The New York Times/File)
The message from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, was urgent and unsparing. In a meeting with Republican lawmakers before they left Washington for the August congressional recess, McCarthy warned that time was running short: Unless they intensified their campaign efforts and forcefully delivered a coherent message, he said, Republicans would suffer grievous losses in November.
Instead of arresting their political decline, House Republicans proved unable at every turn to stay ahead of their troubles — including many of their own making.
By Labor Day, Republicans were fatally unprepared for an onslaught of Democratic campaign spending that overwhelmed their candidates from South Florida to Seattle. Party leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House soon turned on one another and against their candidates with growing intensity. Two key groups — the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s campaign arm in the House, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a powerful Republican super PAC — plunged into all but open warfare over messaging and money.
Democrats, in turn, delivered a message about health care with the repetitive force of a jackhammer. They cracked congressional maps drawn to favor Republicans and seized an array of open seats, while also felling longtime incumbents who had grown complacent.
And in the end, President Donald Trump may have delivered the final blow to his party across the diverse and growing metropolitan communities that decided control of the House. In the last weeks of the campaign, Trump cast aside a positive Republican message about economic prosperity in favor of stoking racial panic about immigration — with appeals that veered into overt racism, alienating moderate swing voters and further enraging Democrats.
Republicans lost control of the House Tuesday night after eight years in power, with Democrats picking up seats in several suburban districts where the party traditionally did well. But if House Republicans were badly shaken by their defeat, few party leaders were genuinely surprised at the nature of their losses. In interviews with dozens of lawmakers, campaign strategists, activists and donors in both parties, a clear consensus emerged about the arc of the 2018 election.
It was a campaign defined early by Trump’s divisive persona and hard-right ideology, and by Republican leaders’ unswerving decision to align themselves with Trump and his overwhelmingly white, rural base rather than politically vulnerable moderates in Congress who hailed from the country’s population centers and represented the political middle.
A campaign of retribution against Republicans who did not pledge fealty to Trump — and to Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s legislative agenda — triggered an exodus of senior legislators that opened the way for a Democratic takeover.
— The Republican Exodus
Rep. Ed Royce of California was not the first Republican to decide he would not run for re-election in 2018. But his announcement, in January, was the warning bell that tolled most ominously for Republican leaders.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Royce held a quickly diversifying Orange County seat that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 even as it re-elected him. But he told colleagues that he bitterly resented the fruitless, politically damaging health care debate, and announced his retirement in a statement that took the NRCC by surprise.
Within weeks, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, followed suit. Though he had pledged to seek re-election, Frelinghuysen was incensed over the way Ryan treated him during the tax overhaul debate — the speaker, Frelinghuysen told associates, had threatened to eject him from his chairmanship.
“He was appropriations chair, and there were lots of people trying to tell him what he could and couldn’t do as appropriations chair,” said Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, the head of the NRCC. “At that point you’re not as much of a chair.”
With their pursuit of an orthodox conservative agenda on health care and taxes, Republican leaders split their party, driving moderate lawmakers into retirement and handing Democrats their most powerful issue of the campaign season — defending popular insurance coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act.
By last spring, more than 40 House Republicans were leaving the chamber. In the Senate, two Republicans alienated by Trump, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, also quit in frustration.
But the most stunning exit was Ryan’s. After alienating senior colleagues with legislative arm-twisting and committing his conference to a hard-line agenda that left them gravely vulnerable, Ryan announced abruptly in April that he was retiring.
Ryan’s decision left the Republican conference in a baleful mood — and enraged senior White House aides and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader.
“He thought it was selfish,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s top political adviser, recalling the lawmaker’s reaction to Ryan’s announcement: “If he wanted to leave, he could leave after the election. He let all his guys hang out to dry.”
— A White House in Disorder
Trump’s capricious approach to politics was destabilizing for Republicans up and down the ballot, leaving candidates exposed to the president’s whims and grievances and the machinations of White House advisers. Rather than approaching the midterm campaign as a task of holding together a political coalition and steering it to victory, Trump focused chiefly on rewarding perceived friends — and punishing those who crossed him.
He helped drive two senators, Corker and Flake, into retirement, castigating them in humiliating terms online and driving up their unpopularity with Republicans. In gubernatorial elections, Trump helped anoint highly divisive nominees in states like Florida and Georgia — where the national GOP had to burn millions staving off defeat — and Kansas, where Trump’s favored candidate, Kris Kobach, was defeated by a Democrat, Laura Kelly.
In other cases, Trump’s associates lashed out at Republican candidates who failed to prostrate themselves sufficiently. When Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa issued a supportive statement about a renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, a White House aide sharply rebuked a strategist for Reynolds’ campaign — because the governor did not praise Trump by name in her comment. And because of the perceived slight, Trump’s aides dropped plans for the president to headline a fundraiser for the governor, instead insisting that the event be held for the Iowa Republican Party.
The president’s relative political inexperience also left him open to manipulation by aides and allies with agendas of their own. When a group of lawmakers and White House aides lobbied Trump to endorse Rep. Raul Labrador, a hard-liner running for governor in Idaho, supporters of a competing candidate, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, sprang into action. They assembled footage of Labrador criticizing Trump during the 2016 primary, when he was backing Sen. Ted Cruz, and steered it to the West Wing.
The endorsement was off. The day after Idaho’s primary, Trump phoned the triumphant Little and, unaware of the tape’s genesis, asked: “Did you see that video?”
For members of the House, Trump was most burdensome mainly because of a mercurial approach to policy that left them unable to map legislation or political messaging in a coherent way. In one instance, Trump aggressively pushed members to vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act — and then, after a private dinner with Democrats in the middle of June, publicly derided Republicans’ health care legislation as “mean.”
—Democrats Find a Message
Nancy Pelosi did not want to talk about Planned Parenthood.
It was a meeting of House Democrats early in 2017, during Republicans’ drive that March to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi and her political lieutenants laid out their counterattack: Democrats would talk about pre-existing conditions and millions of people losing coverage. And they would talk about an “age tax” — a provision in the Obamacare replacement passed by the House, which would have allowed health insurers to widen the premium gap between younger and older customers.
Pelosi acknowledged it would require restraint from Democrats. In her own San Francisco district, she said, people wanted her to fight the health care battle over funding for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid. “Those things are in our DNA, but they are not in our talking points,” Pelosi became fond of saying, according to a close associate.
That narrow focus on health care and a few economic issues came to define the Democrats’ midterm campaign. It represented a wholesale rejection of Clinton’s failed strategy in the 2016 campaign, which focused on Trump’s fitness for office.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview that it had been challenging to break the habit of responding with reflexive, public outrage to Trump’s utterances, especially as those utterances grew increasingly inflammatory. On a campaign swing in his home state the weekend before the election, Luján said Democratic leaders envisioned a starkly different path to victory, noting that in 2016 a character-driven campaign “didn’t work.” But the temptation persisted.
“Every time he would say something or tweet something, it would come back: ‘We need to come right back at him! Define him!’” Luján recalled. “We would say: Look, we don’t need to talk about him, he’s going to do it himself. We need to continue to have a conversation with the American people about kitchen-table issues.”
Last weekend, the gulf between the two parties — in strategy and message, in political tenacity and internal cohesion — could not have been greater. Meeting with campaign donors in San Francisco, Pelosi declared confidently that the House majority would soon be in Democratic hands. Next up, she said, would be a “huge amount of work to repair the fabric of the country,” according to a person in attendance who paraphrased her comments.
Campaigning in Georgia for Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor, Trump delivered a message with all the subtlety of an arsonist’s house fire, accusing Democrats of seeking to inflict “more crime and more caravans” upon the country.