MEMO: Victory in the House
November 7, 2018
To: Interested Parties
From: Charlie Kelly, Executive Director, House Majority PAC
Date: November 7, 2018
Re: Victory in the House
In 2018, Democrats made history by winning control of the House of Representatives and doing so against a heavily gerrymandered Congressional map in favor of Republicans and a flood of outside GOP spending. On the IE (independent expenditure) side, House Majority PAC led the way in defining messaging and marshalling resources to ensure Democratic outside spending in the fight for the House was as strategic, efficient, and effective as possible.
HMP and its c4 ally, Patriot Majority USA, would raise a combined total of approximately $113 million to invest in the battle over House control – far exceeding the $58 million the groups raised and spent during the 2016 cycle. This would meanmore than $80 million in spending on TV both directly by HMP and through HMP-produced ads aired in partnership with allied IE groups. HMP also partnered with Priorities USA Action to close the digital gap with Republicans and invest a combined total approaching $15 million on digital advertising in House races. HMP spent another $8 million on direct mail in House races as well as additional millions on GOTV activities including Spanish-language TV, radio, and digital advertising through Patriot Majority USA. In over 30 districts, HMP and Patriot Majority USA spending exceeded $1 million. And working with an extensive coalition of progressive IE groups, HMP would help coordinate an estimated total of over $200 million of spending in more than 70 House races from coast to coast.
Following the 2016 election, House Majority PAC recognized that partisanship had been mainly scattered and a new messaging approach would be required for Democrats to have a chance at netting the 24 (later 23) seats needed to win the House in 2018. The group recognized that the country’s largest divide was not red or blue, and that a path to a Democratic majority cut through a map that was based of largely suburban, college-educated districts as well as numerous largely working-class, non-college districts. The election of President Donald Trump and the continuing circus of chaos from him and his administration was the prism through which the Democratic base was energized and enthused and through which many long-time Republican voters were newly open to voting Democratic at the Congressional level. However, HMP saw the Trump factor as mostly baked in and understood that the strategic focus would need to be broad-based economic messaging that could appeal to a wide range of voters.
Early in the election cycle, HMP commissioned deep dive research projects to better understand voters’ motivations. This included continuing qualitative research in 2017 into the motivations of WWCV (white working-class voters) who had once been a significant part of Democrats’ base in Congressional elections but with whom Democrats had struggled in the most recent election cycles. And seeing opportunity in historically deep Republican, largely college-educated suburban districts, the group engaged in a two-phase research project consisting of an online discussion board as well as focus groups in Orange County, California and Hennepin County, Minnesota in the first months of 2018. The results of both projects were made publicly available on HMP’s website.
Through these research projects as well as extensive ongoing district-level polling over the course of 2017 and 2018, HMP developed the messaging buckets that it, and allied groups, would use in paid media consistently with minor evolutions and few exceptions through the cycle.
In largely working-class districts, messaging would primarily focus on slamming Republicans over their party’s health care repeal bill – particularly what the AARP coined the bill’s “Age Tax” which could force Americans aged 50 to 64 to pay premiums up to five times higher than younger consumers. HMP would first utilize the “Age Tax” messaging in digital advertising in May of 2017.
In largely college-educated suburban districts, messaging focused on specific elements of the GOP health care bill – particularly the bill’s middle-class tax increase, health care premium increase, skyrocketing deficit increase, and later on the threat of eventual resulting cuts to Medicare and Social Security. A multi-million dollar HMP digital campaign launched in June of 2018 in 12 targeted Congressional districts would preview the division of the map into each messaging bucket. With limited particular exceptions, HMP would consistently maintain each messaging focus in every aspect of its paid media as it ramped up in the fall of 2018 – in its extensive digital advertising partnership with Priorities USA Action, in direct mail, in its own television advertising, and by encouraging this focus and sharing data with an array of IE partner groups to use in their advertising.
In contrast, Republican candidates and outside groups went completely scattershot on messaging over the course of the cycle. Despite claims by Republicans at the outset of 2018 that they would run on their party’s tax bill, as well as tens of millions of dollars spent by the GOP c4 American Action Network attempting to dress up the tax bill (and the GOP health care repeal bill) in 2017, it was quickly clear that the Congressional GOP’s policy agenda was deeply unpopular and an outright vulnerability for their candidates. Republicans would almost entirely abandon messaging on their supposed signature policy achievements by the end of the PA-18 special election in March of 2018 – resorting to a frantic battery of desperate, dishonest, and largely ineffective attacks. The die was cast with House passage of the GOP health care repeal bill in May of 2017 and the GOP tax bill in November of 2017 – with both pieces of legislation shaping Democratic messaging and strategy for the rest of the election cycle.
Spending and Partnerships
Given the unprecedented level of interest in House races and the vast sums raised by GOP outside groups, HMP knew that it would be essential to ensure spending on the Democratic IE side was as strategic and efficient as possible. The group reserved more than $40 million of its fall airtime back in March of 2018, earlier than ever before, in order to lock in lowest rates in media markets that would cover key Congressional races Democrats had to win in order to achieve a majority.
HMP also coordinated a coalition of IE groups of unprecedented scale in House races. Beginning in the summer of 2018, HMP organized and led weekly calls with more than a dozen IE groups investing in House races which included EMILY’s List WOMEN VOTE!, Environmental Defense Fund, For Our Future, Independence USA PAC, League of Conservation Voters, NextGen, Planned Parenthood, Priorities USA Action, VoteVets, and labor unions among others. House Majority PAC made a variety of data available to its partner groups in order to best coordinate House Democratic IE media spending and plug in spending gaps with Republicans in critical Congressional races. This included TV competitive data, district polling, as well as extensive data work HMP commissioned by Civis Analytics to aggregate a variety of internal and public data points and forecast potential election outcomes. Even prior to that, in 2017, HMP had held regular House race updates and shared its deep dive research projects with a number of progressive IE partners. By leading and coordinating the IE effort on the Democratic side for the House, HMP helped avoid the duplication of resources and saw that paid media maintained the most consistent and effective messaging possible. The group made sure that Democratic outside spending went where it was needed – helping ensure a spending advantage for Democrats in the critical final weeks leading into the election across key House races.
Democrats’ House victory was far from assured and is owed to a number of factors, among the most significant of which is the remarkable quality of the Democratic candidates who stepped up to run this cycle, the robust campaigns they ran, and the unprecedented level of grassroots energy, enthusiasm, and activism among Democratic voters. House Majority PAC was proud to play its role, working with its allies, in marshalling and maximizing the effectiveness of the progressive IE effort to see through this historic victory.