Tom Emmer attempts to temper Republican optimism over House rout

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Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) knew he had a problem when Newt Gingrich ran for the House GOP retreat in Florida in March.

Gingrich led the 1994 midterm blast that helped Republicans win 54 seats and their first majority in 40 years, the kind of midterm result today’s GOP lawmakers seemed to think possible. , given President Biden’s miserable job approval and inflation continues to soar.

As chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee, Emmer had to live up to expectations. “I am convinced that we will find ourselves in the majority. But what that number is, we’ll let the voters tell us,” he recalled telling his colleagues.

It also tried to explain a bit about modern political science, alleviating a growing sense of irrational exuberance among some Republicans and utter desperation among some Democrats. There are many more less competitive seats now than there were in the 1990s, before redistricting became a science.

Additionally, voters have become so polarized that straight party voting has become the norm, resulting in fewer seats swinging back and forth, according to Charlie Cook, an independent election analyst. Republicans won more than 10 House seats in the 2020 election even as Joe Biden won the presidential popular vote by more than 7 million. This historical anomaly has left Emmer on the brink of a majority precipice, necessitating a net gain of five seats, but it also means there are few seats up for grabs for Republicans.

“Just as seat ‘A’ on an airliner is always a window seat, a party cannot lose a seat it does not have. In modern times, big wave elections have tended to come from a party well behind in seats,” Cook wrote in the National Journal.

Emmer blanched in November when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), after big GOP gains in off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey, predicted that the midterms of this year could be “more competitive” than the 2010 blowout in which Republicans swung 63 places.

“He came back pretty quickly,” Emmer said, declining to say whether he had asked McCarthy to recall his predictions.

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Emmer has taken to citing three statistics for his fellow Republicans and donors: A gain of 18 seats would give the GOP a larger majority than in Gingrich’s first days as president in 1995; a 30-seat gain would be a bigger majority than after the GOP’s historic gains in 2010; and a 35-seater van would create their biggest majority in over 90 years.

In Florida, Emmer mocked Gingrich for his overhyped predictions. “He can use any number he wants to use with this big brain,” Emmer recalled, telling his colleagues.

Aside from his thick white hair, Emmer couldn’t be more different from Professor Gingrich. Emmer, 61, in his fourth term representing the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis, casts himself as a classic Midwestern politician.

His hockey gear from a recent charity game is strewn all over his corner office at the NRCC. He wears a St. Cloud State University golf shirt and can tell the recent history of hockey teams in the NCAA Hockey Tournament.

Emmer, in his second term at the helm of the campaign, did not memorize all the names of his top candidates – “I forget his name”, he said of a favorite candidate, “how is her name?” – and cannot shake all the districts in contention. He’s not a data expert, unlike his counterpart, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who once built a database analyzing 350 unique characteristics of House races. .

Emmer is conservative but not flamboyant, unlike his predecessor, former Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R), who favored the cable news ideological war. After supporting an initial lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election, Emmer voted to certify Biden’s victory.

But his attitude belies a sharp study of history. He understands how today’s political battles are mostly fought near midfield, between the two parties’ 40-yard lines, maybe even their 45-yard lines.

“Big majorities from the past, now the next 10 years, they’re going to be adjusted, probably smaller,” Emmer said.

While he wants to set expectations properly, Emmer is still trying to build an operation that can maximize every possible GOP opportunity.

The NRCC’s target list begins with 16 districts that Donald Trump won in 2020 but are now held by Democrats, some of whom are much more pro-GOP after the redistricting. There are 11 more seats Democrats hold in districts Biden won by less than 5 percentage points.

After that, Emmer warns his colleagues, Republicans stretch deep into Democratic territory: about 17 seats Biden won by between 5 and 10 points, and another 31 he won by more than 10 points.

These “reach” seats will test how polarized the electorate is, because if political minds are truly set in stone, it’s very difficult to win seats such as those held by Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif. ), whose Biden district won by 11 percentage points, and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), whose Biden district won by more than 15 points.

Still, Emmer touts them as possible gains, noting that four years ago they were held by longtime GOP incumbents. “These are seats that were held by Republicans until recently. These are seats that both candidates ran as moderate problem solvers who were going to come to Washington, D.C., and do something with the Republicans,” he said, noting Porter’s liberal voting record is out of step with Orange County.

In the last wave of House elections, in 2018, Democrats won more than 40 seats and secured a majority as independent voters in the suburbs balked at Donald Trump’s erratic style in the White House.

According to Cook’s analysis, Democrats won seven seats in districts where Trump two years earlier had won by at least 10 points – including five claimed Republicans in 2020.

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Republicans believe they will win some of those big Biden fringe seats. According to Emmer, the NRCC conducted seven polls in the most competitive districts and found that independent voters and GOP voters have the same priorities: inflation, the economy and crime.

Democratic voters, he said, have focused on climate change and the coronavirus pandemic as their top issues.

“Voters are not so polarized. In fact, Republicans and Independents are almost – well not almost – Republicans and Independents, the Independents who will determine who controls the House, are perfectly aligned,” he said.

Emmer takes a tougher stance against the insurgents who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, than most GOP leaders, but he thinks the select committee’s ongoing investigation doesn’t move the middle voters who will decide. nearest the races.

“I’ll tell you from a policy standpoint, we’ve looked at this across the country. The issues that matter most to people are inflation and the economy,” he said.

It’s clear that Trump remains such a wild card that many Republican candidates would rather the ex-president stay away from their races, especially those in the suburbs.

Yet Republicans still can’t say it out loud.

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“He makes his own decisions. He does his own thing when it comes to different candidates and incumbents,” Emmer said of Trump.

Emmer still remembers the bitter feeling he felt during the first GOP caucus meeting after the 2020 election, when, against all odds, his side won seats.

If about 35,000 votes had gone the other way in five races, Emmer would have had a majority. He didn’t understand the standing ovation his colleagues gave him, likening it to being happy to make it to the Super Bowl, like his beloved Minnesota Vikings, who lost the big game four times. .

“Are they all Vikings fans just happy to be in the big game? You lost, you finished second. So the goal here is to finish it,” Emmer said.

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