McCarthy to Prod GOP to Step Up Campaign as Democrats Surge

(Bloomberg) -- House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is cracking the whip with his GOP colleagues on fundraising and campaigning, warning that even the most secure Republican incumbents can’t take their re-election races for granted as Democrats threaten their majority.

McCarthy sat House Republicans down Thursday for a combination pep talk and wake-up call before they leave Washington for a five-week recess. Participants in the private meeting, including Doug Collins of Georgia, said GOP turnout was strong, even as members pack up to head back to their districts.

McCarthy’s main message was that Republicans are facing a surge in Democratic fundraising and voter enthusiasm, according to Collins and Mimi Walters of California. Republicans need to make up ground if they’re going to buck historical trends and keep control of the House in the first midterm election of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The role of party strategist is where the California Republican is most comfortable. Filling it successfully in a challenging election year could help him win over doubters among House Republicans when they vote next year on a successor to House Speaker Paul Ryan. Also at stake is whether he would ascend to the top job in the House or be relegated to minority leader if Democrats gain a majority in the November election.

“He’s been a huge help in everything -- campaigning, fundraising, strategizing,” said Jeff Denham, a California Republican and close McCarthy ally. “He has a great eye for what each district needs.”

Target Voters

McCarthy planned to tell Republicans Thursday that they need to target women and independent voters, according to a person briefed ahead of the meeting. Both groups have drifted away from the GOP as the party becomes more closely aligned with Trump, who’s managed to hold on to support from men and core Republican voters.

In public comments, McCarthy has been highlighting not just a booming U.S. economy, but also the bipartisan House bills to combat human trafficking and the opioid crisis.

Ryan’s decision to announce his retirement from Congress and back McCarthy as his successor in April, long before the election, gave McCarthy months to enjoy the fundraising clout of a potential speaker without the burden of being the face of the GOP Congress.

Raising Money

McCarthy, 53, has taken full advantage of his title as heir apparent, bringing in more than $12 million in the second quarter of this year between his own campaign and joint fundraising committees. One of his most lucrative joint committees has been with Vice President Mike Pence, called Protect the House, which accounts for $8.7 million of that total.

More money will be generated for GOP campaigns when Trump headlines a September fundraiser for House Republicans in Washington, according to Walters, who faces a tough re-election bid. She said the extra push from the administration and GOP leaders helps candidates feel like they’re not alone as they head into a grueling few months of campaigning.

“It just shows a commitment from leader McCarthy to make sure we retain the majority,” Walters said. “We’re very aware of the challenge that lies ahead for us and we want to make sure we do everything in our power to hold our seats.”

Democrats currently hold the edge in fundraising and in turning out their voters in primaries held so far. They also have history on their side. Since the end of World War II, the president’s party has had an average net loss of 26 House seats in midterm elections. Democrats need 23 seats to win the majority. In addition, Trump’s approval rating has consistently remained below 45 percent, and the less popular the president, the more seats his party tends to lose.

“We’re all in this, we all understand the gravity of the situation,” Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry said of the upcoming elections.

Speaker’s Race

McCarthy’s ability to raise money to aid Republican incumbents and first-time candidates will also help consolidate support within the party to get the votes he needs to become speaker should the GOP retain the majority.

McCarthy ran for speaker in 2015 but withdrew his name after a few stumbles and opposition from a group of House conservatives. That earlier failed attempt for the top job may work to his disadvantage with some factions within the GOP. But supporters say he’s grown with his experience as majority leader.

“He is a constant political thinker, so it’s all about the politics, where we’re at, where we’re going,” said Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican. “That knowledge and skill is clearly important when you go through turbulent times.”

Perry said while he appreciates McCarthy’s support for members, he’s looking for more of a change in leadership and the legislative process. He said he’s throwing his support behind Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who co-founded the conservative Freedom Caucus. Jordan announced his candidacy for speaker on Thursday.

“I’ve known Kevin for a long time and I like Kevin, but it’s about doing things differently around here,” Perry said.

Gas Tax Vote

One of McCarthy’s biggest political tests will be in his home state of California, where in the 2016 presidential election Democrat Hillary Clinton won seven of the districts currently held by Republicans. Holding those seats is crucial to the GOP retaining its majority.

To counter Democratic enthusiasm and boost conservative turnout, McCarthy’s campaign chipped in $300,000 to help collect the signatures necessary to get a repeal of the state’s gas tax on the November ballot.

McCarthy often criticizes the high fuel prices in his home state, and the issue dovetails with Republicans reminding voters about last year’s tax cuts. That message, however, is complicated in high-tax states like California where taxpayers can no longer write off all their local taxes because of the GOP tax law.

And even with a growing economy, export industries in California, including agriculture, could be negatively affected as countries like China retaliate against the U.S. because of Trump’s tariffs.

Republicans hope that having a GOP gubernatorial candidate, John Cox, on the ballot will encourage their base to turn out. Cox has little chance of defeating Democrat Gavin Newsom, but Republicans fought to make sure he edged out other Democrats in the primary that put the top two vote-getters on the ballot, regardless of party.

McCarthy had a hand in that as well, according to the Republican strategist, telling Trump that Cox needed an endorsement from the president to break through the so-called jungle primary. Trump tweeted his strong support for Cox four times in the month leading up to the primary.

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