Not long before Election Day, the Associated Press ran a story headlined “House already won? Pelosi thinks so, and reaches for more.” The article said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so confident about keeping control of the House that she was preparing for an expanded Democratic majority. “Pelosi notes experts have suggested Democrats will pick up between five and 15 House seats,” the outlet reported. The speaker said her “goal originally was to hold the House,” but with the prospects of a big victory, “everything we get after that will just be a further enhancement.”
A week later, Pelosi and fellow Democratic leaders were stunned when the party not only did not pick up 15, or even five, seats but actually lost at least nine seats — the count is still going on in a few final races — and came dangerously close to losing the House altogether. The predictions that President Trump was a drag on Republicans and that the Left’s agenda was experiencing new popularity turned out to be wrong.
Progressives and more centrist House Democrats began to blame each other for the party’s lackluster performance. A leaked conference call that captured members kvetching made the front pages.
But the emphasis on Democratic unhappiness missed one very big point: House Republicans did really, really well in the 2020 campaign. They learned from past mistakes, ran smart races, and defied expectations. A performance like that does not happen by accident. So, instead of focusing on complaining Democrats, perhaps the GOP is the real story of the moment, and especially Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, the mastermind of the 2020 strategy, and the man who might one day become speaker.
“In graduate school, I always had to do SWOT analysis,” McCarthy said recently during a long conversation about the strategy. “Your strength, your weakness, your opportunities, and your threats.” For McCarthy, facing the 2020 elections, that meant thinking deeply about why Republicans fared so poorly in 2018, when Democrats picked up 41 seats to take control of the House and make Pelosi speaker. Yes, a new president historically loses seats in the first midterm election, and that was part of it. And yes, Republicans suffered from a record number of retirements. But beyond that, the GOP was outraised by ActBlue, the Left’s fundraising machine, which allowed Democrats to mount challenges in districts a less prosperous party might have skipped. Republicans lost on issues, too, specifically their disastrous vote to turn back Obamacare. “Healthcare killed us,” McCarthy said.
Then there was a certain uniformity in the party. At the 2019 State of the Union address, McCarthy sat in the audience on the Republican side and looked across the aisle to the Democratic side. “We were pretty much all white males,” he recalled. That look needed to change.
McCarthy was determined to overhaul GOP candidate recruitment. The party had to have more women, more minorities, and a general increase in candidate quality level. “We knew we could not recruit the same old candidates and expect a different result,” said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republican super PAC that worked closely with top GOP officials.
McCarthy prides himself on doing his homework. He approaches any campaign by looking into how candidates and parties won or lost in the past. For the 2020 race, he delved into the records of 1994, when Republicans took the majority; 2006, when Democrats won it back; and 2010, when Republicans won it back again. The first lesson he took from those races was that he needed more candidates. There are 435 seats in the House, all of them up for election every two years. Many of those seats are held by firmly entrenched incumbents. Sometimes, the opposition party doesn’t even bother to mount a challenge for those seats; some elections feature serious candidates in about 380 districts. But McCarthy found that to take the House, opposition Republicans needed to challenge Democrats virtually across the board. “In modern history, nobody wins a majority without at least 420 candidates,” he said. So, he would need not just good candidates, but a lot of them. “I believed you had to challenge everybody.”
Then, McCarthy looked into Democrats’ spending patterns, searching for points of weakness. What did their candidates spend money on? Was there a correlation between the spending and whether they won or lost? He knew that members of Congress were most vulnerable in their freshman and sophomore terms. During those years, they spend a lot of money communicating with voters in their home districts. But then things begin to change.
“When you come to office, you’re not on an ‘A’ committee, you work on everything, you spend about a quarter-million dollars communicating back home,” McCarthy explained. “By the time you get to your third term, the staff you brought from your district is burned out. They leave. You get the ‘A’ committee [assignment] you’ve been working on, and you think you need smarter staff. So, you spend more money on staff, and you start just focusing on the committee and the subcommittee. And in 10 years, five terms, the district has grown, and you pretty soon don’t spend any money back home. The correlation I got from that was to look at how much money people spend communicating back home, and you’ll see some early vulnerabilities.”
McCarthy also looked at the GOP’s own candidate-selection process. He found that women and minority candidates had a tougher time in the party primaries than they did in general elections, if they even made it to the general elections. So, he started supporting some of them earlier in the process. He created new fundraising machines, such as “Take Back the House” and “Win Red,” to challenge Democrats in seeking online contributions. He raised a billion dollars online in just 15 months.
McCarthy began sending that money to potentially vulnerable Republican candidates before it was even clear that they were vulnerable. “I was starting to make disbursements to my current members who had won a race with 55% or less — I’d give them $100,000 a quarter,” he said. The idea was to make sure they had more cash on hand when financial reports were filed, a show of strength that might scare off potential challengers. Candidates who had more money were also less likely to consider retiring, something that had killed GOP hopes in the past.
Meanwhile, Win Red was kicking in. “If you look at a number of our candidates, they started beating their opponents in online fundraising in the last quarter,” McCarthy noted. “And if you look at two years before, we were getting crushed.”
With that new financial structure in place, McCarthy approached people he wanted to see run for the House. Some had run before and shown promise, while others were new. He called Young Kim in California; Maria Salazar and Carlos Gimenez in Florida; Nicole Malliotakis in New York; Ashley Hinson in Iowa. All ran, and all ended up winning.
In the effort, McCarthy had a strong alliance with the White House, built on near-daily phone conversations with the president. One day, McCarthy brought up Gimenez, his favored candidate in Florida’s 26th Congressional District. Gimenez, who did not vote for Trump in 2016, was facing a difficult primary, but McCarthy believed he was the only candidate who could go on to win the general election. “I remember calling the president one day,” McCarthy said. “I’m talking about Carlos, and he says, ‘I like that guy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I’ve just got to tell you, he voted against you, but he’s with you this time.’ [Trump] said, ‘I really like him; he’s a good man.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re flying to Miami today, and he’s going to be on the tarmac. I need you to endorse him because he’s the only one who can win.’ He said, ‘Is he really with me?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, have him tweet something so everybody knows. I’m gonna endorse him, and I’ll do more.'”
Trump kept his word, and Gimenez became the representative-elect for Florida’s 26th. In Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, the seat vacated by the retirement of Republican Rep. Will Hurd, another Republican, Tony Gonzales, won a close election in a seat Democrats believed they would pick up. It was because of Trump, McCarthy said: “Tony would never have won had the president not endorsed. Democrats thought that was a safe seat.”
Trump also came up with something McCarthy called a “secret weapon” in the race. Meeting with the president, McCarthy discussed how the coronavirus had made traditional rallies impossible. Trump suggested doing telephone rallies with individual candidates that thousands of people could listen to. McCarthy gave him a list of 53 districts with information on each, and Trump held the calls, both when ballots first went out and later in the race. “This guy was a workaholic,” McCarthy said of the president. “He called me from the hospital with COVID.”
All of that, along with the president’s presence on the ballot, added to the power of the GOP appeal. “When the president wasn’t on the ballot, we lost seats,” McCarthy said. “When the president was on the ballot, we won seats — in Miami, in California, in New York, Iowa, Minnesota.”
Then there was the question of how to frame the Democrats. McCarthy watched the members of “the Squad” and other prominent Democrats and decided to start calling them socialists. But other Republicans wanted to go further and call them communists. “I remember having this fight with the president, and also with [GOP Rep.] Liz Cheney, because they started calling them communists,” McCarthy recalled. McCarthy called the president and met with Cheney and asked them to stop with the communist stuff. “They said, ‘Why?'” McCarthy recounted. “And I said, ‘Because you’ve jumped the shark. Their policies are socialist. There are Democrats who call themselves socialists. There is Bernie Sanders. But communists — the country thinks that’s too far. The Soviet Union broke up.” So, “socialists” it was.
For the actual policy core of the campaign, Republicans came up with what they called the “Commitment to America.” It was a plan to defeat the coronavirus, make the streets safer with more funding for police, build the economy with the addition of 10 million new jobs, cut taxes for small businesses, and more. They took three words Trump had been using a lot — rebuild, restore, and renew — and began calling them the Three R’s. Then, they contrasted them with what they called the Democrats’ Three D’s: defund, destroy, and dismantle. It was not only popular with the Republican base, GOP strategists found, but it also moved the needle in a positive direction with independents.
All that put Republicans in a strong position to exploit Democratic mistakes. When Rep. Ilhan Omar said that support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins,” the party failed to take any meaningful action against her. When Republican Rep. Steve King made comments about white supremacy, McCarthy quickly stripped him of committee assignments. “They would not stand up and control their own problems,” McCarthy said. Neither could Democratic leaders keep control of members who flirted with ideas such as defunding the police. “They allowed the socialists to go forward,” McCarthy said, “and when I would call them socialists, they would fall into the trap.”
Democrats also made mistakes on the issues side. “Their candidates did not utter a word except ‘Donald Trump’ and ‘preexisting conditions,'” noted Conston. “Those were things that were highly motivating for people who were already going to vote for Democrats, but not to people who were in the middle.”
Finally, Democrats were hampered by Pelosi’s deep anger toward Trump. She held up coronavirus relief to hurt the president, McCarthy believes, and even rebuffed some of her own members who were part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus because they wanted to work with the White House. Pelosi knew it might hurt some Democrats at the polls, McCarthy noted, “but she was willing to take that risk because she hated Trump so much.”
Put all the factors together, and Pelosi nearly lost her majority. Though a few races remain undecided, it appears Democrats have lost at least nine seats, after predictions she would pick up as many as 15. Republicans didn’t just get lucky in a few races. They blew up the predictions. Before the race, the Cook Political Report listed 27 House races as toss-ups. In a normal year, both parties would win a share of the toss-ups. This year, Republicans won all 27 of them.
In the end, Republicans believe they will have 211 seats, although they might have as many as 213. That means Pelosi will have somewhere between 222 and 224 seats. Remember that it takes 218 votes to pass something in the House, and it is clear just how narrow the Democratic majority will be. Pelosi will be able to lose just a handful of her members and still prevail in a party-line vote. Democrats on the ideological fringes will have more power because Pelosi will need their support to pass anything.
Short of an actual GOP takeover of the House, which Republicans believe is coming in 2022, the result left McCarthy and his fellow members encouraged and full of energy. They will have more power to shape legislation and stop measures they view as unacceptable. Pelosi will have to take their position into account in every calculation. McCarthy is still minority leader, but he will be a stronger, more assertive minority leader.
If Republicans are able to keep control of the Senate, the House results mean a President Biden will face the opposition party in control of one house of Congress and his Democratic allies in weakened control of the other. Of course, Republicans wanted to win it all. But as a result of McCarthy’s planning, and the work of GOP strategists, together with the push provided from an ever-present Trump, Republicans are in a strong position to shape the new Washington.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner and a Fox News contributor.