The Biggest Surprises of the 2018 Midterms

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In this year’s battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives, two dueling generals were Charlie Kelly and Corry Bliss. This is an era of weakened parties, and much of the financial and strategic air-cover for candidates across the country was provided by the biggest outside organizations: Kelly’s House Majority PAC, allied with Democrats, and Bliss’ Congressional Leadership Fund, allied with Republicans.

Both super PACs are allowed to bring in unlimited sums of campaign cash—and they did. The Congressional Leadership Fund raised and spent roughly $160 million for the election, while House Majority PAC and its partner organization, Patriot Majority, raised and spent roughly $113 million. As the executive directors of their respective organizations, Bliss and Kelly were engaged in a high-stakes political chess match, moving millions of dollars around the map supporting—and attacking—candidates in the country’s tightest races.

The House GOP was destined to play defense in 2018: A first-term president’s party loses an average of 32 seats in the midterm election, and Donald Trump’s polarizing tenure sparked a groundswell of energy and money in the Democratic base. “The last time we did this, the first midterm of an incumbent president in 2010, we picked up 63 seats,” Bliss said. “So history said this was going to be a tough environment. Throw in 40-plus retirements—and throw in the green wave with $100 million from Michael Bloomberg on top—and you’re going to create a very tough map and a very tough environment.”

For Democrats, some of the obvious targets represented upscale, traditionally Republican suburbs where Trump has proved toxic. But they were also able to stretch the GOP’s resources by competing in certain rural districts where the president is popular. Kelly called this a “parallel track strategy,” and it rested on a fundamental advantage: Many Republican incumbents—due to gerrymandering, demographic changes or both—had no experience running a tough race. “Totally caught flat-footed, not prepared to run a modern campaign,” Kelly said.

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