On Wednesday afternoon, Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted the GOP candidate in an unexpectedly tight special election in Montana would eke out a win.
A few hours later, that GOP candidate, Greg Gianforte, reportedly body–slammed a reporter minutes before what was to be the last campaign rally before Election Day. Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault.
Stivers, who didn’t hear about the incident until 8 p.m. that night, sent out a statement the next day saying that Gianforte’s behavior “was totally out of character, but we all make mistakes. I believe he should apologize to the reporter.”
Late Thursday, he called, saying he didn’t want his statement to seem as if he was “making light” or “minimizing” Gianforte’s behavior in any way. “It was a mistake in judgment,” he said of Gianforte.
The two hadn’t spoken as of early Thursday night. “He needs to do the right thing,” Stivers said of Gianforte, who apologized as part of his victory speech later that night.
Stivers, an Upper Arlington Republican, knew that his job protecting the GOP majority would be tough. But there’s no way he could’ve known he was signing up for this.
Stivers faces the perils of history:
* Midterm elections during a president’s first term have historically been lousy for the House majority party.
* The party has struggled to unite on issues such as health care.
* And Democrats, galvanized by President Donald Trump, have shown up to protest at town hall meetings of congressmen, often boisterously.
Still, insists Stivers, 52: “I knew what I signed up for.”
Perpetually upbeat and quick with a joke, Stivers insists that despite the circumstances, “I believe in our members. I believe in what we’re doing. I think they have America’s best interests at heart and I think they’re trying to do the right things.”
Start with the history: the president’s party has lost seats in the House in 18 out of 21 midterms since the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. In 2018, Democrats will need to net 24 seats in order to win the House majority.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said in this environment, limiting Democratic gains could be a win, he said.
“I’d say holding the Democrats to a single–digit gain of seats would be a very successful midterm for Stivers and the NRCC given historical trends, Trump’s rocky start, and early indications of significant Democratic enthusiasm,” he said.
Working for the team
Stivers said most of the work his new role presents is work he does when he’s already in D.C. for legislative business. He only campaigned for a House candidate once since assuming his role – and that was when he went to Georgia for one day. He said he’s also had nine telephone town halls this year, trying to do them every few weeks. He prefers those to live town halls, in part because they can be done while he’s in D.C., in part because it allows him to reach out to thousands of voters in one call and in part because he is loath to attend an event where he believes some come just raise a ruckus.
“There are some people who want to go to a town hall because they really want have live conversation with me, but there are other people who want to have a live town hall because they want to cause a problem, and those people disrupt the actual process for constituents having a real dialogue,” he said. “I’m not for that.”
He acknowledges Democrats are energized. But the GOP base is too, he says.
“While their base is excited enough to make (the campaigns) close, our base is excited enough to come out and win,” he said.
The first bellwethers are the special elections: Trump tapped several House Republicans to fill cabinet positions, and Stivers has worked to recruit good candidates to fill those open seats. Special elections are also set in Georgia and South Carolina.
Any loss, at this point, could be considered foreshadowing of what might happen next year.
But Stivers insists special elections are special for more than just the timing. They’re often unpredictable and the results are often an anomaly more than a trend.
“I think people read too much into special elections,” he said, Wednesday, before the scuffle in Montana. “That said, I plan on winning them all.”
Even if Stivers has a poor cycle, it may not mark the end for the four–term Republican, said Kondik, who noted that former Rep. Chris Van Hollen oversaw the DCCC when it got routed in 2010, but he bounced back to win a Senate race in 2016 and is chairing the DSCC this cycle.
But Stivers’ intentions are clear.
“I want to hold the majority,” Stivers insists. “I don’t play to lose and I want to hold the majority… if we can deliver on the promises we have made I believe we can pick up seats.”