Tom Emmer has the hottest political hand in the House GOP right now. And if he can win a sizable majority this fall, he’ll have even more chips to cash in.
Halfway through his second cycle as House Republicans’ campaign chief, Emmer is managing to pull off a remarkable feat in the modern GOP: Even as it fissures over Donald Trump’s checkered legacy, Emmer is popular among its disparate wings. From leadership to conservatives to pro-impeachment centrists, all corners of the party have words of praise for the silver-haired Minnesotan.
It doesn’t hurt that Emmer helped stave off an anticipated loss of seats in 2020, to the surprise of many House Republicans. Now that the National Republican Congressional Committee has even more momentum this fall, with Democrats lining up for the exits ahead of an expected GOP takeover in the midterms, the biggest question may be what comes next for its chief.
Just don’t ask him — yet — how he plans to build on a November win.
“The only thing I have in mind right now is winning a majority. That’s it,” Emmer said in an interview. “If you talk to some of my colleagues, I’m sure they told you that I’m a little adamant about staying focused in the moment.”
They did. As House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) put it, “the most important thing Tom’s been vocal about is, nobody can get complacent.”
But many of his colleagues are betting Emmer won’t return as NRCC chair; it is unheard-of in recent years for any lawmaker to endure three cycles of the campaign grind. While the 60-year-old former city council member says he isn’t ruling anything out, fellow Republicans believe he’s eyeing the whip position — which could be the House GOP’s first open leadership role in years if the midterms go as expected — or another role in leadership.
The shuffle would go like this (despite Emmer’s disinterest in public drapes-measuring): House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy would become speaker in 2023, and Scalise would ascend to majority leader, leaving a likely crowded race for majority whip.
Joining Emmer as potential whip contenders are Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the current GOP conference chair; Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the party’s top Financial Services Committee member; and Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga), now chief deputy whip.
If Emmer wants to stay as campaigns chief, the job is seen as his to hold. Unless the GOP’s fortunes historically implode ahead of the midterms, though, House Republicans are expected to mount a second strong election showing under his leadership, which will no doubt bolster his street cred.
“I’m on the steering committee with him,” one House Republican member said, speaking on the condition of anonymity and referring to the group of senior members who dole out plum positions in the conference. “We’re going to want to reward him, if there’s something that he wants that he doesn’t have.”
That reward may or may not be the whip’s job: Some Republicans mused that Emmer might not run if his ally McHenry seeks the role. Others are already starting to lay the groundwork to succeed Emmer at the NRCC, should he choose to leave a job that can bring as many pitfalls as it does benefits.
Emmer’s handling of the NRCC helm helped burnish his reputation in the eyes of many Republicans. In interviews, members and aides praised his efforts to change the culture of the campaign arm, lift up its staff and do away with consultants to instead empower members to recruit “the best candidates.”
During his stewardship, the House GOP has worked to close the gap with Democrats’ ActBlue fundraising platform by boosting its own small-dollar online fundraising. The NRCC also has phased out one-size-fits-all ads in favor of more tailored hits at vulnerable Democrats.
Underpinning it all is Emmer’s go-get-’em style, which colleagues likened to an energized hockey coach: He likes to win. Things didn’t look like they were headed that way in 2020, with Trump floundering as a pandemic took hold and Democrats forecasting a blue wave. During the run-up to that election, Emmer dodged reporters trying to talk to him outside the House floor, telling colleagues he suspected a hit piece.
In the year-plus since the GOP picked up 15 seats while Trump lost, Emmer’s fortunes have shifted dramatically.
Problems that once seemed cycle-defining are now a bit less daunting. Since Emmer warned the former presidentagainst backing primary challengers to the 10 House Republicans who supported impeachment, three of the 10 have decided against seeking reelection.
That doesn’t mean the remaining seven, all of whom face primaries, won’t prove challenging for an NRCC chief who has said the campaign arm won’t get involved in intra-GOP contests.
He’s previously said the party’s internal push to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and retiring Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), tapped by Democrats for the Jan. 6 select committee, was not helpful to the GOP’s big-tent messaging. And when asked if Cheney would be able to use the NRCC as a resource, should she pay dues like its other members, Emmer didn’t dismiss the idea.
“That’s a big if, because she’s chosen a different path. That’s totally up to her, how she handles it,” he replied.
The NRCC chairmanship is “the toughest job you could have, because you have to say no to a lot of people … the only way you can survive it well is by being really honest,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who serves on the campaign committee with Emmer.
Asked to reflect on what he learned from 2020, Emmer said he wished the GOP had cast a wider net for winnable seats. Even so, the Republican conference brought in 18 women and a record number of minority GOP members during this Congress, an advancement that Emmer hopes to build on this fall.
“It looks like a repeat of last cycle. Our bench looks even more diverse,” said freshman Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who serves at the NRCC and is one of the two Black House Republicans to join the House last year.
Emmer, for his part, said that the NRCC tried to “make sure that our candidates looked and sounded more like the districts they were going to represent” when he first assumed the position.
“If there was an issue” in the past with the party’s candidate slate, Emmer said, “it was that we didn’t do a good job of recruiting those people that show that diversity to this national stage. … It worked last time.”
Now that he’s proven what can work for the NRCC, and with a potential midterm success set to vault him further up the party’s ranks, Emmer is ever the prototypical team-building coach. He won’t get involved in agenda questions, saying, “I leave that to Kevin, I leave that to Elise and Steve,” referring to McCarthy, Scalise and Stefanik.
And even behind closed doors, he’s playing his cards so close that his allies don’t know his next move.
“I think I’m pretty close with him. He has never mentioned it. And he’s focused on one thing right now,” Armstrong said. “It’s the truth. It’s also politically smart.”