Washington – The Republican wipeout in the U.S. House left Rep. Tom Emmer as Minnesota’s senior Republican in Congress — and leading the effort to win back the majority in two years.
“I believe we’ve got to get back to Main Street,” Emmer said, describing how he plans to approach the House Republican leadership job that colleagues tapped him for soon after the election that gave Democrats their first House majority in eight years. “I believe we’ve got to get back to letting the people tell us who the candidates are, rather than having high-priced consultants tell us who the candidates will be for a particular district.”
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Emmer will take charge of recruiting Republican House candidates around the country for the 2020 election cycle and play a leading role in fundraising for their campaigns.
The lawmaker from Delano, who coasted to a third term in his GOP-leaning district northwest of the Twin Cities, has ascended rapidly in national politics since taking office in 2015. The electoral defeat of Rep. Erik Paulsen leaves Emmer as Minnesota’s most prominent Republican politician; he’ll be joined in the Minnesota delegation by two new GOP members, Reps.-elect Pete Stauber from northeastern Minnesota and Jim Hagedorn of southern Minnesota.
“After a loss of seats by House Republicans, they are going to be in rebuilding mode, and this gives Emmer the opportunity to be the chief architect of that rebuilding,” said Annette Meeks, a longtime GOP operative in Minnesota who was Emmer’s running mate when he unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2010, and who once worked for former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“He’s got his work cut out for him — with all that said and done, I’ve never known anyone who loves a challenge as much as Tom Emmer,” added Meeks, now CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.
Boost GOP fundraising
One big job for Emmer will be to bolster NRCC fundraising. In the recent election cycle, the rival Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) outspent the NRCC, $240 million to $153 million. The GOP group’s biggest contributors include Republican House leadership, Koch Industries, Western National Group and Energy Transfer Equity, a company tied to the Dakota Access pipeline.
Emmer wants to look at how Republicans can duplicate the success of ActBlue, a popular online platform that efficiently facilitates small donations for Democratic politicians.
“The average citizen through ActBlue, who has a similar political perspective to those candidates, can go directly to the candidate with small-dollar donations and doesn’t have to worry about a whole bunch of layers,” Emmer said. “Republicans will have to counter that.”
Republicans would need to win back more than two dozen seats to regain control of the House. They’ll likely be sharing a ballot with President Donald Trump, whose sagging popularity with suburban voters around the country was seen as a major factor in the GOP’s loss of the House majority.
Notably, Emmer is considered Minnesota’s politically safest Republican in Congress. He won his third term in the November election against Democrat Ian Todd with 61 percent of the vote.
“You want someone who has taken care of business back home like Tom, where they can go out and help others,” Meeks said.
The NRCC played a prominent part in key House races in Minnesota, spending $8.6 million and drawing controversy for funding a blast of negative campaign ads. (The DCCC, by contrast, spent $7 million in the state.) Nationally, the group spent its fifth-largest amount to help Hagedorn pull off a narrow win against Democrat Dan Feehan in the First Congressional District, which had been represented for a dozen years by Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz.
NRCC ads linked Feehan to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and liberal billionaire George Soros. They also questioned the patriotism of Feehan, an Iraq war veteran, as they suggested he supported NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem.
The NRCC’s sixth-largest spending target was Democrat Angie Craig, who defeated GOP Rep. Jason Lewis in the suburban Second Congressional District. The committee spent $3 million on ads against her, depicting the former health care executive as a corrupt businesswoman who improperly enriched herself while working at St. Jude Medical and elsewhere. The Craig campaign even tried to have one of the ads taken off the air, complaining that its allegations were false.
“This is a desperate smear campaign from Jason Lewis’ Washington allies,” Craig complained at the time.
“It depends what you define as negative … comparing and contrasting is good,” said Emmer, when asked about the negative ads.
He said Republicans can “absolutely” win back Paulsen’s and Lewis’ seats, suggesting they would remain swing districts for many election cycles to come.
Hagedorn said that Emmer campaigned with him in southern Minnesota in the last week of the campaign, shaking hands with voters in coffee shops. “He has an optimistic vision, he’s filled with energy, he works hard, he was a tireless campaigner for many candidates, including myself,” Hagedorn said.
Will controversy surrounding Trump make Emmer’s job harder in 2020? Emmer said too many people put too much stock in the president’s personality — though, he noted, his job isn’t to defend Trump.
“The story really is the policies that this administration has advanced on the economic side … the economy is growing like it hasn’t grown in years,” Emmer said.