EXCLUSIVE: Republicans are on the rebound.
A record number of candidates have filed to run for office in the House and Senate, breaking last cycle’s history-making numbers from the same point in time. But unlike the 2018 midterms when the surge was driven by Democrats, the congressional boom this time is on the Republican side, according to the latest federal candidate and financial activity report obtained exclusively by Fox News.
In 2019 alone, 781 Republicans filed federal paperwork to run for the House, the most ever recorded in an odd year at the Federal Election Commission. That’s up from 593 GOP candidates in 2017, when Democrats had an astounding 937 candidates at the same point.
Republican candidates across the country interviewed by Fox News said they feel momentum is on their side this time. Energized by President Trump and his impeachment acquittal, congressional hopefuls are making the case that Trump needs a fighter like them in the House or else the country will succumb to “socialist” Democratic plans.
“I'm tired of seeing my president attacked every day,” said Marjorie Greene, a GOP businesswoman and first-time congressional candidate running for an open seat in Georgia’s 14th district. “I'm tired of seeing our future threatened. I'm tired of seeing my children's future extremely threatened, and it’s time to get off the bench and really step up to the plate.”
'I'm tired of seeing my president attacked every day. ... it’s time to get off the bench.'
Like many GOP candidates vying for office this year, Greene takes aim directly at progressive darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her freshman squad and says Congress needs strong conservative women to stand up to “tyrannical socialist Democrats.”
“These are radical women that will not bend. They do not want to work across the aisle. They only want their policies of the Green New Deal, 'Medicare-for-all' and socialism for America,” Greene told Fox News.
“Oftentimes, it takes a woman to put another woman in her place," said Greene, whose family owns a commercial construction company. Ocasio-Cortez herself also is facing a slew of challengers on both sides of the aisle this election cycle.
Last cycle, Democrats set new records for the number of candidates who filed to run for office. Their enthusiasm around the Trump resistance movement paid off with tremendous turnout and Democrats re-taking the House and ultimately impeaching Trump.
While early numbers show that Democrats still have high levels of candidates –- and a fundraising advantage – the Republicans have rebounded in a big way.
The total number of House and Senate candidates reached an off-year record at 1,761, according to the FEC report obtained by Fox News, shattering the 2017 record of 1,739 candidates that was fueled by a wave of Democrats, especially women. This time, based on the latest data, more Republicans are running than Democrats -- with 874 total candidates compared with Democrats' 842.
Like last cycle, the huge interest in federal seats has less to do with Congress and more to do with the occupant in the White House. Democrats are fired up to defeat Trump and win back the Senate that acquitted the president and Republicans are on a mission to re-elect Trump and stamp out detractors -- and take back the Speaker Nancy Pelosi-controlled House in the process.
“It's all about enthusiasm driven by the president, both negative and positive,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “[Republicans] also saw the Democrats do it last cycle. So they know that it is possible. They saw some seats picked off that I think shocked the party and the public. They want to get those back."
Records show the 2020 House and Senate races are on track to be the most expensive in history, already nearing $1 billion in fundraising in 2019 alone. Democratic candidates raised 53 percent of the haul, compared to 47 percent for the GOP, records obtained by Fox News show.
“We're seeing that the Democrats haven't necessarily lost their fundraising game,” Bryner said. “… But the Republicans have caught up.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee said it has a record number of House candidates this cycle, including the biggest slate of women, driven to higher office by “Democrats’ insane socialist agenda and obsessive efforts to remove President Trump,” NRCC Spokesman Michael McAdams said.
Democrats, however, have downplayed the GOP uptick as the result of a steady stream of Republicans exiting from Congress and setting off crowded primary elections for open seats. Democrats also pointed to retention and recruitment problems on the GOP side and argue Democrats' numbers were bound to be lower this cycle since they shifted to the majority and have fewer GOP seats to pick off.
“Republican leadership might not have given up on retaking the House. But clearly their members have,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Robyn Patterson. “More than 100 House Republicans have called it quits since President Trump took office. Washington Republicans have been outraised, outworked and are exhausted from running so many errands for the drug manufacturers and insurance companies. That’s why so many of them are headed for the exits.”
The uptick in GOP candidates is happening in diverse corners in America, including plenty of competitive primaries for vacant seats in red districts and even a slate of Republican contenders running long-shot bids in safely blue districts.
Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest female ever elected to Congress in 2018, by taking out longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley. A dozen candidates have filed federal paperwork to run against her in New York’s deep-blue 14th district, including eight Republicans.
The record-breaking numbers reflect everyone who has filed federal paperwork in 2019 with varying levels of viability and include candidates who may have dropped out already or won't qualify to make the ballot in their states.
Some candidates have no experience in politics and don't have the party support or much money to fund their campaign, but are inspired by Trump to launch a grassroots bid for public office.
Former Flint, Mich., school teacher Christina Fitchett-Hickson felt a higher calling to run for office after spending the last year traveling the country with the Trump Unity Bridge, a decorated float in support of the president that makes appearances at festivals, GOP functions and even weddings, she said.
"You're seeing people standing up and taking charge like they were told to in the Constitution as a citizen legislator," said Fitchett-Hickson, who considers Trump the greatest president in her lifetime.
Fitchett-Hickson, who does sales and marketing through the Young Living essential oils company, is among five candidates from all parties who have filed federal paperwork to challenge incumbent Democrat Rep. Dan Kildee in another traditionally blue district.
Last month, she traveled to neighboring Ohio a day early to sit outside in the cold to be the first in line for Trump’s Toledo rally. All bundled up and camped outside the arena in freezing January temps, Fitchett-Hickson said the feat was admittedly "dangerous" but also taught her lessons about homelessness.
"God has things happen for mysterious reasons," said Fitchett-Hickson. "And I, as a congresswoman, have to understand all of my citizens. And believe it or not, your citizens -- just because they don't have a house doesn't mean they don't get the vote. They will vote."
Trump’s popularity has grown since his impeachment acquittal and the GOP candidates are running as unapologetic Trump enthusiasts, even in must-win swing districts, too.
Sean Parnell, a war veteran who penned a best-selling book about his platoon’s heroics in Afghanistan, jumpstarted his race after Trump name-dropped him during a speech and said the retired Army captain would win the seat. Parnell is vying for one of the most competitive districts in the country against incumbent Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, a former Marine and federal prosecutor.
Parnell is running with Trump in his corner and with a message of protecting oil and gas jobs he says would be threatened by Democrats who want to ban fracking.
“There’s momentum on our side for sure,” Parnell, a former frequent Fox News guest, said. “This is the national bellwether race. For Republicans to take back the House, we've got to win PA-17 and for Trump to win the state of Pennsylvania like he did in 2016, he has to win PA-17."
The intensity is palpable, he said.
"This is the first time in American history, where the president was impeached and he's going to be on the ballot," Parnell said. "The GOP turnout is going to be through the roof this election cycle. Everywhere we go, people are excited to vote."
The NRCC recently named Parnell a Young Gun contender, giving his campaign extra attention and party support. "The Democrats don't really have an inspiring figure at the top of the ticket," Parnell said. "They don't really have a message but higher taxes and banning entire sectors of our economy and hatred of Trump. That's not going to be enough for them to win."
In North Carolina, 18 candidates, including a dozen Republicans, have filed federal paperwork to succeed a retiring Rep. Mark Meadows, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the House. In Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash, the former Republican-turned-independent who voted to impeach Trump, is up against 14 challengers who want his seat, including Peter Meijer, an Iraq war veteran and grandson of the late retail magnate Fred Meijer, who started the chain of superstores.
Rep. Ted Yoho’s retirement in Florida set off a crowded primary in a solidly red district where candidates are running as Trump backers. Gavin Rollins, a Clay County commissioner and school teacher, believes his distinct pro-Trump message will set him apart from the other Republicans who say they support Trump.
“I say ‘fight alongside our President,’” said Rollins, a captain in the Florida National Guard. “I chose that phrase very carefully because a lot of candidates who are Republican will say I support our president but it's not enough to support him. We need people in Congress fighting alongside him.”
Rollins said Trump has been a strong advocate for the military as commander-in-chief.
"He had my back in a combat zone. Do you think I'll have his back to Congress? Absolutely.”
At age 33 and running for federal office for the first time, Rollins said he wants to bring a different young voice to Congress to counter “socialism" and Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC.
"I get frustrated by AOC. She's a millennial who just jumped in and is spouting off all these things. But what has she done to give back to the community?" Rollins said. "What has she done to serve and make the world a better place at the local level or within her community before she's now lecturing the rest of us on our country should be? And as a millennial who has served in the classroom, who has served overseas, I want to push back against that narrative."
Farther north in Georgia, the Peach State is a hotbed of political activity with two Senate races and a heated effort to oust first-term Democrat Rep. Lucy McBath. Three Republicans congressmen are also leaving the House, setting up a wave of contenders to succeed GOP Reps. Rob Woodall, Tom Graves and Doug Collins, who is in an intraparty battle with Sen. Kelly Loeffler for the upper chamber seat.
At least 92 people -- including 48 Republicans -- have filed federal paperwork to become one of Georgia's 14 House representatives, records show.
Greene, who previously gained attention for launching an online petition that went viral to "Impeach Nancy Pelosi for crimes of Treason!" that she hand-delivered to the House speaker's office, was initially running in the GOP primary to take on McBath in the 6th district. But the pro-gun conservative switched her candidacy to the 14th district upon Graves' retirement announcement to better match the more Republican district. The move also gives former Rep. Karen Handel a clearer path to a rematch with McBath.
Greene credits the flurry of candidates to people being fed up with the attacks on Trump and the risk of socialist policies taking hold.
“I think people are jumping in the game because of President Trump,” she said. “We're at a point in our history, where people are aware… that if we don't step up now, we're going to lose what we have.”