WASHINGTON (Reuters) – "Expand the battlefield."

Nancy Pelosi, chairman of the United States Minority House, will be introduced to the stage by Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the Democratic Campaign Committee (DCCC). They respond to the results of the US midterm elections at a Democratic election rally night in Washington, USA, November 6, 2018. REUTERS / Al Drago

The Democratic mantra of taking control of the US House of Representatives took shape within weeks of the overwhelming victory of President Donald Trump's White House in 2016.

Democratic strategists wanted to go beyond the traditional strategy of turning republican seats into swing districts. Now they would also compete in more conservative areas, forcing Republicans to burn resources to defend seats they thought were safe.

It meant the dice, gambling, that a polarizing president would crowd out independent and moderate Republican voters from his party's candidates, gambling that Democrats would remain amenable to antipathy to him, gambling in that history and a political map that republicans on the defensive would support in their favor

In the battle for the House, Democrats have "started the 2018 electoral cycle for crimes," wrote Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a memo assessing the party's chances after the inauguration of Trump in January 2017.

On Tuesday evening, the Democrats' bets paid off with a planned profit of at least 30 new seats. That would be seven more than the 23 required to secure their first majority in the House since 2011.

"We owned the ground," said the leader of the Democratic House, Nancy Pelosi, when the takeover became clear. She attributed the victory to the party's "dynamic, diverse and incredible candidate".

Reuters visited more than a dozen battlefield districts and surveyed candidates, campaign officials, strategists and voters to learn how Democrats laid the groundwork for taking the chamber. They also analyzed historical election trends and data from Reuters constituency Ipsos.

In his memo, Sena offered a first list of 59 seats occupied by the Republicans, which are considered recoverable by the DCCC, the party organization that oversees house races. The Democrats needed just over a third of them, an ambitious goal that has never been achieved before. Republicans would defend dozens of districts where Trump either lost or narrowly won.

To fight on a much larger battlefield, the Democrats needed "candidates with different profiles who fit into unique, republican territories," wrote DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján, a US New Mexico house member, in a Memo from the June 2017 to the employees. "Take a look outside the traditional setting to consistently recruit local leaders, veterans, entrepreneurs, women, job creators, and health professionals."

Earlier this year, the Democrats had expanded their target list to more than 100 battleground races, where they felt they had rival candidates.

Top targets were the 41 open Republican seats, including dozens vacated by established operators who had withdrawn instead of being reelected in districts where Trump was not popular. Many of these districts were won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or narrowly run by Trump in 2016.

In addition to the open seats, the Democrats focused on 21 Republican incumbents in districts, which were also hotly contested in 2016. Republican districts with large minority populations were another priority, as were white workers' districts supporting Barack Obama as president in 2016.

The story suggested that the Democrats had a good choice for a "wave" poll in the House – a massive victory with dozens of seats. These reversals usually occur when the president's approval is below 45 percent and the proportion of voters who believe the country is heading in the right direction is below 40 percent.

For much of this year, Trump's approval in Reuters / Ipsos polls was around 40 percent, and sentiment was in the right direction at 35 percent. The exit polls showed similar sentiment among the voters on Tuesday.

The Democrats invested $ 2.5 million at the start of the campaign cycle to expand their fundraising databases and hire digital strategists to increase online donations, according to figures released by the party.

By election day, the DCCC had raised at least $ 270 million – more than 20 percent more than in the 2015-16 election cycle. Thus, the party was able to make six-figure investments in 85 districts, many of which were once considered safe republican.

The committee also trained nearly 3,000 electoral assistants and dispatched field organizers earlier than usual, including 20 in Republican-held districts before the Democrats even had candidates. In addition, new partnerships have been established with outside organizations to help recruit candidates and motivate key constituencies.

After the Democrats identified the districts they wanted to contest and the candidates they wanted to win, the party leaders tried to apply one of the great lessons of 2016 – do not let Trump dominate the conversation. They called on candidates to focus on health and economic security, which was consistently based on strong voter interest in surveys.

"We have asked our candidates to focus on what matters most to their constituents," said DCCC press officer Tyler Law to Reuters. "We'll just let Trump be Trump."


By Tuesday, voters in the 11th congressional district of New Jersey had not sent a Democrat to the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years – but the seat was ripe for a punch.

The district is on the western edge of the suburbs of New York City and has the kind of wealthy, well-educated, moderate Republicans who do not particularly like Trump. In 2016, voters supported him for the president with less than one percent, a fraction of the margin they usually give to Republicans in White House races.

And when 23-year-old US Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen announced in January that he would not seek re-election, the district fell into a coveted Democratic Party category that sought to target the US House majority: an open seat.

The party nominated Mikie Sherrill, a centered, first-time candidate with a party official who proved to be perfect for the district.

She would probably attract women from college, a group polled by Trump as being particularly unhappy. And her background – former Marine helicopter pilot, former federal prosecutor, coach of her children's sports teams – seemed to appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters.

On election night Sherrill raged against compatriot Jay Webber.

The 46-year-old Sherrill was primarily involved in kitchen table issues such as healthcare, economic security and improving transport infrastructure. She positioned herself as a person who "would backfire against Donald Trump," but mentioned little on her campaign website or in social media accounts.

Nevertheless, many who supported Sherrill had Trump in mind.

Rick Haan and Martin Smith are the kind of Republican voters who have held the district in the hands of the party since 1985 – successful, well-educated professionals who favor candidates for the fiscal conservative policies of former President Ronald Reagan.

Both are repelled by Trump's bombastic rhetoric and nationalist politics and want a democratic congress in opposition.

"I will not vote for someone who is not against him," said 64-year-old business consultant Haan.

"There is only one problem," said Martin, a retired lawyer, "and that is a return to civil society."


Abby Finkenauer, a union worker's affiliate and sister to a soybean farmer, was exactly the kind of Democratic candidate who needed to turn the first congressional district of Iowa, a mostly white, culturally conservative working-class district of eastern Iowa.

The 29-year-old Finkenauer, Republican and Republican representative, Rod Blum, is a wealthy businessman she has not painted in contact with working-class voters.

In 2016, Trump won the district because typical Democratic union members liked his economic populism and his promise to create jobs. To reclaim her, Finkenauer emphasized her union roots: In a commercial, she talked about her father, a retired welder-pipefitter, pulling sweat from his belt after a working day.

With hundreds of performances, many in trade union halls, Finkenauer has promised to protect family healthcare and defend against efforts to cut health care programs for the elderly through Social Security and Medicare.

"I chose to do this because it's so personal," Finkenauer said, noting that her family's roots were in an assembly of trade unionists on burgers and hot dogs in Anamosa (5,500 people).

Nearly 40 percent of the district's electorate is independent and dominated by farmers and union members employed at the John Deere factories in Dubuque and Waterloo and the Quaker Oats and General Mills factories in Cedar Rapids.

Like many Democrats who won Republican seats, Finkenauer Blum proposed, mostly with donations of $ 20 or less. She routinely criticized the Trump-based tax reform bill passed last year with Blum's support as a proponent of the rich to the workers, a sentiment that voters reaffirmed in interviews.

The Blum campaign did not respond to requests for comments. In a recent debate, he dismissed Finkenauer's criticism of the tax cut: "Our economy is booming, if you have not noticed, and this is largely due to these tax cuts."

But Finkenauer's message was received by union members such as Robbie Frommelt, 28, an ironworker of Cedar Rapids. He voted for Obama and then for Trump, but is disillusioned with the Republicans.

"I think the Democrats are more on the side of the workers," Frommelt said in an interview a few days before the election, noting that many of his colleagues told him they felt the same way. "Many of the guys will return."


In Latino-dominated 26th congressional district in South Florida, Ecuadorian Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell was followed by the Democrat Democratic Democrats, who focused mainly on "kitchen tables" rather than Trump.

In a district where half of the voters were born outside the United States, Mucarsel-Powell highlighted health care, paperback, and the environment, a major concern in a district that stretches from the Florida Everglades to the legendary Key West.

While the university administrator consistently portrayed her Republican opponent Carlos Curbelo as a strong fan of Trump, she did not make Trump's controversial immigration policy the main theme of her campaign. In a district that helped Clinton 16 points in the 2016 presidential race, Curbelo worked hard to distance himself from Trump's stance on immigration.

For example, Mucarsel-Powell highlighted the problems in which Curbelo was more closely associated with the president. She repeatedly emphasized his vote to lift the Obama Health Bill and its support for Trump's tax code, which she described as a gift to the rich that would bring little benefit to working-class voters.

"All you have to do is look at his voting list to see who he really is," said Mucarsel-Powell of Curbelo. "He repeatedly gave in to his party," she said, "and some of the most extreme members of his party."

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On Tuesday, voters Mucarsel-Powell narrowly won.

Curbelo knew he was facing a challenge.

"The truth is that this is a swing district," Curbelo said about a week before the election, "and I'm always ready for any outcome."

Reporting by Peter Eisler and Tim Reid; Additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Las Vegas; Arrangement by Jason Szep and Ross Colvin

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