House GOP leaders are holding up one of the party's lone bright spots in the Trump era as an example for endangered incumbents in this year's midterms, urging them to tie their opponents to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other unpopular Democrats.
Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) presented at a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday morning about how she won in a tough environment, defeating Democrat Jon Ossoff in a special election last June that gained national attention as a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Outside Democratic groups from across the nation poured $25 million into the race to try to steal the conservative district previously held by Tom Price, who resigned the seat to become Trump's health and human services secretary. But Handel, who ran largely on an anti-Pelosi platform, won by almost 4 points, saving Republicans from an embarrassing loss of a seat they’d controlled for nearly 40 years.
“Be prepared for their campaign, executive the fundamentals and make sure they look at the data and analytics of their districts and their voters,” Handel said she told the conference. “The biggest thing is to be prepared.”
Handel talked about raising money, organizing an aggressive ground-game and trying to highlight results — in this case, the tax law enacted late last year. Republicans are hoping to message tax cuts to voters back home to show they followed through on campaign promises.
“It hits right to the heart of virtually every working American family in every district in a positive way,” Handel said after the conference.
Leaders believe that Handel’s success shows that Republicans can win — even as Trump’s approval ratings remain underwater. Her campaign proved to Republicans that they can tie Democratic candidates to unpopular party leaders, even in districts where Hillary Clinton ran roughly even or ahead of Trump in 2016. Handel, for instance, frequently suggested Ossoff would be a “puppet” of Pelosi and her “San Francisco values.”
Beyond Handel, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) has been picking through other 2016 campaign playbooks to highlight best-practices to replicate. He’s been encouraging members to raise money early and engage with constituents.
Stivers has tried to put a positive spin on the possibility of Republicans keeping the House. He talked to the conference Wednesday, for example, about how the GOP held serve in all five special elections in 2017 for seats Republicans had vacated.
Yet Republicans also know that new presidents traditionally lose House seats in their midterm elections — an average of 28 seats going back to the 1930s, more than enough to cost Republicans the House this year.
“Buckle-up,” said one Republican in the room describing Stivers' message.