Republican Midterm Mastermind Tells All!

Posted May 9, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT

Frank Bruni, a Times op-ed columnist, hosted an online conversation Wednesday morning with Corry Bliss, the young Republican strategist at the very heart of the party’s effort to hold on to its congressional majority in November. Bliss serves as the executive director of the American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a potent super PAC that raises money for, and directs it to, high-priority House races nationwide. Bliss, 37, managed four Republican Senate campaigns between 2012 and 2016, including Rob Portman’s 21-point victory in Ohio over Ted Strickland, the state’s former governor. Bliss and Bruni talked about what Republicans should fear in November, and what they can reasonably hope for.

Frank Bruni: Corry, thanks for joining me. Obviously, Tuesday’s primaries are on all political junkies’ minds right now, and I’m curious for starters how much of a relief Don Blankenship’s defeat in the West Virginia Republican Senate primary was? If he’d been the nominee, would the Republican Party have had to give up its hope of getting that Senate seat from the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin? Would Blankenship have dragged the rest of the party down? Does he still haunt it, in that he ran that odious campaign of his (“Cocaine Mitch!”) under a GOP banner?

Corry Bliss: Frank, thanks for having me! I’m glad your first question is a Senate question. Technically I’m a House guy now, but I’ll always be a Senate guy at heart. Blankenship would’ve lost the general election. Period. The entire Republican Party owes Majority Leader McConnell and Steven Law, the president of the super PAC American Crossroads, a big debt of gratitude for taking him out. Last night was probably the worst night of Joe Manchin’s political career. Patrick Morrisey, the state attorney general and now the Republican nominee, will win that race. But for me, that wasn’t the most important story of the night.

Bruni: What was the most important story of the night? I’ll concede that we in the media have been known to concentrate on flashy objects at the expense of weightier stuff.

Bliss: I’m glad you asked about the most important lesson from last night. The only thing reporters like you (!) want to write is that the blue wave is coming, and it’s going to be so big that it might take 50 years to recover from. Ohio voters didn’t get the memo — with competitive primaries on both sides, Republicans outperformed Democrats by nearly 150,000 voters in the governor’s race. The GOP outperformed Democrats in every single statewide race, and GOP turnout was up 48 percent over 2014. Maybe the wave is going to skip Ohio.

Bruni: I knew you were going to bring that up, and if I may crow a bit, those numbers were on my list of questions to ask. So the whole belief that Democrats in November will be much more exercised, much more passionate, and will turn out more reliably — you don’t buy it?

Bliss: Of course the Democrats have more energy than Republicans right now. But will that be a good thing? History and every pundit on the planet says we’re going to lose the House! This was always going to be a tough environment, we’ve always known that, and that’s why we’ve been knocking on doors since February 2017. Take what I’m about to say with a giant grain of salt, but if the election were today, we would keep the House.

Bruni: Wait, wait, based on what? Give me a short list of bullet points. What numbers do you see out there, what realities can you describe, that support the notion that despite Donald Trump's low approval ratings and the typical two-years-after pendulum swing for the party that doesn’t hold the White House, which whacked Democrats hard in 2010, your party will be spared and (snark alert!) traipsing through clover.

Bliss: We just reserved $48 million in fall advertising, and before we did that, we spent months doing polling and focus groups all over the country. In the last month, we’ve done surveys in nine of the toughest districts in the country: Will Hurd (Texas), David Valadao (California), John Katko (New York), Erik Paulsen (Minnesota), Jeff Denham (California), Kevin Yoder (Kansas), Mimi Walters (California), Peter Roskam (Illinois), Mike Coffman (Colorado) — and in those races, Republicans would win every seat except one. Obviously, the election is not today, but there is the big disconnect between what we hear in the media and what’s going on in the real world.

Bruni: But please explain for me why those Republicans would win and why enough others would win for your House majority to be preserved? By which I mean: Yesterday’s results suggested an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood in the electorate, and right now, with control of all of government, Republicans are the establishment. What are Democrats doing wrong? How are they leaving themselves vulnerable and possibly missing what should be a prime opportunity here?

Bliss: Incumbents who work hard, raise money, and achieve results on issues their constituents care about can and will win. Think Rob Portman model.

One thing to remember — unless there is a new party created in this country between now and November, the election is going to be close. What is today’s Democratic Party? It is a party that talks nonstop about Russia. It is a party that says please vote for me so I can raise your taxes. It’s a party that wants America’s most unpopular, polarizing politician (Nancy Pelosi!) to be in charge of all of this. And let’s not forget about the crowded, nasty, divisive primaries going on around the country that are going to produce nominees who are to the left of Bernie Sanders and want to do nothing but impeach the president.

Bruni: Ah, Nancy Pelosi. I should have started an office pool here to guess how many minutes before she came up! Some pushback from me, if I may: First off, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I think Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell keep pace with or best her when it comes to unpopularity. I know you’ll correct me if I’m wrong. But beyond that, Conor Lamb renounced her — and won. Other Democratic candidates are renouncing her (so to speak). And isn’t she a tired play for Republicans at this point? Isn’t there a danger that ads using her become a broken record and maybe come across as sexist to boot?

Bliss: Frank, you are very rarely wrong, but this time you are. Nancy Pelosi is the most unpopular, divisive politician in America. Period. I’m very blessed to have her in my life and hope she never, ever retires. In just the last week, she promised to be speaker next year and promised to raise middle-class taxes next year. Democratic candidates across the country can say whatever they want, but Pelosi is a central theme to this year’s elections. And we’re not even talking about Democratic primaries — that’d be a great question to ask!

Bruni: I will get to Democratic primaries! But first I want to revel in “very rarely wrong,” which I plan to put on a T-shirt and wear, with the phrase attributed to you. The Democratic primaries in a second, but one other thing before: Another rather prominent Democratic woman has begun popping up in ads for Republican Senate candidates and maybe House candidates (you tell me): Hillary Clinton. Are we going to be seeing more of that? And isn’t that a focus on the past that violates the dictum that campaigns are about the future?

Bliss: Sure, why not? Maybe we’d stop using her if she’d stop making offensive comments all the time.

Bruni: OK, Democratic primaries, since you’re so eager. Is the party graduating the right candidates from primaries so far? Many primaries are obviously yet to come. Is the Democratic Party, in general, being romantic or wise, in your humble (and heavily invested) opinion?

Bliss: In many of the top races around the country, Democrats have four, five or six candidates running. The energy is with the Sanders wing of the party, not the Clinton wing. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has no idea how to harness all of the Democratic energy. They tried to eliminate progressive champion Laura Moser in Texas’ Seventh District (who I think would be a great nominee), and the only thing they did was guarantee her a spot in the runoff and raise her a bunch of money.

In New York’s 19th District, your favorite race, the DCCC is trying to shove Pat Ryan down the throats of activists in the district and it is proving to be a very tough sell. If the Democrats nominate Bernie-lite candidates who want to do nothing but impeach the president, they’re not going to win in November.

Bruni: They’re not going to win — why? I’m not doubting you, I just want to hear the thinking. Too much impeachment talk turns off voters why? I happen to agree with you, but I’d like to hear you explain it in terms of the moment, the electorate, the political temperature, etc.

Bliss: Voters want results on issues they care about. Democrats are obsessed with things that have no impact on voters’ daily lives. Their obsession with impeachment and all things Russia perfectly illustrates how out of touch their party is. Other than talking about Russia, raising taxes and impeaching the president, Democrats are incapable of producing one positive idea to help people’s lives.

While they are talking about issues that don’t impact voters, the Congressional Leadership Fund is spending our time in the field across the country talking about important issues that impact voters’ lives.

Bruni: Leaving aside a debate about how important some of those issues really are, I ask this: How do I know you’re not engaging in some big head fake here? You surely don’t want to help Democrats. Here you’re saying: Don’t nominate progressives, don’t talk about impeachment, don’t talk about Russia. It could be a big switcheroo! Maybe you’re distracting the party from the perfect script.

Bliss: It makes no difference what I say. The Democrats have no ability to control the narrative or their candidates. Just ask the DCCC how well they are doing in controlling their preferred candidates — see TX-07.

Bruni: Often the national cues are ignored locally, and that’s happened in a number of places in Texas and elsewhere. But let’s turn to something else: Democrats are fielding record numbers of women candidates, many of whom won primaries Tuesday. And women voters have turned out in special elections. Isn’t that a recipe that could hobble Republicans in November?

Bliss: Sure, the Democrats are fielding some good candidates. However, I will offer a word of caution — there is opposition research on everyone, especially first-time candidates. But the way to win in this environment — the way to break through the cynical electorate — is to convince voters that you 1) care about them, and 2) are achieving results on the issues they care about. That is what the CLF national field program has been doing since February 2017. We call this the Portman model, and it is very similar to what you saw when you visited Columbus, Ohio, in 2016.

Bruni: You’ve mentioned a Republican advantage in making constructive change in voters’ lives. You’ve mentioned showing voters you care. You’ve mentioned achieving results. I’m guessing that with all of these you’re talking about … that tax cut. What else has happened since Trump's election that you think is so going to impress voters? And can you be so confident about their reaction to the tax overhaul when polling doesn’t show that kind of broad, deep enthusiasm?

Bliss: We have the best economy we’ve had in 20 years. The average middle-class family of four is going to get an extra $2,000 back. The world is a much safer place since Donald Trump became president.

An example of how to win a race is what the Congressional Leadership Fund is doing Nebraska’s 2nd District. We’ve identified around 40,000 voters who say their biggest priority is protecting the local Air Force base. Through our field program, we’re focused on ensuring that voters know that Don Bacon (who used to run the base) is working hard to protect the base and their community each and every day. To date, CLF has opened 31 offices across the country and contacted over 9 million voters. In each district, we focus on local issues — and our field program will make a big difference in November.

Bruni: We have done the impossible so far: Had a conversation about politics and the midterms in which Trump has been a relatively minor character. Let’s keep it that way except for this: Are you really confident that the midterms will not be in part a referendum on his character — a referendum that, I’d wager, would be disastrous for you?

Bliss: Of course one of the most important themes this November will be a referendum on President Trump’s accomplishments over the past two years. What voters really care about is what is my member of Congress doing for me? Not my neighbor, but me. That’s why it is so important to have members run strong campaigns and explain to their constituents what they are achieving for them.

Bruni: And voters will utterly ignore Scott Pruitt? And Tom Price? And Scott Pruitt? And Ben Carson’s dining room set? And Scott Pruitt? You may have detected an obsession here with Scott Pruitt. I cannot get over the way he has behaved in his position. Will voters really get over it?

Bliss: Frank, there are not 10 voters in America who know who Scott Pruitt is.

Bruni: There are more than that in the Times newsroom alone, but I take your very sad point, even though I wonder: Perhaps voters pick up on an ambience of corruption. It’s a damned thick ambience. Positively swampy.

Bliss: I think the majority of voters will reward anybody who cut their taxes and will punish anybody who wants to raise their taxes.

Bruni: OK, let’s start to wrap this up. Can we finish with a quasi-lightning-round of short-answer questions?

Bliss: Sure.

Bruni: The one race or candidate, House or Senate, that Democrats are most unreasonably hopeful about?

Bliss: Just one? That they are going to hold the two Minnesota open seats.

Bruni: The one thing you most worry Trump might do between now and November to screw the midterms up?

Bliss: I’m focused on the story we have to tell — both about what Republicans have done to cut taxes and keep our country safe, and how out-of-touch the Democratic Party is with everyday Americans. If we focus our energy on making that contrast, we’ll be fine in November.

Bruni: That’s not lightning, that’s a diffuse drizzle, so just one more question: Will Robert Mueller’s investigation wrap up before the midterms or are you assuming at this point that its conclusion comes after November?

Bliss: The Democrats’ obsession with all things Russia is just another example of how out-of-touch they are with the electorate.

Bruni: That wasn’t an answer! But we’re out of time, and we did cover a lot of ground, and I thank you very much for that, Corry.

Bliss: Thanks for talking. We’d love to host you at one of our field offices!

Bruni: I hear Omaha in August is, um, bliss.

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