Exit Interview is an IJR original series exploring the 2018 midterms by examining what didn’t work in order to better understand what did. Following Election Day, IJR will give candidates who came up short in their respective races an opportunity to speak their minds after the dust settles.
It’s been a trying few weeks for Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.). In late October, with just over a week to go until Election Day, a gunman in a neighboring Pennsylvania district killed 11 people at Tree of Life Synagogue in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history. Rothfus was quickly on the ground in Pittsburgh, talking with family members of the victims and survivors of the tragedy.
Ten days later, the three-term congressman was defeated by Democratic wunderkind Conor Lamb.
In an exclusive interview with IJR, the outgoing Republican lawmaker said he’s “disappointed” with the midterm results but argues the outcome had “everything” to do with the recent redistricting, which favored Democrats, and not much to do with his embrace of President Donald Trump.
“That was the main factor,” Rothfus said of the newly drawn PA-17. “I would have been re-elected if I had my old district.”
And while the president hammers other Republicans for ignoring his “embrace” on the campaign trail, Rothfus admitted he regrets skipping an appearance with Trump in Pennsylvania a few weeks back.
“It would have been really helpful to highlight all the great work that we’ve been doing,” Rothfus said.
Rothfus did, however, receive a number of tweets from the president promoting his campaign against Lamb, but the unfavorable redistricting proved to be too much for the Republican to overcome.
IJR: It’s been a week since Election Day, and things didn’t go your way. How are you feeling now about the results?
REP. KEITH ROTHFUS: I’m obviously disappointed. We’ve done a lot of work over the last six years, or I have done a lot of work over the last six years, and we did everything that we said we would do. And in the last couple of years, in particular, we have the best economy that we’ve had in 20 years.
But unfortunately, with the new district the way it was set up, it was just a big challenge to overcome.
Do you think the result was simply due to the redistricting that favored Democrats and Congressman-elect Conor Lamb, or was there more to it?
That was the main factor. I would have been re-elected if I had my old district.
There was also the horrific mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue less than two weeks before Election Day. How was working through that, and how were you able to do so while also campaigning?
It was very close to my district, and we lost a constituent — one of the 11 was one of my constituents.
It was the worst attack on the Jewish community in American history, and you can’t really — it’s very difficult to get your head around what happened. That you would have this individual filled with such hatred towards the Jewish people, that he would go in and decide to murder 11 innocent people who have had wonderful lives, who were beautiful people. You learn about how good these people are when you hear the stories and talk to the family members.
I tried to really just parallel track — you had that horrific event, which certainly changed the focus a number of days. I decided to put up an ad about hope and healing as opposed to a traditional final campaign ad that was really meant to be a letter to Pittsburgh and the nation about coming together.
What was your reaction overall to how things went on Election Day, with Democrats taking the House?
Going in, I was hopeful that the House could maintain the majority, notwithstanding the situation in my district, because we have done a lot of great work over the last couple of years.
The economy is the best it’s been in decades. We did significant work on opioids, significant work on human trafficking, significant work on veterans reform. We had a lot of work left to do. And I was hopeful that the House would be able to remain in Republican hands. But it didn’t work out.
You talk about the economy being in a great place, but Republicans still came up short in the House midterm races. There’s a lot of talk right now about this being President Trump’s fault. Where do you land on that?
This is not out of line with what you see in midterms, particularly the first midterm after a new administration comes in.
Every midterm has its own dynamic, but I do think the winds were in our face, and I think the American people, perhaps, have a tendency to like divided government.
The president came out a day after the midterms and said certain Republicans lost because they didn’t embrace him enough. Do you agree? Should those candidates have embraced the president more? Your colleague, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), said he was disgusted by Trump attacking Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) and others. Were you?
I was so focused on my race, frankly, and I was in a bit of a recovery mode that day.
I know that a lot of people worked really hard, present company included, and so I tend to focus on the efforts that were put out and understand that there is still a lot of work to be done for all of us who are not coming back.
So you don’t have any comment on Trump going after your Republican colleagues the day after losing their seats?
I think it’s helpful to recognize the hard work that everybody has been doing over the last couple years to get this economy in shape, and I think most of my colleagues, including those that are not coming back, were part of that team that helped to get legislation to the president’s desk.
During the 2016 election, I said, “Look, the fact of the matter is that President Trump would sign legislation that Hillary Clinton would veto.” So we had some good efforts over the last couple of years, and my hope is going forward is it will not be undone by the new Democratic majority.
President Trump campaigned in Pennsylvania ahead of Election Day, but you weren’t at the rally. Are there any regrets over not campaigning directly with the president?
Yeah, I think so. It would have been really helpful to highlight all the great work that we’ve been doing. And we certainly have a lot to brag about in the space. Steve Scalise was in town that night for me, coming to do a fundraiser, and I think that was the evening [Trump] was up in Erre.
What is your advice or concern looking forward to Democrats taking over the House in January? How worried should the president be about Democrats utilizing subpoena power?
I would just advise my Democrat friends that they got to keep their eye on this economy. They shouldn’t want to do anything to slow this economy down.
There is a legitimate oversight function, but it’s unfortunate that things have become so polarized that the Democrats have failed to see the scandal that’s right there with the Department of Justice and the FBI.
My hope is that Republicans or Democrats will be interested in getting to the truth on that.
You’re a three-term congressman who lost after an unfavorable redistricting. What’s next for you? Are you looking at any other districts in Pennsylvania for a run in 2020?
I’m regrouping. There are a lot of different things I could be looking at, and I’m really looking forward to seeing my kids more. You know, we released an ad a week before Election Day that I hope people check out on YouTube, and it really sums up for me what I’ve been trying to covey for six years — the exceptional nature of this country.
The nature of people finding purpose. The inherent dignity that we all have because God gave us that dignity and value. And I was trying to appeal to the nature of this exceptional country. Not unlike the way Abraham Lincoln tried to appeal to the principals in the Declaration of Independence in the 1850s.
We have a divided country. And we need to be focusing on what was it that made this country exceptional. What was it that really made this the greatest country the world has ever seen. And I think the answer is going to lie in an appreciation of where our freedoms come from.
Much like President Kennedy said in his inaugural address in 1961, those rights do not come from the generosity of the state, they come from the hand of God.