GOP’s 2018 strategy: Keep focus on Pelosi

GOP’s 2018 strategy: Keep focus on Pelosi
© Greg Nash - NRCC

John Rogers, the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, has his work cut out for him as he tries to hold on to the House majority in 2018.

Rogers, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), faces both an unpopular president pulling down his party’s candidates and historic trends that usually see the party in power in the White House lose seats. Republicans are also trending the wrong way in the generic House ballot, facing a double-digit gap in most polls.

Democratic voters, fresh off a strong showing in November’s off-year elections, are eager to send a message to President Trump at the ballot box.

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Rogers admits those elections are a “wake-up call” for Republicans, but said in an exclusive interview with The Hill that he’s confident that the House Republican majority’s position isn’t as dire as it’s been portrayed in the media.

 “You look back at the same point at 2015, most people would tell you there was a 100 percent chance Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRetired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Retired admiral who oversaw bin Laden raid doubles down on Trump criticism Trump dismisses criticism from Navy SEAL who led Osama bin Laden mission MORE would become president, and they had no idea who the Republican nominee for president was going to be,” Rogers said.

“Any political professional who is telling you with any measure of certainty what is going to happen a year from now — I’d ask for a second opinion.”

House Republicans face an uphill battle in the current political environment as they look to hold on to their 24-seat margin in the House next year.

Rogers sees a silver lining following the elections in early November.

After their Virginia defeat, Rogers says Republicans won’t be caught off guard next year. And while Democrats grew their margins in the Virginia areas that Clinton carried in 2016, Republicans also ran up the score in the parts of Virginia that Trump won — albeit not by enough to put Republican Ed Gillespie in the governor’s mansion.

Rogers argued that in next year’s elections, Republicans would benefit from the years-long attempts to use House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiJohn Lewis joins Ocasio-Cortez on climate change push Dem House newcomers split on supporting Pelosi for Speaker Reelection campaign starts now, like it or not MORE (D-Calif.) against Democratic congressional candidates.

“These folks didn’t have Nancy Pelosi anywhere in their equation,” he said of the GOP candidates that lost earlier this month. “In reality, next fall is going to come down to whether or not you want to reinstitute Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.”

Rogers also cites the House’s recent passage of a major tax overhaul as a reason for Republicans to feel good about 2018. 

The House GOP tax plan reduces the number of individual tax brackets, cuts the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent and curbs other tax breaks and deductions.

The Senate still needs to pass its version of reform, but Republicans are eager to sign a plan into law and finally check a major legislative item off of Trump’s agenda after several failed attempts to repeal ObamaCare.

Rogers believes tax reform will be a boon for the party, especially when voters see up to $100 more per paycheck, according to the House Ways and Means Committee’s analysis of the plan’s impact on the average family.

Rogers said that while internal GOP polling shows that people are still skeptical that they’ll receive a tax break, the bill would provide an immediate and tangible piece of good news voters would attribute to Republicans.

“That’s going to be something that’s going to be a really good surprise for people out there,” Rogers said.

But reform could be a double-edged sword for Republicans in the House, especially for vulnerable lawmakers in high-tax states like California, New York and New Jersey, where the elimination of the state and local tax (SALT) deduction would affect their constituents the most.

Rogers argues that the blame for the effects of repealing the SALT deduction doesn’t lie at the feet of the Republican members of Congress, but at the blue-state governors who enact high tax rates — a claim Rogers says House Republicans will make in their messaging.

While the tax plan gives Republican House members a win to tout to voters, Democrats are already on the offensive, pointing to congressional estimates that show some lower- and middle-income groups ultimately seeing a tax increase under the GOP plan.

"Speaker Ryan is increasingly unpopular as he forces the most vulnerable House Republicans to walk the plank on jacking up healthcare costs and increasing middle-class taxes to fund handouts for the rich and large corporations," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law when asked about the GOP's line of attack for the midterms. 
 
"The midterms will be a referendum on Republicans, and it’s clear that they are failing to come to terms with that reality.”

Rogers isn’t convinced that Republicans will pay an electoral price for tax reform, pointing to the intangible benefits of pro-business policies like slashing the corporate tax rate and allowing for businesses to immediately deduct certain expenses, the full impact of which he says isn’t captured in that analysis.

“If that were to be the case, all the other cuts that are in there would be spurring job creation and salary increases,” Rogers said.

“The job creation that gets supplemented in there, the wage increases that get supplemented, is something I’m not quite sure the folks who are making that counterargument are anticipating.”

Democrats have seen the large number of Democratic candidates running next year as a sign of high enthusiasm. But Rogers sees crowded Democratic primaries as another advantage for Republicans.

In his mind, the glut of candidates will make it harder for the Democratic Party’s favored candidates to get through primaries to challenge Republican incumbents, as primary fights could aggravate tensions between Democrats’ establishment and progressive wings.

“It could be problematic for them. This could turn into a proxy for the Clinton-Bernie [Sanders] war that went on last year,” he said, noting that activists on the ground could clash with Washington Democrats over candidate choice.  

While the Senate GOP has been shaken by a growing GOP primary split, Rogers and the NRCC face a different calculus in House primaries.

In the upper chamber, GOP leadership is engaged in a furious and increasingly personal battle with former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who now runs Breitbart News. Bannon is already working to line up primary challenges to most sitting Republican senators.

While Washington Republicans immediately clashed with Bannon in the Alabama Senate special election’s GOP primary, House Republicans haven’t faced the same challenges from the Bannon wing.

Bannon and his allies have thrown support behind primary challenges against Reps. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) and Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerNorth Carolina New Members 2019 Election Day: An hour-by-hour viewer’s guide Election Countdown: Four days out | Early voting exceeds 2014 numbers in many states | Vulnerable Dems throw their party under the bus | Toss-ups to determine Senate control | 10 House GOP seats most likely to flip | Obama campaigns to preserve his legacy MORE (R-N.C.). But Rogers is hardly gearing up for the same scale of intraparty battle on the House side.

Instead, Bannon met with top leadership at the NRCC earlier this month, and expressed openness to avoiding primary challenges to House incumbents on a large scale.

When asked about his relationship with Bannon and the approach to any primary threat, Rogers said he wanted to keep the focus on the general election and Pelosi.

“Let’s get everyone, whether they have played historically in primaries or not, to focus on making sure Nancy Pelosi isn’t Speaker and that we keep the House,” Rogers said.