GOP Rep. Steve Russell recently told the National Journal that he wasn’t ruling out a comeback campaign to try and reclaim his Oklahoma City seat from Democrat Kendra Horn, though he said it was too early to seriously consider another bid. National Republicans, though, would almost certainly prefer if Russell decided that the time to seriously consider another bid turned out to be never.
As we wrote just after the election, Russell just never seemed to think he was in a very tough race. The incumbent was even so slow to prepare his re-election campaign that there was speculation in GOP circles that he would end up not seeking a third term. Russell did ramp up his schedule in the final month by hitting industry events such as an oil and gas conference and a health center ribbon-cutting, but it was too little, too late.
Russell also made plenty of other mistakes that contributed to his 51-49 defeat in a district that Trump had carried 53-40 two years before. Horn outraised Russell, but that still didn’t seem to alarm him, since he reportedly never even told the NRCC he was in danger. The National Journal writes that Russell didn’t run negative ads even as the polls tightened, a move questioned by his campaign team. Neighboring GOP Rep. Frank Lucas also threw some shade at Russell after Election Day, saying, “If you don’t define your opponent in a year like this, your opponent is going to define you,” and adding, “It looks like that’s what happened."
However, Russell still doesn’t seem to have accepted that he made so many mistakes, or why the negative ads Horn and her allies ran worked. Horn avoided mentioning Trump here and instead worked to tie the incumbent to Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who was horrifically unpopular thanks in large part to the budget cuts that lead to four-day school weeks and a teacher’s strike. Horn and Mike Bloomberg's Independence USA super PAC, which went up with a late TV buy here, ran ads hitting Russell for voting with Fallin to underfund schools while he served in the legislature.
Russell complained after Election Day to the National Journal about this strategy, griping, “Local and state issues were promoted to a federal level, which they aren’t.” Russell added that he was frustrated that he was attacked over a problem he had no say over, and that some voters may have gone to the polls thinking that, by firing him, they’d be changing state government policy. Of course, as we noted above, his opponents actually did attack him for his voting in the legislature to underfund schools, an argument that seems very much to have resonated.
But Russell went further in talking down to his soon-to-be-former constituents, adding, “If you don’t study the issues, like a dog lapping up antifreeze, you’ll lick it up; it tastes good. There’s consequences.” We’ve seen a lot of things in politics, but we don’t think we’ve seen someone take comfort in imagining the people who voted him out dying from antifreeze poisoning. So yeah, we hope the GOP nominates him again.
But while Russell didn’t win a third term in 2018, he did win something. Daily Kos Elections is pleased to officially present our second biennial John Mica Award for most clueless incumbent to outgoing GOP Rep. Steve Russell. Congratulations, take a Styrofoam cup.
There was a lot of competition in GOP ranks for this not-at-all-sought-after prize this cycle. In December, it looked like Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson was our frontrunner after the New York Times reported that he still had yet to hire a full-time campaign manager ahead of a competitive race, and his supporters also found other reasons to worry he wasn’t ready. Culberson ended up losing to Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher 52.5-47.5, but he did eventually organize a credible campaign. Still, Culberson still earns a dishonorable mention for spending $50,000 in campaign money since 2004 on collectibles, including $309 on a fossil.
We also have a few other GOP inductees to our Hall of Shame. There’s California Rep. Mimi Walters, who among so many other things launched a bid to lead the NRCC the day after Election Day, even though more ballots still had to be counted. Walters ultimately lost her seat to Democrat Katie Porter 52-48; maybe there’s still an NRCC staff job she can fall back on.
There’s fellow California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who began his unsuccessful re-election campaign blissfully unaware he was in danger and ended it by associating himself with conspiracy theorists. All the while, Rohrabacher failed to raise enough money to defend himself from Democrat Harley Rouda, who unseated him 53.5-46.5.
Oh, we’re not done yet with the awards ceremony. There’s Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who bragged that he’d told outside groups not to spend on him because “it’s up to me to win in Dallas, Texas. It’s not up to some other group.” Sessions ultimately got millions in outside help and lost to Democrat Colin Allred anyway, and by a wide 52-46 margin to boot.
There’s New York Rep. Dan Donovan, who seemed to take a vacation from fundraising after winning his June primary and lost to Democrat Max Rose 53-47 in a 54-44 Trump seat. There’s Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, who showed empathy to local inmates struggling with addiction by reminding them that he had “$5 million worth of negative ads going at me. How do you think I'm feeling? Nothing's easy. For anybody.” Brat’s hard life got harder on Election Day when he lost to Democrat Abigail Spanberger 50-48.
Wait, we still have some more cups to give out! There’s Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, who bizarrely argued that Democrat Sharice Davids couldn’t stand up to Trump because … she’d worked in the Department of Transportation as a White House fellow, a program that continued into the first year of Trump’s presidency. Yoder, who was a reliable Trump vote, ended up getting ejected 53-44. There’s South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, who left $1.5 million in his campaign war chest untouched even as he faced a serious, and ultimately successful, primary challenge from Katie Arrington.
Finally, there’s Georgia Rep. Rob Woodall, who is the one Republican on this list who actually won re-election. It was for lack of trying, though. Woodall seemed to make the mistake of not only employing the disreputable pollster McLaughlin & Associates but actually believing their late October poll showing him leading Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux 59-32. Woodall barely campaigned and only went up with his first TV ad days before the election. Woodall ended up winning by just 419 votes, which earned him a fifth term and first-runner up prize for the John Mica Award.
However, neither Woodall nor all these other Republicans were quite clueless enough to deny the grand prize to Steve Russell. Congratulations, hope we see you on the ballot in 2020!