How Democrats — And Republicans — Made 2018 A Blue Wave (When It Almost Wasn't)

Yes. It was a wave.
NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) is drawing flak for how the committee handled the midterms.
NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) is drawing flak for how the committee handled the midterms.
Bill Clark via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― As more votes are counted and more seats flip from red to blue, it’s becoming undeniable that Democrats not only benefited from a wave election, they converted a modest advantage into impressive House gains.

Democrats could have done a lot worse with what will shake out to be about a 7-point nationwide advantage in the House popular vote, flipping somewhere between 35 and 40 seats when all the ballots are counted and recounted.

Or maybe it’s more that Republicans could have done a lot better.

While the GOP staved off its worst-case outcome of a flipped Senate and a Democratic House majority in the 240s or 250s, what will ultimately separate a not-that-bad kind of night for Republicans from “Oh, wow, this is actually a lot worse for Republicans than we initially thought” is a couple of points in a dozen races.

And while a couple points in any race isn’t a given, Republicans seemed to hamper themselves through a number of bizarre campaign decisions. Those started at the very top of their political arm with the National Republican Campaign Committee and went all the way down to small but consequential decisions in individual races.

The decisions have baffled other Republican strategists, and set off a wave of finger-pointing at NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers and one of his top lieutenants, John Rogers.

“Anyone who knows how party committees are supposed to be run would be incredibly disappointed with the committee this cycle, and especially Stivers,” said one former top NRCC aide.

“I don’t know a single Republican group that thinks the NRCC did their job this cycle,” said a GOP consultant with close ties to the White House.

What’s irking Republicans is a number of recruitment failures, strategic decisions and questionable spending moves ― the most questionable of which was giving $5 million to doomed Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia.

Hillary Clinton won Comstock’s district by 10 points in 2016, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam improved on that margin in the 2017 governor’s race. The suburban, diverse, affluent, educated composition of the electorate was ripe for a Democratic pickup. Republicans knew that. And yet, it looks like the NRCC spent more on defending that seat than any other ― a seat it ended up losing by 12 points.

To put that $5 million decision in context, that’s more money than what the NRCC spent on all the California Republicans in tough races combined ― and there were almost a dozen close races in California.

Republicans may end up holding on to most of those seats, or about half of them, depending on how the late ballots come in. But we already know at least two members have lost in extraordinarily close fashion in California: Dana Rohrabacher and Steve Knight, with Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters and Young Kim also looking shaky.

At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a GOP strategist who thinks putting $5 million into Comstock’s race was a good idea when you could have put that money into California. But you would have also had difficulty finding many strategists outside of the NRCC who thought such a decision was good at basically any point during the cycle.

Corry Bliss, the head of the House GOP’s super PAC, never put money into the race, seemingly believing it was a lost cause. Meanwhile, the NRCC communications director was on Fox News on Election Day touting the belief that Comstock could win.

The NRCC also spent lavishly on Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, another Republican in a district that Clinton won by 10 points. Coffman ended up losing by 9 points. And the committee chased after a mirage seat in Florida, one that was represented by retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. That district went for Clinton by an astounding 19 points, but the NRCC thought the Democrat vying for the open seat, Donna Shalala was weak, so it poured $1.5 million into the race only to lose by 8 points.

Democratic strategists think the money was an attempt to distract from districts slipping away from the GOP, a shiny golden ring it was never going to get.

“It was a $1.5 million talking point,” said Tyler Law, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national press secretary.

In an adjacent district in Florida held by GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the NRCC booked a large ad buy in July ― campaign committees typically book airtime in expensive districts over the summer to get cheaper rates. It then canceled the buy in September, only to rebook it a day later. The switcheroo cost the campaign committee $600,000 because of the higher cost closer to the election.

“You know who could’ve used $600,000? Karen Handel and Mia Love,” the former NRCC aide said, referring to two Republicans who were vastly outspent and narrowly lost their seats.

Still, the NRCC believes its efforts tamped down a blue wave.

“We stand behind our decisions and are proud of our record fundraising and spending,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman told HuffPost. “Our efforts were crucial at mitigating losses in a tough environment.”

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) delivers her concession speech after being defeated by state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) in Virginia's 10th District race. The NRCC spent $5 million on Comstock, confounding many Republican strategists.
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) delivers her concession speech after being defeated by state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D) in Virginia's 10th District race. The NRCC spent $5 million on Comstock, confounding many Republican strategists.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s true that it was a tough environment for Republicans. President Donald Trump’s unpopularity was probably always going to lead to Democratic pickups. Democrats will win the popular vote for the House by about 7 points, and when everything shakes out, they’ll hold between 53 and 54 percent of House seats, meaning they’ll have converted their small electoral advantage incredibly efficiently, despite natural geographic disadvantages and gerrymandering.

Democrats did about as well as they could in converting their votes to seats.

Of course, Democrats also spent millions on a number of seats they didn’t flip. The DCCC touts that it spent at least $100,000 on 80 seats, trying to build the largest battlefield possible, but that also means it gave to dozens of failed candidates.

The DCCC counters that its spending on losing candidates vastly paled in comparison to the amounts it gave to winning candidates, and that its spending was about putting Republicans on defense, not the other way around.

“We have the best polling and analytics team in the country, and that allowed us to make efficient spending decisions,” Law told HuffPost.

But Law and Meredith Kelly, the DCCC’s communications director, touted much more than their spending successes and the NRCC’s failures. As much flak as the DCCC took for playing in primaries, the committee ultimately thinks its endorsements and spending in the California primaries ― where the jungle system can potentially lock out a Democrat if the candidate is not a top-two vote-getter ― were crucial.

While the NRCC has a hard rule against endorsing and giving to candidates in primaries for open seats, Bliss’ group, the Congressional Leadership Fund, threatened to get into the California primaries and make trouble for Democrats. Instead, the group sat it out. The DCCC thought that was a misstep, pointing to how a small amount of money during the primary can pay dividends later with a stronger candidate.

In another primary, in New Jersey’s Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District, both Republican groups stayed out, allowing Republican Seth Grossman to defeat three other GOP contenders. Little did they know, the Democratic opposition research group American Bridge had footage from an April candidate forum where Grossman called diversity “a bunch of crap and un-American.”

Bridge quickly released the footage to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The next month, after Grossman repeatedly tried to clean up his comments ― at one point, he listed off his favorite types of ethnic food ― the NRCC revoked its election-night endorsement of the candidate.

In the end, Democrat Jeff Van Drew defeated Grossman by a 52 percent to 46 percent margin.

And the DCCC believes it won on messaging. The GOP strategy of localizing races became virtually impossible with Trump, and Democrats effectively and consistently ran on health care while neutralizing the tax issue.

“Plain and simple, Democrats overperformed the national environment,” Law said. “That started with recruiting great candidates and playing in complex primaries, but we also made the right spending decisions and won the messaging war on health care and taxes. At every one of those steps, we were beating Republicans.”

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