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After a week of drama, Republicans finally elected Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker of the House of Representatives. But thanks to the GOP’s four-seat majority and several rule changes on which McCarthy capitulated to secure his position, the true power in the House for the next two years lies not with him but with a small group of the most extreme members of his party.
By empowering the GOP members who have the least national appeal, Democrats already are feeling good about their 2024 election prospects. And if last week’s debacle was any suggestion on how the rest of the term will unfold, their optimism may be warranted.
Voters have made clear their views on the most extreme candidates for office. Since Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, extreme candidates on either side have lost more elections than they’ve won. Voters are turned off by chaos, instead preferring stability — an attitude evidenced most by the increase in split-ticket votes in November.
But for Democrats to retake the House majority in 2024, they need to learn from their three biggest mistakes in 2020: turn around weak state party infrastructure in key states such as New York; invest heavily in the closest purple states and districts early on; and lay the groundwork for a broader coalition of Democrats to support electable, moderate candidates where they are running.
Democratic losses in New York are perhaps the most urgent to address. Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Sean Patrick Maloney lost New York’s 17th District to a Republican by only 1,820 votes, thanks in part to a disastrous redistricting process. But Democrats also missed the warning signs on Long Island — especially the seat won by Republican Rep. George Santos, now under investigation by the Federal Election Commission. The loss of that seat was just political malpractice.
And there’s more to learn from New York. Gov. Kathy Hochul misjudged the momentum of Republican Lee Zeldin, but when it was clear in August that he was gaining ground, national Democrats should have stepped in to stem the tide — not just for her but around the state. The losses highlight the dysfunction of the New York State Democratic Party, which has been plagued with problems for years, leaving many candidates on their own. Given that both Democratic leaders in Congress — Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — are New Yorkers, it could not be more important that the State Democratic Party restructure and rebuild to win back some of those lost seats, including Sean Patrick’s, in 2024.
Democrats also misjudged their competitiveness in some purple state districts. Case in point: Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who seized the Speaker vote as an opportunity to create chaos and maximize her time in the media. But if her opponent, Adam Frisch, had won just 546 more votes, it would not have happened. Theirs was one of the closest elections in the nation and offers many lessons for 2024.
Colorado is a purple state with a Democratic governor and a divided congressional delegation. Crisscrossing the enormous district in a camper throughout the campaign, Frisch set himself up as a pragmatic, moderate Democrat willing to respect, listen to and work with Republicans. He found that many Boebert constituents were tired of her antics and frustrated that she was spending time at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. But some left-leaning Democrats saw Frisch as too moderate and sat out the race.
That’s where help from the national Democratic establishment could have made a difference. Even a nominal investment in persuading a broader coalition of Democrats to turn out for Frisch might have won the seat. Leaders such as Jeffries, who could have helped mobilize more liberal voters, never came out because the DCCC didn’t take the race seriously, despite ample evidence it was winnable. Moderate candidates such as Frisch are the only ones with any chance of flipping closely split red-to-blue seats, but Democrats on the left must show up and support them. National Democrats must do a better job of highlighting the alternative to help turn out the full spectrum of Democratic voters in close races and districts.
Nationally, Republicans outperformed Democrats in the midterms by more than 3 million votes. And in fairness, Democrats never expected to do as well as they did. It was a historical anomaly and, thanks to lots of politically motivated polls predicting a Republican tsunami all summer, national Democrats were focused more on defending vulnerabilities than on picking up opportunities. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
Several other races in 2022 were extremely close and could have benefited from more national attention. In California’s 13th District, Republican John Duarte beat his Democratic opponent by only 564 votes, and in both Michigan’s 10th District and Colorado’s 8th District, Republicans won by fewer than 1,700 votes. Purple states and districts like these need sustained, focused support over the long term to flip — and Democrats should begin immediately investing in the ground game in these places.
With the country so closely divided, Democrats can afford no unforced errors in the next election cycle. The work must begin now to help build the infrastructure and plan for investments in the right races to win next time around.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
House speaker vote
Sean Patrick Maloney