Karen Handel wasn’t the only big winner in Tuesday’s special election. Republican operative Corry Bliss, who heads the super PAC officially blessed by House GOP leadership, arguably had just as much riding on the outcome.
He had never managed a House race before he took the helm of the Congressional Leadership Fund, which poured more than $10 million into the recent special elections. But now Bliss is coming off four straight victories, and he’s credited with quelling Republican fears that President Donald Trump will drag down the party’s prospects in the 2018 midterm elections.
“He’s on a hot streak,” said Mark Isakowitz, chief of staff to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, whose reelection campaign Bliss led to a 21-point victory last year.
Sitting in his office the day after Handel’s win, he says the special election wins mean “probably nothing” about the party’s fortunes in next year’s midterm elections.
But Bliss has proselytized relentlessly about the declining importance of television, which Trump used to great effect, and the rising importance of ground game, something Barack Obama and Democrats were quicker to exploit than their Republican counterparts. He was bitterly critical of what he regarded as the Republican National Committee’s weak field program last year in Ohio, where he built an independent field operation on Portman’s behalf — a move that ruffled feathers at the Republican National Committee.
The senator waltzed to victory, but Bliss clashed repeatedly with then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus and his chief of staff, Katie Walsh, over Portman’s field program; and Priebus and Walsh later waved off Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan from hiring Bliss to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Sources close to Bliss and Priebus say they have a cordial relationship now.
“[Bliss] is very intense, and he is outspoken and unafraid of saying what he thinks, and he doesn’t care if people are offended or not,” said famed GOP ad-maker Larry McCarthy.
The results in Georgia appear to have validated Bliss’ unconventional approach. While super PACs rarely invest in field programs, CLF poured more than $2 million into the one in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a risky strategy that allowed Democrats to outspend Republicans on television.
“The traditional mindset is: You can’t be outspent on TV,” Bliss says. “We made the determination that was not necessary to win and that we could be more impactful doing data and field work.”
One example: In liberal DeKalb County, CLF targeted 8,100 voters whom it had identified as “reluctant Republicans” and saw a marginal shift in Handel’s direction as a result. Overall, while Democratic turnout in the district was high, Republican turnout was even higher.
Bliss’ reputation as a crisis manager preceded this year’s special elections. He was dispatched at the last minute to save Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts’ flailing campaign in 2014 and showed up at campaign headquarters with one sheet of paper on which he’d printed “Harry Reid, Harry Reid, Harry Reid,” according to Chris LaCivita, who ran the campaign with him.
“This is your strategy for the debate,” Bliss told Roberts.
Dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president’s party loses an average of 27 seats in the midterm elections, a number that would cost the GOP its House majority in 2018. Bliss recognizes that the challenge next year is to defy history at a time when the major battle is likely to be over control of the House — and the Democratic Party is highly motivated by deep animosity toward the president.
“The House is center stage and every one of these difficult races where we’re going to have to defend incumbents is going to get a lot more attention than it would have in previous cycles,” said John Ashbrook, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a longtime Bliss friend. “He brings a new aggressiveness to House races that they have not really adopted compared to Senate races.”
Bliss thinks he can protect the Republican majority with his relentless focus on ground game, which has become something of an obsession for him. “When you’re having a discussion with him, his eyes are like lasers and they burn right through you. He could’ve played the George C. Scott role in the movie ‘Patton,’” said McCarthy, who worked with Bliss on the Portman campaign as well as on the recent special election in Montana.
That intensity and bluntness have earned Bliss respect — mostly from his clients, including Portman, Roberts and 2012 Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon — and enmity from his foes. Red-faced and relentlessly disciplined, his dark hair cut like a Roman centurion’s, Bliss’ demeanor has led to a reputation as a straight-talking operator who can get his clients to do what needs to be done to win.
He is also is fiercely competitive, a quality honed on the horse farm in upstate New York where he grew up. His father is a legendary horse breeder and his mother was an accomplished equestrian. Horse racing remains his favorite hobby. “The guy is like a savant on horse betting,” said Ashbrook. “He could teach a graduate-level class on betting the track.”
Bliss was a latecomer to politics, which he says is essentially like sports for grownups. “When I was in college, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the College Republicans,” he says. In law school, he gained a disdain for liberal administrators and professors and learned that he didn’t want to be a lawyer — though he remains a member of the New York, New Jersey and D.C. bars.
Like any sports fan worth his salt, Bliss is a legendary trash talker, and his office is festooned with his victory trophies. Framed newspaper articles that recount his political victories are the only decorations on his office walls. A report about the Kansas Senate race carries the headline “Roberts fends off Orman,” a reference to Roberts’ opponent, Greg Orman, whom the incumbent defeated by 10 points.
“Fend, my ass,” Roberts scrawled on the page. On another newspaper report, Roberts wrote, “I will try to be the bad ass you are.”
After Bliss helped McMahon defeat former Connecticut GOP Rep. Chris Shays in a 2012 Senate primary, Shays blasted McMahon and her campaign aides in an interview. Bliss shot back in a local paper: “Congressman Shays is a classless, bitter sore loser who should do the people of Connecticut a favor and keep his mouth shut and move back to Maryland.’’
“However,” Bliss continued, “I would like to offer a portion of my salary to be used to pay for the psychiatric care that Congressman Shays desperately needs. And lastly, I know that Congressman Shays has dreams of running for governor, and I will keep my opposition research book under my pillow with the hopes of being able to use it, pro bono, if he launches another failed campaign.’’
Even if Bliss doesn’t attribute much meaning to the recent spate of special elections, it doesn’t mean that he won’t spike the ball. “Jon Ossoff is officially the biggest loser in the history of Congress,” he wrote in a memo distributed to donors the day after Handel’s victory. Shortly after Handel’s victory was announced, he dropped a hockey analogy: “The Democratic Party has become the Washington Capitals: Every time it matters, they lose.”
That trash talking extends to Republicans, too. Bliss took a lot of heat for deriding Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, who was convicted of assaulting a reporter the night before his election, as a “C-minus” candidate, and has warned the party that candidates like Gianforte aren’t going to cut it in next year’s environment.
Special elections are notoriously unreliable indicators of midterms, and it has been 15 years since the incumbent party did not lose seats in a midterm year. So on a whiteboard in his office, Bliss has a list of names — Bacon, Knight, Valadao, Denham, Royce — all Republican members of the House in whose districts CLF is setting up or has already set up formal offices from which to run field programs.
Bliss, who’s behind his desk every morning by 7 a.m., spent most of the day after Handel’s victory calling donors and explaining his approach in Georgia.
“It worked,” he told them. “Give me more.”
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