By Ally Mutnick
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and strategists from the top House Republican super PAC spent two elections trying to lure John James, an Army veteran and highly sought-after GOP recruit, to run for a Detroit-area congressional seat.
Last week, they finally landed him after pitching James, a two-time Senate candidate, with three rounds of promising polling and stressing how the House launched the careers of GOP stars like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence. It was a years-in-the-making recruitment that put an exclamation point on a slate of Republican House candidates who could both flip the majority and change the composition of the GOP in the coming years.
House Republicans have laser-focused their recruitment efforts on candidates like James, a Black West Point graduate-turned-businessman, who can transform the makeup of a party pilloried for its overwhelming roster of white men. Every Republican who flipped a Democratic House district in 2020 was a woman or person of color, and party leaders want to replicate that success on a larger scale.
“John is a blue-chip recruit, and his candidacy effectively means Democrats can’t win this seat in 2022,” said Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC involved in drafting James. “Getting these kinds of people not only defines the future of the party, but it also ensures that we are going to win these seats in 2022. And we are going to be in an exceptionally good position to hold these seats for some time to come.”
Broadly, there are more Republican women and Hispanics running for Congress than ever before, according to figures tracked by the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. So far, more than 253 women and 228 people of color have filed to run as Republicans across the House map, the committee says. In the most important seats, roughly two dozen open and battleground districts, a leading GOP candidate is either a woman or a person of color.
It’s a stunning turnaround from the aftermath of the 2018 election, when the number of GOP women in the House dropped to just 13 and there was only one Black Republican in the chamber. When Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) sounded the alarm, she sparred with the NRCC over whether the party ought to intervene in primary contests to fix the disparity. There is no such discord heading into 2022.
McCarthy has thrown his weight into races earlier than in the past, with plans to make diversifying the party a priority by opening up donor pools to star candidates and helping them clear primary fields.
McCarthy “wants to show that our district and myself as a candidate are welcomed into the Republican Party, and they’re excited to have a Hispanic, female, Republican, small-business owner bilingual that lives on the border, that shares the conservative values,” said Monica De La Cruz, a McCarthy-backed candidate running in South Texas. “I feel that he has expressed to me that I’m a good voice for the Republican Party.”
In Michigan, McCarthy took special interest in courting James, who lost successive Senate bids in 2018 and 2020, falling by less than 2 points in the last election. McCarthy’s top competition was the Republican Governors Association, which was urging James to make another statewide bid, this time against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Aware that James had seen polling of the governor’s race, CLF strategists decided to commission some surveys of their own. They polled multiple scenarios throughout 2021, trying to prove to James he had a better chance of winning a House seat than a statewide race. The polls included matchups in current districts, potential new districts and head-to-head battles with three possible Democratic incumbents he could have faced: Democratic Reps. Andy Levin, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin.
McCarthy and his team stayed in close contact with James throughout the cycle to gauge his interest, according to sources close to the minority leader. They touted him in meetings with donors as a future party leader, and they stressed that a House seat could be a quick launchpad for a political career: Scott, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) all got their start in the House in the last decade.
But recruiters believed the tipping point for James came in late 2021, when CLF-commissioned polling showed he could prevail in the most likely proposed redistricting plans before Michigan’s independent commission. In the end, the new map was better than anyone expected: Levin and Stevens chose to run against each other in a different district.
In a statement, a James spokesperson said he was running “because our country needs more leaders with military and business experience who can make a difference on day one.”
With statewide name ID and a massive donor list, James will begin the race with a huge head start, while Democrats are still recruiting.
That dynamic has played out in other places. Female, Black and Hispanic GOP candidates are the frontrunners to win several more open or swing seats in November. That list includes: De La Cruz in Texas; Army reservist Esther Joy King, who is vying to replace retiring Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.); Juan Ciscomani, a longtime adviser to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey who is running for an open Tucson seat; and Wesley Hunt, a Black Army veteran.
“At the NRCC, we prioritize recruiting and electing Republicans that represent the diversity we see across the country,” NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) said in a statement.
King, who came within 4 points of ousting Bustos in 2020, has 14 times more cash-on-hand than any of her Democratic opponents. In South Texas, De La Cruz avoided a rematch with Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez after he chose to run in a neighboring, more Democratic-leaning seat. And Hunt is almost certainly coming to Congress in 2022 because he’s running for a new GOP-leaning Houston seat that was created in redistricting, where he has little formidable primary competition.
In southern Arizona, Ciscomani is the top fundraising candidate to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in a Tucson seat President Joe Biden carried by less than 1 point in 2020. An early endorsement from McCarthy gave his campaign credibility, he said. He also received encouragement from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and former Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).
“The fact that I can speak Spanish, that I’m bilingual, that we can reach a broader group of voters — I think all those things matter at the end of the day,” Ciscomani said. “And they’re supportive of that. I am glad that we’re all looking at the diversity of the party. I think that is important.”
As the son of Mexican immigrants who advised Ducey on regional and international issues, Ciscomani said he’s ready to pitch himself as uniquely suited to discuss border security, trade and immigration with “a personal and professional experience and perspective.”
In general, GOP recruiters have tried to field candidates with crossover appeal who they believe could win swing districts even in bad years for the party.
Building on their success from the last election, female candidates are top GOP contenders for highly contested battleground seats in Kansas City, Kan.; Virginia Beach; northeast Pennsylvania; Las Vegas; Toledo, Ohio; Manchester, N.H.; and Orlando.
McCarthy has pushed for candidates to be named to the Young Guns program, which directs donors toward promising campaigns before primaries begin so they can get a jump on fundraising. He has stepped in personally to identify and boost new talent: He brought Ciscomani to a fundraiser in Los Angeles in late 2021, and his political team met with Jen Kiggans, a Virginia state senator and Navy veteran running against Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), in late 2020 — just weeks after the last election.
Strategists believe securing diverse recruits in Democratic-leaning districts could stretch the battlefield even wider.
Among those contenders: Tanya Contreras Wheeless, a Latina businesswoman challenging Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton in a Phoenix-area district; Jennifer Ruth-Green, a Black Air Force reservist, and former La Porte Mayor Blair Milo, who are both running against Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.); and Jeremy Hunt, a Black Army veteran, who launched a campaign against veteran Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop in a southwest Georgia seat.
All are competing for districts that Biden carried by between 9 points and 11 points in 2020 and could be well-positioned to bring independents and Biden voters into the party.
“We will be very intentional about going into the Black community and asking for votes. My wife and I — we grew up in the Black church,” Hunt said. “We even kind of see this from talking to people in our community, that even though folks might have previously voted Democrat, they’re ready to try something else.”
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