John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Learning from the Midterms

Posted on November 13, 2018
In retrospect, it wasn’t a very good election for Republicans.

Sure, it was nice to win the Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota Senate seats, but those were states that should never have gone over to the Democrats anyway and were a legacy of either underperforming or terrible GOP candidates six years ago.

We lost a good senator in Nevada, we let Democratic Sen. Jon Tester squeak by in Montana (again), it looks like we might lose in Arizona, and the Florida race is way too close to call.

In the four states we need to win in 2020 to keep the White House — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio — we had only one race that was relatively close, and our candidate there, John James in Michigan, impressive as he was, wasn’t taken seriously enough by the Republican establishment in Washington.

In the House, despite having a remarkable economy and a favorable map, Republicans lost their sizable majority and many really good members, including Reps. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.), Kevin Yoder (Kan.), John Faso (N.Y.) and Steve Knight (Calif.) among them. I know politics is politics, but when you lose good, pragmatic legislators in an election like this one, it leaves a mark for a while.

Republicans need to take stock, understanding where the weaknesses are in their approach to fundraising, campaigning, messaging and governing. They need to improve in every one of those areas because if they don’t, they will lose control of Washington for a generation, allowing the far-left to dominate this town and using its power to achieve their agenda.

When it comes to fundraising, the story of this election was all about total Democratic domination. Fundraising is a function of the energy and excitement of the folks who give the money and it is true that the Democratic left was more energized than the Republican right. But Democrats also innovated to take advantage of that excitement. They came up with Act Blue, an online portal that made it easy for small-dollar donors to pool their resources and give to challengers. The average Democratic challenger raised $5.5 million compared to the haul of the average Republican incumbent, who raised about $2 million less. Act Blue raised about a billion of those dollars.

Republicans also need to rethink now they actually campaign. Democrats effectively used campaign advertisements as a way to leverage more campaign donations.  They spent money telling good stories. The Republican campaign advertisements, especially the independent expenditures, were often a source of controversy that put our candidates on the defensive. The president himself tweeted an ad on immigration that echoed Willie Horton. I am all for tough campaigning, but focusing more on policy differences, especially with candidates who espouse far-left positions on issues important to suburban voters, is a far better approach.

It is hard for congressional Republicans to message in the Trump era, because the president is all over the place and dominates the media so thoroughly. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP shouldn’t try. And I could never discern a consistent messaging strategy that every Republican candidate could deploy that resonated with their voters. But the message seemed pretty clear to me. The Republicans were working hard to help working-class voters. The Democrats are the party of out of touch elites, funded by Hollywood liberals.

And finally, when it comes to actually governing, Republicans had some notable and important legislative accomplishments, including a historic tax-reform law, vitally important opioid legislation and a huge increase in defense spending. But it never seemed to me that they got enough bang for their buck with the voters on any of those accomplishments. Congressional Republicans should never forget that once you pass legislation, you need to spend some quality time explaining what you did and why it is important to your voters. Education is a huge and underrated part of governing.

Republicans need to improve on all of these fronts if they are to take back the House and protect their Senate majority in two short years.

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