Democrats Underestimated Kevin McCarthy at their Own Risk
2020 was supposed to be a practical coronation for Nancy Pelosi. Polls showed her dramatically expanding her majority in the House as this was supposed to be a banner year for the Democrats. However, something happened on the way to a 50-seat majority for the San Francisco liberal. The GOP turned the tables on Pelosi and took back many of the seats that they lost in 2018. Now, they are only a few seats away from recapturing the House and would appear to be strong favorites to finish the job in the next election cycle. So what happened that allowed the Republicans to make major inroads in the House?
The Base Plus Sound Strategy Sent Democrats Home
Of course, President Trump's masterful strategy of turning out the base worked brilliantly in districts with Republican majorities. However, there was another difference between this year and 2018. The GOP's smashing success in the down ballot races started with a skillfully crafted strategy from Kevin McCarthy, who is one of the most underrated politicians of our times.
McCarthy clearly did his homework trying to figure out how to bring the Republicans closer to the majority after 2018. The first part of his strategy was candidate recruitment, and McCarthy personally helped turn out one of the strongest classes of GOP recruits that rivals the Class of 2014. He helped select the right candidates tailored to each district and local preferences. In some ways, McCarthy masterfully exploited the gaps between the wings of the Democratic Party.
The Republicans were clearly up against a juggernaut. Act Blue rained money down on practically every single race in the country, and Republicans were dramatically outspent. Democrats not only had the advantage of incumbency, but challengers were running in districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Instead, they ran into a brick wall and lost every closely contested House race.
One of the major changes that McCarthy made was in the type of candidates that he recruited to run. Besides the normal group of veterans and business leaders, McCarthy diversified the ranks of GOP candidates. From Burgess Owens in Utah to Nancy Mace in South Carolina, McCarthy changed the pattern of white men representing the GOP. He knew that this race would have a strong turnout among women and wanted to have candidates that could be competitive. This promises to be a sea change in the way that the Republicans run races and recruit candidates in the future.
In addition, McCarthy also broadened the playing field and forced the Democrats to spend more money. One of his ideas was to run candidates in nearly House race across the country no matter the district. Even if an incumbent did not face stout opposition, they still had to work and spend money to defend their district. Having a robust slate of candidates presented an image that the Republicans were prepared to contest control of the House.
McCarthy Made the Election About "The Squad" and it Worked
In a way, the Democrats' defeat was also a function of messaging. McCarthy found a way to use President Trump's popularity among Republicans to the candidates advantage while shifting the message. Now, each Democratic candidate became a personification of Ilhan Omar and AOC. Of course, The Squad helped and did some of the Republicans' work for them by simply not shutting up during the campaign.
At the same time, McCarthy held back more strident elements of the Republican Party who were describing The Squad's message in more extreme terms. He targeted the message of them as Socialists. In the end, this is what helped the GOP makes inroads among Latino voters and others who were afraid of the full scope of the Democrats' programs. With the Democrats focused solely on Trump, McCarthy was able to win the messaging war.
Many thought that the Democratic majority was close to permanent. Instead, thanks to McCarthy and his strategic execution, the Republicans are close to taking back the House. McCarthy is only a handful of seats away from taking the Speaker's gavel from Pelosi. With redistricting and a midterm election, it would seem more likely than not that this is well within his reach. A politician who make took lightly is now the unquestioned leader of the House GOP and a likely future Speaker. House Republicans have momentum on their side as they start their second, and most likely last, Congress in the minority.
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