Washington – Republicans have a whole lot riding on Rep. Tom Emmer.
The three-term Minnesota congressman, still a relative newcomer to Capitol Hill, is leading his party’s effort to reclaim the House majority that Democrats snatched away last year. Control of the House has let Democrats stymie President Donald Trump’s policy agenda and mount multiple investigations into his administration.
The job has thrust the Delano Republican into the brawling heart of national politics.
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Emmer occupies the fourth-highest leadership post in the 198-member House Republican Conference. His mission is to recruit the candidates and raise the cash his party needs to gain at least 18 House seats and retake the majority in 2020.
“I’ve got a job now that is literally measured by wins and losses,” Emmer said. He said he didn’t come to Congress looking for such a politically focused job. But success, he added, would let him achieve the goals that brought him to Washington in the first place — what he calls a “Main Street agenda.”
For Minnesota’s most prominent elected Republican, it’s a high-stakes job with a bright line between success and failure. The leadership role has exposed Emmer to scrutiny and second-guessing from allies and foes as he mounts attacks against Democrats that even some fellow Republicans have called too nasty.
The NRCC’s efforts have been the subject of several recent stories on the pages of insider Washington publications, with anonymous sources swiping at the group’s candidate recruitment, rhetoric and efforts to modernize its fundraising.
“When you’re a player of significance, there will be folks within the party that chirp at you,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the deputy Republican whip.
But some Republicans have been openly uncomfortable with the tone of the NRCC’s rhetoric against Democrats.
In news releases and tweets, NRCC staffers have affixed Democratic lawmakers with insulting nicknames akin to the style of Trump. A New York representative who’s short in stature was “Little Max Rose.” An Illinois lawmaker who’s a nonpracticing RN was “Fake Nurse Lauren Underwood.” An Ohio congressional candidate who’s also an Air Force combat veteran was a “socialist loser.”
“This isn’t you,” former Republican congressman Tom Rooney of Florida tweeted at Emmer in June. “I was really disappointed in that and I hope we do better,” GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told Politico in June.
Emmer made no apologies for the ruthless tone. Republicans, he argued, have a disadvantage when it comes to media coverage that makes it necessary to craft a message that cuts through the clutter.
“Our job is to define the other side of the aisle,” Emmer said. “Our guys are being as aggressive as they can to get these stories placed.”
For Minnesota Democrats who have followed Emmer’s career, it recalls his early days in state politics. Emmer entered the Minnesota Legislature in 2005 as a brash conservative who lobbed bombs at the political establishment. But after he lost the 2010 governor’s race, Emmer re-emerged to run for Congress in 2014 with a more laid-back style.
“It strikes me that the recent actions of the NRCC hearken back to the old Emmer, the name-calling and boorish behavior that some people still remember about him,” said Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin.
Emmer’s new role has put him at odds with Minnesota colleagues: the NRCC has gone after Democratic Reps. Angie Craig, Dean Phillips and Collin Peterson. Craig and Phillips both unseated Republicans last year, and Peterson’s northwestern Minnesota district strongly backed Trump in 2016.
The NRCC branded Phillips and Craig socialists. Phillips, who is Jewish, was along the Democrats that the NRCC said should answer for comments made by another Minnesota Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar, that were widely derided as anti-Semitic.
“It deeply disappoints me,” Phillips said, decrying what he called “the weaponization of anti-Semitism.” He said he likes and respects Emmer and said, “I don’t envy his task.”
“He’s in an extraordinary position to dictate the discourse relative to national politics. I hope he takes the high road,” Phillips said, adding that he’s no socialist and that calling him one is a symptom of “a broader disease of misinformation in our politics.”
The NRCC dubbed Peterson, a 20-year veteran of the House, “Cranky Collin Peterson.”
Peterson laughed it off, saying he and Emmer maintain a strong relationship. They held a joint town hall earlier this year and have plans for another.
“My media consultant thinks it’s great,” Peterson said of the nickname. “He said we’re going to use it because who the hell wouldn’t be cranky in this atmosphere?”
Emmer said lawmakers such as Phillips and Craig, even if not socialists themselves, have a responsibility to push back against fellow Democratic who espouse policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
“The choice in 2020 is going to be between freedom and government making decisions for you,” Emmer said.
Broadly accusing Democrats of socialism has become central to Republican messaging.
Recent polling by longtime GOP pollster Neil Newhouse found deep splits between Republicans and Democrats on the question of whether U.S. government policies should be more socialist, with 81% of Democrats saying they should and 85% of Republicans saying they should not. Independents hewed closer to Republicans.
“It’s a classic wedge issue,” said Newhouse, who has polled for the NRCC. “It’s good politics for Republicans, and Emmer is smart to push it.”
It’s a message certain to be amplified by Trump’s campaign, which points to the fact that the fortunes of Emmer and the candidates he recruits will to a large degree rise and fall with the president’s fortunes next year.
There are 31 districts around the country now held by Democrats that Trump carried in 2016, including Craig’s and Peterson’s. The GOP hope is that with Trump on the ballot they will be able to bring those seats back.
“It’s incredibly doable,” Emmer said.
Whatever the outcome in 2020, the NRCC job gives Emmer a voice in top-level GOP strategizing on Capitol Hill, even if it pays few dividends at home. “There’s an incredible amount of gratitude for people who make the sacrifices this job requires,” said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who led the NRCC from 2012 to 2016. In those four years, Walden said, he spent 281 nights on the road around the country.
Emmer recently joined once- to twice-weekly meetings with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his two top lieutenants.
“Tom’s strong tactical strength and impressive work ethic is placing our party in a position to succeed in 2020 and for future cycles to come,” McCarthy, a California Republican, said in a statement. McCarthy was a key backer of Emmer’s leadership bid which, if successful, could position Emmer to climb even higher in D.C.