In parts of the West Wing and Capitol Hill, they’re known as “The 18” – the 18 House Republicans elected in districts where voters supported President Joe Biden over Donald Trump. His aides are putting together plans to squeeze and shame them in the hopes of peeling off a few key votes over the next two years.
To the president and House Democratic leaders, they are the path back to the majority in 2024, and maybe even to some actual governing in between. Democrats are already making plans to pressure these Republicans to break with their party – and let their Biden-supporting voters back home know about it if and when they don’t.
The 18 themselves are not so convinced.
“Aren’t they going to work to get us to lose next November no matter what?” scoffed a skeptical New York Rep. Mike Lawler, the freshman who beat a five-term incumbent in one of the country’s most Biden-leaning district that is currently represented by a Republican. “Bipartisanship and compromise does not mean just me and a bunch of Republicans in Biden districts just acquiescing to the White House. They need to understand they need to come to the table as much as we do.”
The big test will be a showdown over the debt ceiling, which will play out over the spring. But White House congressional liaisons beginning to fan out on Capitol Hill believe they might be able to get beyond the basics and possibly get bills through on Biden’s cancer moonshot, veteran care, the opioid epidemic and mental health – among other items that are being considered as part of an outreach and unity agenda, which may be included in Biden’s State of the Union address next week.
White House aides are eying carrots like Oval Office sit-downs, invitations to the president’s box at the Kennedy Center, spots in official delegations overseas. Others are already sharpening sticks, like political ads that are planned to start running back home earlier than ever before with the aim of shaming Republicans who vote with their party rather than peeling off toward Biden.
Then there are the Air Force One trips. It’s early still, but White House aides are already teasing the idea of Biden flying on Air Force One into districts where he’s popular – maybe to say thanks for working with him, or maybe to bemoan those who couldn’t join him on common ground.
For each bill, Democrats would only need five defections to join them – 218 votes are needed to pass the House bills – and the party is heavily favored to win a race for an open seat in Virginia scheduled for late February, which would add one more vote to their current total of 212 seats. And they don’t think new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, with his own narrow margins and his loose hold on the speakership, will be able to do much to stop them or punish them – provided they can find ways to force votes on the floor that he may not want.
“Given the very Democratic nature of some of these districts, they’re going to have to weigh their political futures against party loyalty on a relatively consistent basis,” said a bemused senior Biden adviser already drawing up plans to pressure The 18. “Given what appears to be a hardening position from the House Republican leadership on how they plan to conduct business, that leadership will be putting their own members between a rock and a hard place.”
Sensing an opportunity
Political operatives often make big promises about how many House races they’re going to win in districts where the incumbent members of Congress aren’t from the same party as the presidential candidate who did better there in the last election – the Obama-district Republicans, the Trump-district Democrats. The actual results tend to be mixed, but Democrats insist the particulars of these districts in the elections may really make the difference.
The swing voters in these districts, Democrats believe, went with Biden because they’re moderates who don’t like chaos, while the concessions McCarthy made to win his gavel proved that the MAGA wing is empowered in the House Republican majority.
“Many Republicans in swing districts talked a good game during their campaigns but folded to the House Republicans’ MAGA agenda as soon as they arrived in DC,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, who’s coming in as the new chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
White House aides are particularly eying the six Biden districts in New York and five in California currently represented by Republicans. There are enough seats in each of two of the very blue states to give Democrats the majority. Base turnout is always higher with a presidential race on the ballot, but they’re also counting on Biden – if he runs, as most around him currently expect him to – to do well with swing voters, with coattails that can carry them along.
“The targets are pretty clear,” said Rusty Hicks, the chair of the California Democratic Party. “If what happened in 15 rounds to ultimately secure a speaker is any clue as to what we’re going to see over the next two years, 2024 is going to be a lot of fun.”
New House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York has stayed involved in his home state politics and would love to get to be speaker by flipping Republican seats there, while the already emerging competitive Senate race in California is likely to draw even more Democrats to the polls. State law means general elections are between whichever two candidates get the most votes in a first round of voting, meaning that it could end up with two Democrats facing each other.
The fight could get started early, with both Republicans and Democrats in New York and Washington already quietly starting to talk about potential candidates about a special election in Long Island if famed fabulist Rep. George Santos decides to resign. Santos’ district is already the most heavily Biden supporting district in the country – it went to the president by 57.3% – and even before his many lies about his background and résumé came to light, he’d been backing away from Republicans threatening to impeach Biden, saying in a Fox News interview shortly after the election that he wanted to focus instead on popular local priorities like energy independence and reducing crime.
There’s also one Biden-won district with a Republican representative in Oregon, one in Nebraska, one in Pennsylvania, one in Virginia, one in New Jersey and two in Arizona.
Another number on Democrats’ minds: Across the tight races, the difference between being in the majority and being in the minority was just 6,700 votes – and not all of those were in Biden districts.
Democrats question if GOP want to be ‘legitimate governing partners’
Though they had to delay because of how long the speaker’s election went on, Biden aides fanned out to Capitol Hill offices, introducing themselves to new members and their key aides, starting to build up files of potential points of connection and issues they worked on before getting to Congress.
This is not just insistent optimism or naïveté, a White House aide insisted, but lessons learned from over 200 bipartisan bills signed over his first two years that they say could still apply, even with a Republican majority.
White House aides and staff in the new minority leader’s office have been trying to coordinate on both strategy and talking points.
In the aftermath of McCarthy’s week-long battle to get elected speaker, aides to House Democrats were given their marching orders from the new leadership. In separate meetings with chiefs of staff and with press aides, according to people in the room, organizers showed a video compilation of local TV hosts describing the speaker election process as “chaos” or “confusion.” The goal, one aide explained to the group, is to press a message of unity versus chaos each day, with a constant drumbeat of Republican “extremism.”
That goes even for responding to the coming barrage of oversight investigations: It’s not their job to fact check or take the bait from Republicans, aides urged, but to call these politically motivated committees asserting unprecedented power rather than focusing on kitchen table issues.
“It remains to be seen,” Jeffries told CNN, “whether the so-called moderates on the other side of the aisle want to be legitimate governing partners – particularly with Republicans mired in dysfunction.”
Democratic political operations aren’t waiting to see. A spokesperson for House Majority PAC, the super PAC which supports campaigns for House Democrats, said that the group is already preparing to start buying ads online – and potentially on radio, TV and via mail – to start hitting Republicans over their votes.
In a strategy memo obtained by CNN, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm, offers blunt guidance like “Maintain and Apply Pressure to Vulnerable and Complicit Republicans” and calls Biden-district Republicans “enablers, unwilling to stand up and say no to the shady negotiations or demands.”
“They will all be held accountable for every single concession made, everything that appears in the rules package that they voted for, and every one of McCarthy’s future disastrous actions,” the memo asserts.
The 18 Biden-district Republicans know how much is going to start coming down on them. They know how precarious their political situation is. They’re keeping in touch with each other on their own, even as they start to meet with aides from the White House and relay their concerns to the speaker’s office.
At least for now, they’re comfortable keeping his distance from Biden. Lawler, for one, would not commit to backing a “clean” raising of the debt limit – raising the nation’s credit limit without tying that to the spending cuts that McCarthy and most other Republicans are demanding. If Biden’s plan is to try to shame him and the others in his position into just going along with them, Lawler said, they’re going to be in for a difficult surprise.
“We need to lift the debt ceiling, we’re not going to default – but there does need to be an understanding that spending cannot continue at the level that it is,” Lawler said. “There needs to be a negotiation. They can’t just say, ‘This is where we are.’ The Republicans control the House.”
He said he was hoping to hear more from the White House than the brief introductory meeting with his liaison so far but didn’t know when that might happen.
People close to several Republicans in Biden-district seats who won in November told CNN they are already starting to accept that they may be doomed to getting just one term in Washington. But even diehard Democratic operatives see at least some of the 18 as almost certainly out of reach: California Rep. David Valadao and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick are starting to look invulnerable to Democrats, given how easily they’ve repeatedly dispatched challengers in multiple elections.
But some Democratic operatives are eying an even wider list of Republicans that they can pull the same squeeze-and-shame maneuver on, including South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher and Iowa Rep. Zach Nunn. Though Biden didn’t win in their districts, he did well there, and they are all members who often look to stress their independence to voters. The Democratic thinking suggests they can be pushed into choosing between joining with them and threats of primaries from their right flank.
2024 House race maneuvering already underway
Jevin Hodge, who lost in November by just over 3,000 votes to Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, told CNN the Biden district math is very much on his mind as political leaders at home and those he met with on a trip to Washington this week urge him to launch another campaign.
“That remaining 1 or 2 or 3% is make or break in this district. Having the president on the ballot would have made a fundamental difference,” Hodge said.
He accused Schweikert of now “actively contributing to the chaos in Washington.”
If the next two years are about standoffs and shutdowns, Hodge said, he believes voters there will recoil: “When we have inaction, that inaction is felt in our district.”
Some Democrats insist Republicans’ self-inflicted damage started the day they gaveled in, without any of the votes or showdowns to come.
“The Biden-district Republicans are responsible for electing a House majority over which they will have zero influence,” said former Rep. Tom Malinowski, who in November lost a New Jersey seat redistricted to be not quite as Biden-leaning as it had been in his previous two wins.
“They gave us a House in which Marjorie Taylor Greene will have immensely more power than they have, a House that will continue to do crazy things that voters in Biden districts hate,” Malinowski said. “They created the monster that could well destroy them in 2024.”
Malinowski said he’s undecided about another run.
Jack Pandol, the communications director for the House Republicans’ campaign arm, isn’t convinced – and not just because Biden didn’t have significant coattails in 2020, with Democrats having a net loss of 14 seats even though they held onto a slim majority.
“Having the gavels enhances members’ ability to deliver for their districts, build their brands, and follow through on the promises they made to hold the Biden administration accountable,” Pandol said. “Meanwhile, Democrats are still stuck with Joe Biden and all his baggage.”