How the House Fell: Republican Chaos and Democratic Focus

The message from Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, was urgent and unsparing. In a meeting with Republican lawmakers before they left Washington for the August congressional recess, Mr. McCarthy warned that time was running short: Unless they intensified their campaign efforts and forcefully delivered a coherent message, he said, Republicans would suffer grievous losses in November.

Instead of arresting their political decline, House Republicans proved unable at every turn to stay ahead of their troubles — including many of their own making.

By Labor Day, Republicans were fatally unprepared for an onslaught of Democratic campaign spending that overwhelmed their candidates from South Florida to Seattle. Party leaders on Capitol Hill and in the White House soon turned on one another and against their candidates with growing intensity. Two key groups — the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s campaign arm in the House, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a powerful Republican super PAC — plunged into all but open warfare over messaging and money.

Democrats, in turn, delivered a message about health care with the repetitive force of a jackhammer. They cracked congressional maps drawn to favor Republicans and seized an array of open seats, while also felling longtime incumbents who had grown complacent.

And in the end, President Trump may have delivered the final blow to his party across the diverse and growing metropolitan communities that decided control of the House. In the last weeks of the campaign, Mr. Trump cast aside a positive Republican message about economic prosperity in favor of stoking racial panic about immigration — with appeals that veered into overt racism, alienating moderate swing voters and further enraging Democrats.

Republicans lost control of the House Tuesday night after eight years in power, with Democrats picking up seats in several suburban districts where the party traditionally did well. But if House Republicans were badly shaken by their defeat, few party leaders were genuinely surprised at the nature of their losses. In interviews with dozens of lawmakers, campaign strategists, activists and donors in both parties, a clear consensus emerged about the arc of the 2018 election.

[See the results for governors’ races, the House of Representatives and the Senate.]

It was a campaign defined early by Mr. Trump’s divisive persona and hard-right ideology, and by Republican leaders’ unswerving decision to align themselves with Mr. Trump and his overwhelmingly white, rural base rather than politically vulnerable moderates in Congress who hailed from the country’s population centers and represented the political middle.

A campaign of retribution against Republicans who did not pledge fealty to Mr. Trump — and to Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s legislative agenda — triggered an exodus of senior legislators that opened the way for a Democratic takeover.

Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California, said in January he would not run again. Colleagues said he resented the fruitless, divisive health care debate.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

Representative Ed Royce of California was not the first Republican to decide he would not run for re-election in 2018. But his announcement, in January, was the warning bell that tolled most ominously for Republican leaders.

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Royce held a quickly diversifying Orange County seat that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 even as it re-elected him. But he told colleagues that he bitterly resented the fruitless, politically damaging health care debate, and announced his retirement in a statement that took the N.R.C.C. by surprise.

Within weeks, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, followed suit. Though he had pledged to seek re-election, Mr. Frelinghuysen was incensed over the way Mr. Ryan treated him during the tax overhaul debate — the speaker, Mr. Frelinghuysen told associates, had threatened to eject him from his chairmanship.

“He was appropriations chair, and there were lots of people trying to tell him what he could and couldn’t do as appropriations chair,” said Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, the head of the N.R.C.C. “At that point you’re not as much of a chair.”

With their pursuit of an orthodox conservative agenda on health care and taxes, Republican leaders split their party, driving moderate lawmakers into retirement and handing Democrats their most powerful issue of the campaign season — defending popular insurance coverage mandates in the Affordable Care Act.

By last spring, more than 40 House Republicans were leaving the chamber. In the Senate, two Republicans alienated by Mr. Trump, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, also quit in frustration.

But the most stunning exit was Mr. Ryan’s. After alienating senior colleagues with legislative arm-twisting and committing his conference to a hard-line agenda that left them gravely vulnerable, Mr. Ryan announced abruptly in April that he was retiring. While he promised to keep raising money for fellow Republicans, Mr. Ryan’s contributions to the party would steadily decline; in the last fund-raising quarter of the campaign, his political committee transferred a paltry $1.4 million to the N.R.C.C., less than some first-time Democratic candidates raised for themselves.

Mr. Ryan’s decision left the Republican conference in a baleful mood — and enraged senior White House aides and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader.

“He thought it was selfish,” said Josh Holmes, Mr. McConnell’s top political adviser, recalling the lawmaker’s reaction to Mr. Ryan’s announcement: “If he wanted to leave, he could leave after the election. He let all his guys hang out to dry.”

Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, changed his mind about running for re-election, furious with the way he had been treated by Representative Paul D. Ryan during the tax debate.CreditAndrew Harnik/Associated Press

Mr. Stivers acknowledged that Mr. Ryan’s retirement had choked the party’s fund-raising. Mr. McCarthy and Representative Steve Scalise, the Republican whip, had stepped up to solicit donors as they jockeyed to succeed Mr. Ryan. But Mr. Stivers said there was no substitute for a formidable speaker.

Beyond the speaker, Mr. Stivers said he pleaded with colleagues to run again and named several — including Mr. Frelinghuysen and Representatives Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey and Dennis Ross of Florida — as having undermined the party. He sniped at Mr. Ross, who quit the day Mr. Ryan retired: “He saw the cover of Paul retiring, and he slid right under it.”

Mr. LoBiondo suggested he could change his mind and run for re-election, provided he could hang on to the chairmanship of a congressional subcommittee he was scheduled to relinquish. Republican leaders assented, but it was not enough.

“He got what he said he wanted, and he still retired,” Mr. Stivers said.

Without the retirements, the Ohioan told a reporter who joined him as he knocked on doors in his district last Saturday, “We wouldn’t even be talking about the House being in play.”

Moderate Republicans in the House also quickly lost patience with what they saw as Mr. Ryan’s deference toward the House Freedom Caucus, a far-right group aligned with Mr. Trump. “Listening to the Freedom Caucus is a problem,” said Representative Will Hurd of Texas, a Republican who on Wednesday was clinging to a lead of a few hundred votes in his swing district.

Former Representative Pat Tiberi of Ohio, a long-serving Republican who resigned in January to take a private-sector job, said Republicans had “overreached” and handed Democrats a decisive advantage on health care as a political issue.

“We probably should have taken on infrastructure in a bipartisan way first and then maybe tax reform next, rather than health care first,” Mr. Tiberi said.

President Trump endorsed Ron DeSantis this summer, but cooled on him as he ran for Florida governor in the fall.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

The tweet came without warning, on the day of the South Carolina primary. Watching television aboard Air Force One, on a flight back from his summit in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean despot, Mr. Trump decreed that Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina must be defeated.

Mr. Sanford, an idiosyncratic conservative who routinely criticized the president, was in a tough primary battle with Katie Arrington, a state legislator running as a Trump loyalist. Hours after Mr. Trump’s message, Mr. Sanford conceded defeat.

If Mr. Sanford suffered in June for his apostasy, Mr. Trump’s party paid another price Tuesday: Ms. Arrington lost the general election in a heavily Republican district to Joe Cunningham, a Democrat.

Mr. Trump’s capricious approach to politics was destabilizing for Republicans up and down the ballot, leaving candidates exposed to the president’s whims and grievances and the machinations of White House advisers. Rather than approaching the midterm campaign as a task of holding together a political coalition and steering it to victory, Mr. Trump focused chiefly on rewarding perceived friends — and punishing those who crossed him.

He helped drive two senators, Mr. Corker and Mr. Flake, into retirement, castigating them in humiliating terms online and driving up their unpopularity with Republicans. In gubernatorial elections, Mr. Trump helped anoint highly divisive nominees in states like Florida and Georgia — where the national G.O.P. had to burn millions staving off defeat — and Kansas, where Mr. Trump’s favored candidate, Kris Kobach, was defeated by a Democrat, Laura Kelly.

In other cases, Mr. Trump’s associates lashed out at Republican candidates who failed to prostrate themselves sufficiently. When Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa issued a supportive statement about a renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, a White House aide sharply rebuked a strategist for Ms. Reynolds’s campaign — because the governor did not praise Mr. Trump by name in her comment. And because of the perceived slight, Mr. Trump’s aides dropped plans for the president to headline a fund-raiser for the governor, instead insisting that the event be held for the Iowa Republican Party.

The president’s relative political inexperience also left him open to manipulation by aides and allies with agendas of their own. When a group of lawmakers and White House aides lobbied Mr. Trump to endorse Representative Raul Labrador, a hard-liner running for governor in Idaho, supporters of a competing candidate, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, sprang into action. They assembled footage of Mr. Labrador criticizing Mr. Trump during the 2016 primary, when he was backing Senator Ted Cruz, and steered it to the West Wing.

The endorsement was off. The day after Idaho’s primary, Mr. Trump phoned the triumphant Mr. Little and, unaware of the tape’s genesis, asked: “Did you see that video?”

And in some cases, Mr. Trump upended his party’s well-laid plans, only to change his mind or lose interest. In Florida, he endorsed Ron DeSantis, a member of Congress who defended him frequently on Fox News, for governor. Yet when Mr. DeSantis broke with the president, over Mr. Trump’s false claim that the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria had been nefariously inflated, the president turned on his handpicked candidate.

Mr. DeSantis ultimately won the governorship by a tiny margin, but Mr. Trump criticized him bitterly in the final days of the race. The former congressman, he complained to a friend, “was low-energy.” Mr. DeSantis even earned a nickname: “Little Ronny D.”

For members of the House, Mr. Trump was most burdensome mainly because of a mercurial approach to policy that left them unable to map legislation or political messaging in a coherent way. In one instance, Mr. Trump aggressively pushed members to vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act — and then, after a private dinner with Democrats in the middle of June, publicly derided Republicans’ health care legislation as “mean.”

On two other occasions — when Congress was set to reauthorize an intelligence-gathering law and again when it was about to pass a sweeping government-funding bill for 2018 — Mr. Trump telephoned a senior aide after watching unfavorable Fox News coverage early in the morning and demanded, without effect, that the bills be taken off the floor.

At no point, Republicans said, did Mr. Trump forge a cohesive political bond with Mr. Ryan. Indeed, when Mr. Ryan disagreed last month with Mr. Trump over a proposal to eliminate birthright citizenship, the president shot back with hot anger that echoed his attack on Mr. Sanford: The speaker, he said, should not be discussing “something he knows nothing about!”

Mr. Ryan’s allies only rolled their eyes at the all-too-familiar counterattack, predicting that the president would soon also pin the loss of the House on the speaker.

Nancy Pelosi of California wanted the Democrats to narrow their message to focus on health care.CreditErin Schaff for The New York Times

Nancy Pelosi did not want to talk about Planned Parenthood.

It was a meeting of House Democrats early in 2017, during Republicans’ drive that March to strike down the Affordable Care Act. Ms. Pelosi and her political lieutenants laid out their counterattack: Democrats would talk about pre-existing conditions and millions of people losing coverage. And they would talk about an “age tax” — a provision in the Obamacare replacement passed by the House, which would have allowed health insurers to widen the premium gap between younger and older customers.

Ms. Pelosi acknowledged it would require restraint from Democrats. In her own San Francisco district, she said, people wanted her to fight the health care battle over funding for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid. “Those things are in our DNA, but they are not in our talking points,” Ms. Pelosi became fond of saying, according to a close associate.

[Nancy Pelosi for speaker? Absolutely, President Trump says.]

That narrow focus on health care and a few economic issues came to define the Democrats’ midterm campaign. It represented a wholesale rejection of Hillary Clinton’s failed strategy in the 2016 campaign, which focused on Mr. Trump’s fitness for office.

Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview that it had been challenging to break the habit of responding with reflexive, public outrage to Mr. Trump’s utterances, especially as those utterances grew increasingly inflammatory. On a campaign swing in his home state the weekend before the election, Mr. Luján said Democratic leaders envisioned a starkly different path to victory, noting that in 2016 a character-driven campaign “didn’t work.” But the temptation persisted.

“Every time he would say something or tweet something, it would come back: ‘We need to come right back at him! Define him!’” Mr. Luján recalled. “We would say: Look, we don’t need to talk about him, he’s going to do it himself. We need to continue to have a conversation with the American people about kitchen-table issues.”

That judgment was backed up by a vast trove of research, collected by Democratic committees and super PACs through polling and focus groups. House Majority PAC, the caucus’s main super PAC, carried out two intensive research projects, studying right-of-center suburban voters and blue-collar whites who supported Mr. Trump. It concluded that only a message about health care and jobs could win over both groups.

In a presentation compiled for the PAC in the summer of 2017 by the Democratic polling firm Normington Petts, party strategists delivered an unambiguous assessment: “The strongest policies for a Democratic candidate are almost entirely economically focused.” And it warned that Mr. Trump was not the “most important villain” — congressional Republicans were.

The same presentation, focused on the white working class, noted vaguely: “It’s worth keeping in mind, Democratic leaders will be a significant villain highlighted by the G.O.P.” If the report did not name Ms. Pelosi as a target, the meaning was clear.

The determination by party leaders to control Democrats’ message in 2018 — channeling a tidal wave of liberal activism into a winning electoral strategy — extended to primary elections. Ms. Pelosi authorized party groups to meddle aggressively in California’s open-primary system to ensure viable Democratic candidates would emerge. Her counterpart in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, anointed centrist nominees for the open seats in Tennessee and Arizona.

To the occasional consternation of the left, Democrats engaged sparingly on the issue of immigration, condemning Mr. Trump’s harshest policies but never matching him blow for blow. In January, when activists pushed for a government shutdown over immigration, House Democrats concluded after a night of polling in swing districts that such a confrontation risked becoming a fiasco.

Conor Lamb’s victory in a spring special election near Pittsburgh helped the Democrats find a winning message of health care and economic fairness, but he pledged to never support Ms. Pelosi for speaker.CreditGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

That strategy of restraint brought Democrats steady gains, as they made inroads into Republican territory in a series of special elections and off-year elections, winning an improbable Senate seat in Alabama late last year, then seizing a solid-red congressional district near Pittsburgh in March. The Democratic victor there, Conor Lamb, ran on a message about health care and economic fairness, and pledged never to support Ms. Pelosi for speaker.

Mr. Lamb’s upset rattled the Republicans and spurred other moderate Democrats — including a sizable group elected this week — to disavow Ms. Pelosi. On the Republican side, the race stirred new doubts about whether attacks on Ms. Pelosi could save their majority.

“What was apparent there,” Mr. Luján said, “is that Republicans did not have a playbook to run against our candidates.”

Ms. Pelosi herself was seemingly untroubled: During a fund-raising trip to Pennsylvania early in the summer, she expressed no discomfort with Mr. Lamb. On the contrary, she named him and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left-wing insurgent who won a New York primary in June, as the ideological poles of an emerging Democratic congressional majority.

A majority, Ms. Pelosi made clear, that she fully intended to lead.

A protester at a town hall for Representative Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, in February. The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC cut off support for him.CreditDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

Representative Kevin Yoder saw the news on Twitter one day in late September.

A 43-year-old House Republican who represented the well-to-do Kansas City suburbs, Mr. Yoder had to read about how the National Republican Congressional Committee was pulling its advertising from his district because it did not think he could win.

Furious, Mr. Yoder telephoned Mr. Stivers and blistered him about being disloyal, reminding the campaign chairman that he had been a vice chairman of the N.R.C.C. and always paid his dues to the committee.

Mr. Stivers accepted the tongue-lashing, but Mr. Yoder’s campaign was beyond repair: he lost by 9 percentage points to Sharice Davids on Tuesday.

Abandoning Mr. Yoder was a ruthless act of triage, aimed at saving money that could be used to rescue other members. But bitter personal clashes between Republican Party strategists hobbled their efforts to spend money coherently in the last stage of the election.

Open animosity erupted between the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House super PAC funded heavily by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and the N.R.C.C. The super PAC would ostentatiously leak word of plans to pull funding from vulnerable lawmakers, leaving the committee scrambling in some cases to make up the difference. In some cases, the groups seemed to make decisions more for the purpose of outflanking each other rather than thwarting Democrats.

In late September, C.L.F. decided to cut loose two lawmakers, Mike Bishop of Michigan and Mike Coffman of Colorado, calling them unsalvageable. Disagreeing, the N.R.C.C. rushed new money into Mr. Coffman’s district.

Soon, both groups would change their assessments: When a poll showed Mr. Coffman losing by 14 percentage points, the N.R.C.C. rescinded much of the money it hastily deployed. And C.L.F., after humiliating Mr. Bishop, returned to spending in his district within weeks, trying to save him after all.

Mr. Coffman lost decisively on Tuesday, while Mr. Bishop was losing by nearly four points with nearly all precincts reporting.

In the campaign’s finale, Democrats established an overwhelming advantage on television: A coalition of outside-spending groups, coordinated by House Majority PAC, poured an estimated $200 million into advertising, mainly around the tightly-organized themes laid out in the party’s suburban and working-class opinion research.

Bolstered by online donations, more than 100 Democratic candidates out-raised their Republican rivals in contested general-election races. And in October, a super PAC financed by Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, ambushed still-complacent Republican lawmakers on the air with massive, late spending, helping to defeat incumbents like Randy Hultgren of Illinois and Steve Russell of Oklahoma.

Rather than rallying to face that veritable war machine, Republicans turned on each other. Corry Bliss, the super PAC’s sharp-elbowed chief strategist, badmouthed party strategy around Washington, criticizing the House committee for spending millions on incumbents he saw as hopeless, such as Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who enjoyed infusions of party cash through the end of the election — and lost by 12 percentage points, becoming the first incumbent defeated nationwide on Tuesday.

But the N.R.C.C. viewed Mr. Bliss’s group as reckless in its spending and insensitive to the delicate web of egos and relationships in the Republican conference.

“Fighting with allies is hard, just look back at World War II,” Mr. Stivers said, likening Mr. Bliss to Bernard Montgomery, the capable but egocentric British general.

Even before Mr. Trump began thundering against an “invasion” from Latin America — spurning with finality the moderate swing voters that Republicans desperately needed — his party’s facade of election-year unity was crumbling.

Panic mounting, Republican factions began looking out for themselves: Mr. McCarthy, currying favor with the right as he positioned himself to succeed Mr. Ryan, revived a push to fund Mr. Trump’s border wall. On the weekend before the election, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a far-right rival of Mr. McCarthy, began calling colleagues to gauge their interest in supporting him for minority leader in a Democratic-led House.

As Mr. Trump swallowed the already-faint Republican economic message with deafening appeals to right-wing nationalism, Republican campaign chiefs began expressing discomfort with his turn toward raw racial politics. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, head of the Republican Senate committee, expressed anxiety to allies that Mr. Trump’s obsession with a migrant caravan could harm his Senate re-election in 2020.

Among White House aides, improvisation and favor-trading overrode any semblance of political strategy. Even Vice President Mike Pence, aides noted, appeared less than deliberate in his approach: When conservative media began rippling with interest in John James, a long-shot Senate candidate in Michigan, Mr. Pence phoned the president from the state and urged him to campaign there. The same day, a public poll found Mr. James losing by 17 points to Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Johnny DeStefano, counselor to the president, told an associate he used “every ounce of capital” to keep Mr. Trump from visiting Michigan and other states where his party was sure to lose.

And in a move that baffled their political peers, both Mr. Pence and Mr. McCarthy visited Kansas City on the Friday before the election to campaign with Mr. Yoder, among other Republicans — more than a month after the N.R.C.C. concluded Mr. Yoder could not win.

Last weekend, the gulf between the two parties — in strategy and message, in political tenacity and internal cohesion — could not have been greater. Meeting with campaign donors in San Francisco, Ms. Pelosi declared confidently that the House majority would soon be in Democratic hands. Next up, she said, would be a “huge amount of work to repair the fabric of the country,” according to a person in attendance who paraphrased her comments.

Campaigning in Georgia for Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor, Mr. Trump delivered a message with all the subtlety of an arsonist’s house fire, accusing Democrats of seeking to inflict “more crime and more caravans” upon the country.

And in a fluorescent-lit Republican Party office in Sheboygan, Wis., beneath a bleak sky, Mr. Ryan beamed through an upbeat pep talk to local Republicans about the economy.

“Two hundred and fifty thousand jobs were created in America in October alone,” Mr. Ryan said. “This is working!”