Why Republicans’ Wafer-Thin House Majority Is a Gift for Democrats

Republicans handed President Biden two political gifts this week.

The first was Donald Trump’s announcement of a third presidential run. Whatever they might say publicly, Democrats are confident that they could beat Trump again.

Just look at their actions. On Thursday, Senator Raphael Warnock’s campaign put out a 30-second ad promoting Trump’s endorsement of Warnock’s opponent, Herschel Walker, in the runoff election for Senate in Georgia. During the midterms, Trump imposed a drag of five percentage points on Republican candidates, my colleague Nate Cohn found.

Even if Trump doesn’t win the Republican primary, there is a good chance he will damage whoever becomes the G.O.P. nominee in his stead. Many Republicans evidently agree, and are distancing themselves from Trump’s bid.

A Republican House divided

The second gift, perhaps a counterintuitive one, is Republicans taking control of the House.

That might not seem obvious at first; Democrats would have loved to keep it, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. For those focused on progressive policy goals, it’s a disaster. But given how the midterm picture appeared entering this year, keeping the Senate and narrowly losing the House are both huge accomplishments and an extraordinary stroke of political luck for Democrats.

Now Biden, should he run again, will have a daily foil on Capitol Hill. As my colleague Carl Hulse reported, the big question facing House Republicans for the next two years will be whether they can govern. The early signals suggest they are much more eager to investigate the Biden administration than they are in, say, taming inflation.

Already, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and other right-wing Republicans have secured a promise from party leaders to “investigate Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Justice Department for their treatment of defendants jailed in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol,” Hulse reported. After a midterm election in which voters repudiated many high-profile election deniers, that could easily backfire against Republicans.

Incoming committee leaders are also gearing up to investigate Hunter Biden, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration’s handling of the border, China and supply-chain issues, and on and on.

Hunting Hunter

Hunter, the president’s son, is first up on the menu. He is under federal investigation, but has not been charged with any crimes.

On Thursday morning, Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the likely next chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is expected to be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, held a news conference on Capitol Hill in which they leveled a blizzard of unsubstantiated accusations about the business dealings of Biden family members.

The thrust of the Republican lawmakers’ remarks: We’re coming after the president. “Our focus is Joe Biden,” Comer said.

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A new and younger trio of leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

Jordan portrayed the Justice Department and the F.B.I. as politicized in favor of Democrats — a tactic that may have the added goal of protecting Trump, whose handling of classified documents is under federal investigation.

“We’re committed to doing it in an aggressive fashion, but in a way that’s consistent with the Constitution,” Jordan said. Given Attorney General Merrick Garland’s reputation as a straight shooter, that might be a difficult case to make stick.

Democrats have long seen this coming. The administration is hunkering down in expectation of a G.O.P. onslaught, and several outside organizations have also popped up to begin what my colleague Kenneth Vogel calls a “counteroffensive” against Republican attacks. One of the groups, the revamped Congressional Integrity Project, previewed its plans to Politico — including warnings that it will investigate the Republican investigators.

Jordan referred to those efforts several times, complaining at one point, “They set up a committee to attack us.”

Republicans seem aware that many reporters, having looked at similar accusations for years without finding any wrongdoing by the president, are skeptical of G.O.P. findings.

“I realize that congressional oversight doesn’t have a lot of credibility in Washington,” Comer lamented, blaming the way congressional Democrats went after Trump while he was president.

McCarthy’s political vise

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California — assuming he ends up cutting enough deals to become speaker — will be tugged in two different directions, but the tug from his right is likely to be far stronger.

There are new Republican moderates like Mike Lawler, who defeated Representative Sean Patrick Maloney in a swing district in New York’s Hudson Valley, and Juan Ciscomani in Arizona. Both are vulnerable to losing their seats two years from now, and have incentives to break with McCarthy to his left.

But they will be vastly outnumbered by fire-breathing Trump supporters like Andy Ogles of Tennessee, who has called for impeaching President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin, who marched near the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“We’re at war. This is a political war, a cultural war, and it’s a spiritual war,” Ogles said after he won his primary. “And as we go forward, we’ve got to get back to honoring God and country.”

Most of the moderates who defied Trump while he was president, like Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming, John Katko of New York and Fred Upton of Michigan, are gone.

All told, the new Congress might include just two of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the Capitol riot: Representatives David Valadao of California, who narrowly leads his yet-to-be-called race, and Dan Newhouse of Washington State. By my count, of the three dozen Republican members of the incoming freshman class, all but two have cast doubt on Biden’s legitimacy.

Every Republican lawmaker from a deep-red district now essentially wields veto power — a dynamic that threatens to send the party down politically unproductive rabbit holes.

“It’s a totally nonfunctional majority,” Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who is one of two Republicans on the Jan. 6 committee and is leaving Congress next year, said in a recent podcast interview. “Each person now has the power of a senator, where every bill has to get basically not pulled to not something that can win or something that can get signed into law, but to the furthest right.”

McCarthy, Kinzinger added, is “probably the equivalent of the dog who caught the car.”

There will be demands to impeach Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security, and maybe even Biden himself — which will either divide Republicans or go nowhere in the Democratic-held Senate.

Republicans will also share political ownership of the state of the economy, which may make it harder for them to blame the administration. Expect the White House to try to deflect Republicans’ attacks by accusing them of focusing on distractions rather than the kitchen-table concerns of voters.

“Literally the first thing they did after winning a narrow majority is to hold a press conference to outline their plans for political payback,” said Kyle Herrig, the leader of the Congressional Integrity Project.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York is widely seen as the most likely next Democratic leader in the House.Credit…Al Drago for The New York Times

Were Democrats smart or lucky in 2022?

There are risks for Democrats, too, of course. Republicans might find investigative gold, or at least create the impression among voters that Biden has behaved corruptly — just as they did to Hillary Clinton. The economy could enter a recession, as some economists are now warning. And the Democrats’ expected new leadership team in the House of Representatives — Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Pete Aguilar of California — is relatively untested.

It’s also too early to say whether the unique confluence of factors that helped Democrats in 2022 — abortion chief among them, but also Republican election deniers — will return to the fore in 2024. The next time around, Republicans might have learned a few lessons from this year’s letdown; witness just how little mention Trump made of his 2020 gripes during his announcement speech on Tuesday. And Democrats will face a brutal Senate map, defending seats in red states like Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.

According to a postelection polling analysis by Navigator, a Democratic messaging project, 45 percent of voters said that inflation was the top issue in deciding their vote for Congress. Among single-issue voters focused on inflation, Democrats fared badly — 45 percentage points below Republicans. Democrats did much better among voters with a mix of priorities, including abortion, jobs, prescription drugs, health care, Social Security and Medicare.

And a postelection survey by AARP found that voters 65 and older swung sharply toward Democrats in 63 competitive House districts. From July to November, Republicans went from an advantage of 10 percentage points with that age group to a deficit of three points by Election Day.

Those voters expressed a range of priorities, including inflation, abortion, democracy and Social Security and Medicare.

“They were not feeling the same economic pressures as other voters,” Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who helped conduct the research, explained in a Zoom briefing.

Fabrizio, who is working for a super PAC supporting Trump in the 2024 election, said he would advise Republicans to “get on board with prescription drugs” and “stop talking about touching that third rail of Social Security and Medicare.”

John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who works for Biden, said the results suggested that many older voters were voting against extreme Republican candidates despite their worries about inflation or their unhappiness with the president. He summed up the midterms this way: “It was headwinds versus head cases.”

What to read

  • Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as House speaker and the longtime face of Democrats in the chamber, announced that she would not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. Follow the latest.

  • Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, says she is “exploring every avenue” to fight her loss, Alexandra Berzon and Jim Rutenberg report.

  • The closest House race in the country, Representative Lauren Boebert’s bid for re-election in Colorado, could come down to a recount, Maggie Astor writes.

Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake

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