The Corner

Elections

Tom Emmer on Why Republicans Lost the House

President Donald Trump talks with Rep. Jason Lewis (L) and Rep. Tom Emmer (C) in Minneapolis, Minn., October 4, 2018. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)

Judging from the early Twitter reaction, a lot of people think that the new head of the House Republican campaign committee, Representative Tom Emmer (R., Minn.), is in denial. They’re reacting to a write-up of an interview he gave National Journal. I’m inclined to be a bit more charitable toward the congressman. What follow are some excerpts with my comments interspersed.

“There’s a narrative that people are trying to build out there that somehow there’s been this shift, this political realignment in the suburbs,” Emmer said. “That’s not true. It isn’t there.”

If what Emmer means is that the suburbs did not swing against Republicans in the last election, he is obviously delusional. But if a clearly false view is not the only possible interpretation of his remarks, let’s not make it. What Emmer is probably saying here is that the suburbs are not permanently lost for the Republicans. I don’t know what else you would expect a Republican politician trying to win back the House to say. Plus, he might be right!

Emmer’s analysis of the midterms pins the blame on the Republican Party at large for failing to win over independent voters with a cohesive message on the booming economy.

A lot of congressional Republicans tried to run on this message. I assume Emmer is making a veiled criticism of Trump for not going along. But the evidence that a more upbeat economic message would have worked is not strong, given that decent economic years have frequently featured drubbings for the party in the White House (see: 1994, 2006, and 2014).

He stressed that the party’s focus on immigration in the final days repelled moderates, but he disputed attempts to fault the president specifically and pushed back on assumptions that Trump would be a liability in 2020.

“You’re definitely impacted, but you don’t rise or fall based on the executive,” he said. “You get to run your own race, but I think this is a customer-service business. You have to have your own independent brand.”

If congressman can successfully run as their own independent brand, then they don’t need a party-wide, “cohesive” message, do they? Individual congressmen could run on the great economy and win. It didn’t work very often because there’s a real limit to how much voters these days distinguish between politicians in the president’s party and the president. I suspect what’s going on here is less that Emmer is confused about this point than that he does not feel it would be politic to speak the truth, or rather three truths: Presidents are usually a drag on their party in midterm elections, this president was a particular drag in a lot of suburban districts, and House Republicans’ fortunes in 2020 are mostly not in their control.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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