Stivers Aims to Protect GOP House Majority Despite Headwinds
WILMINGTON, Ohio -- Steve Stivers may have one of the most difficult jobs in politics.
The Ohio congressman, chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, is tasked with leading his colleagues through a volatile midterm election under a president with historically low approval ratings while facing a frustrated but energized Democratic opposition. What’s more, they’re up against an ominous historical trend of the party in power suffering major losses two years into new administrations.
The hard-charging Ohioan, a four-term member who was recently promoted to brigadier general of the state National Guard, is trying to equal the opposition’s energy with his own enthusiasm. In an interview here in his district last week, Stivers praised the success of his predecessor, Rep. Greg Walden, who helped Republicans expand their majority to its largest size since the Great Depression.
“I think we’re continuing to improve on that foxhole, which I’ve always tried to do,” Stivers said of his chairmanship. “I’ve been in the Army 32 years and I always try to make the foxhole I’m given better every day.”
The challenges ahead are numerous. Republicans hold 238 seats (with special elections for three previously GOP-held seats upcoming) after losing six seats last year. But historically, the party of the president has suffered in midterms. Democrats lost 63 seats in Barack Obama’s first midterm and 52 in Bill Clinton’s. Republicans lost 26 in Ronald Reagan’s first midterm, but limited it to eight losses in George H.W. Bush’s. (They won eight seats under George W. Bush in 2002, perhaps helped by pro-Bush sentiment following the 9/11 attacks.). The longer-term record underscores this prevailing trend: The party in power lost seats in 18 of the last 21 midterms stretching back to Franklin Roosevelt, losing an average of 27.
Independent analysts have already assessed the GOP headwinds: The Cook Political Report shifted ratings in Democrats’ favor in 20 GOP districts; Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball shifted 18 districts to being more competitive. Democrats would need to net 24 seats to win the majority.
Stivers’ background gives him ample experience headed into what most expect to be a grinding 2018 cycle. He narrowly lost a swing suburban district by 2,300 votes in 2008 before rolling to victory by 30,000 in the GOP wave two years later (the district was redrawn to be safely Republican after the 2010 census). Beyond his personal experience, Stivers has ample background at the NRCC, having led the committee’s fundraising, recruitment and Patriot Program defending vulnerable members in three recent cycles.
That experience on the NRCC quickly became useful this year, as he had little time to settle into the role. Trump nominated four House Republicans to Cabinet jobs, giving the committee four special elections to defend against an energized Democratic base hungry for early victories. The NRCC invested heavily to defend a seat in Kansas that the GOP held by a narrower than expected margin, and is spending millions to back its candidate in Georgia’s massively expensive and closely watched special election next month -- as well as spending in races in Montana and South Carolina.
“We won in Kansas. The Buckeyes don’t get paid extra to cover the spread -- they just need to win games,” said Stivers, referencing The Ohio State University’s football team (he’s an alumnus). “We’re in the business of winning elections. The Democrats might want to have moral victories. I prefer actual victories.”
Stivers traveled to Georgia Sunday, joined by his deputy chairman, Rep. Mimi Walters, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
That trip comes on the heels of Ryan traveling to Stivers’ home state to tout the House GOP’s tax reform plans and to raise money. Stivers joined Ryan for a local factory tour and business roundtable, followed by a fundraiser at GOP donor Leslie H. Wexner’s home, an event that netted nearly $1 million for the NRCC, according to a source familiar with the event.
Raising massive amounts of money is central to Stivers’ job -- he quipped in a recent interview that his role is to “raise a shit-ton of money” -- and so far he’s been successful: The committee raised $35 million in the first quarter this year, nearly doubling the output from two years ago. Stivers is also working to enact major changes to the fundraising model at the NRCC, pairing individual members with big-dollar donors to help those members fundraise for the committee and, ultimately, expand their own personal fundraising networks.
“There’s a lot of factors that can change that,” Stivers said of the early fundraising success, “but I’m hopeful we can maintain and grow the energy we’ve had.”
Stivers acknowledges that he faces a tough task given the energy on the Democratic side; he said a key issue will be making sure Republicans keep their own base active. He defended the Obamacare repeal bill, which has polled as deeply unpopular, both in terms of the policy -- he called it a “good first step” in a local radio interview last week -- and in terms of the politics for his vulnerable members.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said just before the health-care vote that GOP members would be tattooed with the decision, and Democrats sang “na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” on the House floor after the vote -- in anticipation of election losses to come for supporters of the bill. Stivers defended the GOP effort.
“I think [Pelosi] believes that, but I can tell you only in politics can keeping your word become a bad thing,” he said. “We campaigned on this.”
But the calculus for Stivers is more complicated than for individual Republicans. The members he’s defending split on the measure: Nine Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton won voted against the bill; 15 Republicans in Clinton districts voted for it.
“I had a few people ask me what to do, and I give people the same advice on every bill when they ask me what to do,” Stivers said. “I say do what’s right for your district, do what’s right for your country, and do what you think is right.” He added that he felt comfortable with where the vulnerable members landed on the bill.
But the legislation could be problematic in dividing vulnerable Republicans. American Action Network, a GOP outside group backing House Republicans, spent $2 million thanking members who voted for the measure, but Executive Director Corry Bliss told Politico the group wouldn’t spend “one penny” on those who voted against it.
Rep. Will Hurd, a vice chair on the NRCC who likely faces a competitive race, said he didn’t discuss the politics of the measure with Stivers before voting, something that other lawmakers echoed. Hurd insisted he felt “zero” concern that it would impact the committee’s efforts assisting his campaign.
Rep. Rod Blum, a Freedom Caucus member, said the same. Blum has a complicated history with the NRCC, having originally been denied from the program assisting vulnerable members last cycle because, he believes, his first vote was against John Boehner for speaker. But after Boehner retired and Ryan took over, Stivers helped bring Blum back into the fold, assisting his re-election last year. Blum opposed the health-care bill in March, but voted for it earlier this month.
Under Boehner, Blum said he would have been concerned about retribution for the vote (though he stressed that the opinion was solely about Boehner, not a reflection of past NRCC Chairman Greg Walden).
“Because of my relationship with Chairman Stivers and the trust I had with him, I had zero concern in the back of my mind about will they abandon me if I vote no,” Blum said.
Some Republicans, however, doubt that will hold true into next year. Former Rep. David Jolly, who lost his re-election in 2016 and had a strained, antagonistic relationship with the NRCC, heaped praise on Stivers individually. But he said he expected the health-care vote to be a factor when the committee faces tough decisions on allocating resources.
“Steve is a great guy,” Jolly said. “Steve is now a great guy in a role where he has a responsibility to raise massive sums of money and deploy it based on what is best for the party. So, yes, the health-care vote is a strong factor in how they deploy that money, no question whatsoever.”
Though fundraising remains a priority, Stivers has also tried to implement early changes to the NRCC structure -- in his words, to “add some Southern Ohio hospitality” to the committee. He created two programs to assist members -- one intended to help protect them from primary challenges, and a second to improve member services in an effort to make the NRCC more valuable to all House Republicans, not just those in swing districts.
The NRCC, to the frustration of some members, declined to get involved in primary fights in the past, but Stivers hopes to use resources for primaries going forward. He tapped Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican who faced a recent primary challenge, to run the effort. Davis said they’ve identified at least four members who could face such challenges, and that the list is likely to grow.
For some members, including Rep. Don Bacon, a freshman who was the only Republican to unseat an incumbent Democrat last year, the effort reflects positively on Stivers. Bacon was in a competitive primary in 2016, and the DCCC spent nearly $500,000 on ads hoping to boost Bacon’s opponent, whom Democrats thought would be an easier challenger for Rep. Brad Ashford to defeat.
Though the NRCC didn’t involve itself in the primary, Bacon says Stivers took notice and personally helped direct attention and resources to rebut the DCCC efforts. Bacon won the primary, and defeated Ashford in November.
“He’s a leader, he wasn’t afraid,” Bacon said. “He saw a problem and he stood up. I’m a fan, and he made a big difference to help push back on that Pelosi attempt.”
Stivers also created a members services department, hoping to coach lawmakers on the NRCC services they can take advantage of even if they aren’t in swing districts -- including adding a newly added full-time media booker to help them boost their media profiles on television and beyond.
But while Stivers attempts to navigate the tough national environment and back his vulnerable members, he’s also facing pressure in his own district -- a comfortably Republican area spanning 12 counties across Southern Ohio, from the suburbs of Columbus all the way to a few dozen miles from the West Virginia border. Constituents in his district have protested outside his office and at private events, including staging a “die-in” last week to criticize his health-care vote.
Outside a private veterans’ roundtable he hosted here last week, a half-dozen protesters waited with signs criticizing the health-care bill, and briefly spoke with their representative as he entered. The Rev. Elaine Silverstrem, 71, a retired Episcopal priest, said they pushed Stivers to hold a town hall. The congressman told RCP later that he would hold one, but would likely wait until the August recess. He also defended holding telephone town halls, saying they are an easier way to help his constituents, and avoid some who wanted to “yell and scream” and “make a spectacle.”
“He said he would do a town hall in person at some point. That’s really not good enough,” Silverstrem said. “It could be the next millennium for all we’re aware. This isn’t how a responsible and responsive democracy should be working.”
The next day, outside Stivers’ event with Ryan, a group of more than 100 protesters rallied against the speaker’s appearance. Along with criticisms of Trump and Ryan, the protesters chanted, “Stivers voted yes, we won’t forget” and “Trumpcare’s bad for Ohio; Stivers should have voted no.”
Eric Myers, 46, an education consultant and registered independent, said he wasn’t aware that Stivers leads the NRCC. But he was still frustrated with the congressman -- he said he hadn’t voted for Stivers before, and wouldn’t ever because of the health-care vote.
“To use this excuse that people would jeer or boo is cowardly, and it wouldn’t really happen that much,” Myers said, criticizing Stivers for avoiding town halls. “They’re our representatives. They’re not representing.”