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Emmer tries to temper GOP confidence in a House rout in the midterms

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy poses for a selfie with 8th grade students on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) knew he had a problem when Newt Gingrich showed up at the House GOP retreat in Florida in March.

Gingrich led the 1994 midterm blowout that helped Republicans gain 54 seats and their first majority in 40 years, the type of midterm result that today’s GOP lawmakers seemed to think is possible, given President Biden’s miserable job approval and inflation’s continuing to soar.

As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Emmer needed to set expectations right. “I’m confident that we’re going to end up in the majority. But what that number is, we’ll let the voters tell us,” he recalled telling colleagues.

He was also trying to explain a bit of modern political science, tamping down a building sense of irrational exuberance among some Republicans and utter despair among some Democrats. There are many more less-competitive seats now than there were in the 1990s, before redistricting turned into a science.

Plus, voters have grown so polarized that straight-party voting has become the norm, leading to fewer seats that swing back and forth, according to Charlie Cook, an independent election analyst. Republicans gained more than 10 House seats in the 2020 elections even as Joe Biden won the presidential popular vote by more than 7 million. That historic anomaly left Emmer on the precipice of the majority, needing a net gain of five seats, but it also means there are few seats for Republicans to win.

“Just as the ‘A’ seat on an airliner is always a window seat, a party cannot lose a seat they don’t have. In modern times, big wave elections have tended to come from a party well behind in seats,” Cook wrote in National Journal.

Emmer blanched in November when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), after big GOP gains in Virginia and New Jersey’s off-year elections, predicted that this year’s midterms could be “more competitive” than the 2010 blowout in which Republicans flipped 63 seats.

“He walked it back pretty fast,” Emmer said, declining to say whether he asked McCarthy to dial back his predictions.

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Emmer has taken to citing three statistics for his Republican colleagues and donors: A gain of 18 seats would give the GOP a bigger majority than in Gingrich’s first days as speaker in 1995; a 30-seat gain would be a bigger majority than after the GOP’s historic 2010 gains; and a 35-seat pickup would create their largest majority in more than 90 years.

Down in Florida, Emmer poked fun at Gingrich for his overly hyped predictions. “He can use whatever numbers he wants to use with that big brain,” Emmer recalled telling his colleagues.

Aside from his thick head of white hair, Emmer couldn’t be more different from the professorial Gingrich. Emmer, 61, in his fourth term representing suburbs northwest of Minneapolis, presents as a classic Midwestern backslapping politician.

His hockey gear from a recent charity game is splayed all over his corner office at the NRCC. He wears a St. Cloud State University golf shirt and can rattle off the hockey’s teams recent history in the NCAA hockey tournament.

Emmer, in his second term running the campaign arm, doesn’t have every name of his top candidates memorized — “I forget her name,” he said of one favored candidate, “what’s her name?” — and cannot rattle off every district in contention. He is not a data maven, a contrast to his counterpart, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who once built a database analyzing 350 unique characteristics of House races.

Emmer is conservative but not flamboyant, different from his predecessor, former representative Michelle Bachmann (R), who favored the ideological warfare of cable news. After supporting an early lawsuit contesting the 2020 presidential election, Emmer voted to certify Biden’s victory.

But his demeanor belies a sharp study of history. He understands how today’s political battles mostly take shape close to the middle of the field, between the two parties’ 40-yard lines, maybe even their 45-yard lines.

“The big majorities of the past, now the next 10 years, they’re going to be adjusted, probably be smaller,” Emmer said.

While he wants to set expectations properly, Emmer is still trying to build an operation that can maximize every GOP opportunity possible.

The NRCC’s target list starts with 16 districts Donald Trump won in 2020 but are now held by Democrats, some of which are much more GOP-leaning after redistricting. There are 11 more seats that Democrats hold in districts Biden won by fewer than 5 percentage points.

After that, Emmer warns his colleagues, Republicans are stretching deep into Democratic territory: about 17 seats Biden won by a margin between 5 and 10 points, and another 31 he won by more than 10 points.

Those “reach” seats will test just how polarized the electorate is, because if political minds are really set in stone, it’s very difficult to win seats such as those held by Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), whose district Biden won by 11 percentage points, and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), whose district Biden won by more than 15 points.

Yet Emmer touts them as possible gains, noting that four years ago they were held by longtime GOP incumbents. “These are seats that were held by Republicans until recently. These are seats that both candidates ran as moderate problem solvers who were going to come to Washington, D.C., and actually get something done with Republicans,” he said, noting that Porter’s staunch liberal voting record is out of step with Orange County.

In the most recent House wave election, 2018, Democrats gained more than 40 seats and took the majority as the independent voters in the suburbs recoiled from Donald Trump’s erratic style in the White House.

According to Cook’s analysis, Democrats won seven seats in districts where Trump two years earlier had won by at least 10 points — five of which Republicans claimed in 2020.

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Republicans believe that they will win some of these big Biden-margin seats. According to Emmer, the NRCC has run seven polls of the most competitive districts and found that independent voters and GOP voters have the same priorities: inflation, the economy and crime.

Democratic voters, he said, have focused on climate change and the coronavirus pandemic as their top issues.

“The voters are not that polarized. In fact, Republicans and independents are almost — well not almost — Republicans and independents, the independents that will determine who controls the House, are perfectly aligned,” he said.

Emmer takes a stronger line against the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, than most GOP leaders take, but he believes the ongoing select committee investigation is not moving middle-of-the-road voters who will decide most close races.

“I will tell you from a political standpoint, we’ve looked at this across the country. The issues that matter most to the people out there are inflation and the economy,” he said.

It’s clear that Trump remains such a wild card that many Republican candidates would prefer that the ex-president stay away from their races, particularly those in the suburbs.

Yet Republicans still can’t say that out loud.

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“He makes his own decisions. He does his own thing when it comes to different candidates and incumbents,” Emmer said of Trump.

Emmer still remembers the bitter feeling he had at the first GOP caucus meeting after the 2020 elections, when, against the odds, his side gained seats.

If about 35,000 votes had broken the other way in five races, Emmer would have delivered the majority. He didn’t understand the standing ovation his colleagues gave him, likening it to being happy with just getting to the Super Bowl, like his beloved Minnesota Vikings, who lost the big game four times.

“Are they all Vikings fans just happy to be in the big game? You lost, you finished second. So the goal here is to finish it,” Emmer said.

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