Parker Poling, 41, is the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Until December she was chief of staff for Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). Below, she talks about why Democrats were successful in 2018, President Trump in 2020 and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Your job is to win back the House. How will you do that?
I mean, it’s really going to be focusing race by race. One of the beauties of being the minority is that you’re not in the House making policy, you’re not passing laws. And so what we’re going to do is focus race by race, recruit the best candidate, raise the money, have a message. I don’t know that you’re going to see an overarching national strategy or message.
Why did you want this job?
I ask myself that some days. [Laughs.] I was on the Hill on the official side for 12 years. I was ready for something new. I also think that coming from the official side, there were things that frustrated me about this building. Sometimes I would feel like they don’t understand the pressures of being a member. So I definitely wanted to bring that perspective. The other thing, being in the minority on the official side is not that fun. But from this perspective, the minority is fun. You get to throw bombs. Your job is to wake up every morning and think about, “How can I make House Democrats have a bad day?”
What was today?
It’s only lunchtime. We’re still working on it.
When you look at what the Democrats did in 2018, what lesson would you take from them?
I think they were able to effectively harness their voters’ enthusiasm and catch lightning in a bottle, to some extent. They found a way to motivate their voters and people who hadn’t voted. They found a way to get new people involved, and that can be difficult to do. Honestly, at the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, that should be all of our goal, to get people who weren’t involved in the system involved to vote and to participate. And they did a good job of that.
If for whatever reason President Trump isn’t on the ballot in 2020, does that make your job harder or easier?
Harder. I mean, he has tremendous support among Republican voters and people who are not traditionally Republican. You saw a lot of voters who came out in 2016 that had never voted before, and they were motivated by him. I don’t think there’s anyone else who has that kind of power over that electorate.
This new Congress has a record number of women serving. In the House there are 102 women, but just 13 are Republicans. So how much of that is a focus for you in 2020 in terms of picking up candidates?
It’s a huge focus. And you know, [Republicans] actually fielded a lot of women to run last cycle. Not a lot, obviously, won either the primary or the general. So I think there is a recognition that we need to step up our efforts.
Does the NRCC need to get involved in the primaries to make sure more women make it to the general?
It’s been just the kind of the policy of the committee that we don’t get involved in primaries, and I don’t know that I see that changing. But we’ve all been supportive of the outside groups that want to focus on that.
Can Republicans in the House oppose President Trump and still win their districts?
As a House Republican, you’re never going to be more negative on Trump than your opponent. So I think you run the risk of angering your base voters while not actually accumulating new voters. I understand that people have differences of opinion and there are policy differences, but I don’t know that running against President Trump is going to be a successful strategy for any Republican.
Which Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 would make your job easier?
There’s not one in particular that I’m focused on. I think the best part is going to be watching, you know, 22 of them have a spirited conversation about how far left they want to drag the party.
A number of House Republicans have already started focusing some of their criticism on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Is her name likely to be invoked in Republican fundraising and election efforts in this cycle?
I think she prides herself in attracting attention and, you know, wants to be a prominent voice in the party. So I think we’ll probably help with that.
What’s your targeted number of seats you want to take back in 2020?
We have 31 House Democrats seats [in districts] that President Trump won. So they’re going to be the top of the list. There’s another 22 that are kind of in our next-level targeting that were won by small margins or where there are seats that have been recently represented by Republicans. Conversely, we have only three House Republicans who sit in seats [in districts] that Hillary Clinton won. So our I think our defensive playing field is much smaller this cycle, and our offensive opportunities are much greater.
I know it’s still early, but have you already identified candidates to contest Democratic seats in 2020?
Yes, we’ve already started working on it. There have been some who reached out to us and some that we’ve reached out to. So yeah. It’s starting already.
We all ought to be really concerned and really vigilant. And again this is one of those situations where Republicans and Democrats are on the same side, right? We all need to be super aware of forces that want to, you know, to damage American democracy, and we’re on the same team in that regard.
This interview has been edited and condensed.