The Sweep: In 2022, the GOP Question Is Trump vs. McCarthy
Plus: Who's likely to suffer in the midterms from the latest round of debt-ceiling chicken.
Campaign Quick Hits
Will He or Won’t He: Sen. Chuck Grassley just announced that he’ll decide by Nov. 1 whether to run for an eighth term. Republicans are already defending three open seats—Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. Iowa and Wisconsin are still up in the air … for a few more weeks.
Redistricting Crystal Ball: Based on the latest census data and the proposed maps that some states have started to roll out, Dave Wasserman at Cook Political Report now predicts that Republicans may net as few as “1-2 House seats from redistricting alone, down from 3-4 a few months ago.” Two seats probably won’t be the difference between a GOP and Democratic majority, but it could be!
The House in Danger for Democrats: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the national party apparatus that runs House races—is focusing on fewer races this year. According to Axios, ”Democrats are trying to unseat only about half as many Republican House members next year as they did in 2020, trimming their target list from 39 to 21.” More and more, Republicans look poised to take back the House—but the Senate is still leaning toward the Democrats.
Stop the Steal Spreads: At the national, official level, the Republican Party’s midterm strategy this cycle is all about the tried and true: outflanking the opposition by staying abreast of advances in election technology and keeping messaging laser-focused on the supposed failings of a Democratic administration. But while the Republican National Committee tries to tout its “data and digital boot camps” and national GOP leaders in Washington say that their party’s message will be all about how the Biden administration has “mismanaged the economy, mismanaged the border, mismanaged crime,” a different strategy is taking hold in the field. From Politico:
Last week it was Larry Elder in California, who—before getting trounced in the GOP’s failed effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom—posted a “Stop Fraud” page on his campaign website. Before that, at a rally in Virginia, state Sen. Amanda Chase introduced herself as a surrogate for gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and told the crowd, “Because the Democrats like to cheat, you have to cast your vote before they do.” In Nevada, Adam Laxalt, the former state attorney general running to unseat Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, is already talking about filing lawsuits to “tighten up the election”—more than a year before votes are cast. And in Pennsylvania, former Rep. Lou Barletta, who is running for governor after losing a Senate race two years earlier, said he “had to consider” whether a Republican could ever win a race again in his state given the current administration of elections there.
First, even Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee, who were briefed by President Trump’s advisers on their 2020 election rigging theories, didn’t find any there there. According to Bob Woodward and Bob Costa, the senators “found the sloppiness, the overbearing tone of certainty, and the inconsistencies disqualifying.” Second, telling your voters that the election is rigged against them—but that they should go vote anyway—is an odd turnout strategy. Third, the election changes that Republicans are proposing at the state level making it harder to vote by mail, and limiting early voting will often be making it harder for their voters to vote—especially older voters who tend to lean Republican and rural voters who may have to travel a decent distance to get to their polling place.
Trumpism’s Next Push: GOP leaders in Washington thought they had reached an understanding with Trump in the wake of 2020. Sure, Rep. Liz Cheney, the former No. 3 in the House GOP, who lost her leadership position within the party for continuing to insist that Trump had lost the 2020 election, had to go. But for those willing to keep their mouths shut, they believed, Trumpism was still subordinate to Republicanism. Perhaps not.
Last week, excerpts from the new book from the Bobs (Woodward and Costa) reported new details of Trump’s thinking in the wake of his 2020 loss. One person apparently in his crosshairs: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who ultimately failed to back his attempts to overturn the results of Biden’s win. “This guy called me every single day, pretended to be my best friend,” Trump said of McCarthy, according to Woodward and Costa. “And then, he f***ed me.” Trump has even toyed publicly with the idea of running for speaker of the House himself if the GOP takes back the chamber in 2022.
And now the uneasy détente may really be about to fall apart. The Wall Street Journal this week reported that “Mr. Trump has spoken recently with senators and allies about trying to depose [Senate Minority Leader] McConnell and whether any Republicans are interested in mounting a challenge, according to people familiar with the conversations.” As with McCarthy, Trump isn’t happy that McConnell called his election rigging claims “wild falsehoods” that led to January 6.
And there are plenty of Republicans who would support deposing the current leadership of the party. Rep. Matt Gaetz, an unofficial spokesman for the party’s Trumpist wing, tweeted this month, “How can the GOP Conference trust [McCarthy] to go beyond talking tough to Pelosi when he won't even stand up to @Liz_Cheney or @AdamKinzinger?”
Neither McCarthy nor McConnell were ever “Trump guys” to the hilt, and their continued leadership of the party will always be a threat to the permanence of Trumpism, keeping alive the hope of many Republican members of Congress that the former president’s continued role in the future of the party can be managed or contained. So if the forces of Trumpism want to complete their takeover before the GOP primaries in 2024, those two are certainly the most important targets.
Our own Audrey Fahlberg spent her Saturday covering a small rally in support of those arrested on January 6, where she got an interview she thought y’all might want to see.
Trump’s New House-Hopeful Iconoclasts: Meet Joe Kent
Ahead of Look Ahead America’s “Justice for J6” rally in Union Square on Saturday, former President Donald Trump told The Federalist that the event was a “setup” and that any rally attendees who did show up would be “harassed” by the media.
The optics of the event were striking: After several weeks of media hype and police preparation, the event ended up being a honeypot of reporters and U.S. Capitol Police officers in riot gear, with very few actual rallygoers in attendance.
Trump-endorsed GOP congressional candidate Joe Kent didn’t get the memo. He headlined the event as one of its speakers, telling the crowd Saturday that “it’s banana republic stuff when political prisoners are arrested and denied due process.” Asked by The Dispatch whether he thinks the former president should have encouraged his supporters to attend the rally, Kent drew a blank. “I don’t know what he did,” he said, apparently unaware of Trump’s remarks ahead of the event. “I’m mostly concerned that people are being detained without their constitutional rights.”
Kent has adopted the stereotypical MAGA playbook in his bid to oust six-term Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, citing her vote to impeach Trump back in January as “one of the biggest infractions” from her tenure in Congress. He told The Dispatch that he believes the election was stolen and that he considers Mike Pence a traitor to the Republican Party for certifying the Electoral College results on January 6.
In centering his campaign around a stolen-election platform, he joins the ranks of many other Trump-endorsed candidates who regularly traffic in conspiracy theories that are popular among the Republican base. “No matter where I go, people want to see that we’re not just going to let January—or November of 2020—fade into the rearview,” he said. “I want to have a full congressional inquiry into the election of 2020, so that we can actually lay out all the evidence, subpoena witnesses, subpoena evidence, put people under oath.”
Kent may have scored Trump’s endorsement, but he has one major obstacle standing in front of his congressional aspirations: winning support from the biggest player in the House, GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
FEC filings show that McCarthy’s leadership PAC, Take Back the House 2022, is raising money for Herrera Beutler and four other GOP incumbents who voted to impeach Trump back in January: John Katko of New York, David Valadao of California, and Peter Meijer and Fred Upton of Michigan.
Kent sees McCarthy’s support for five House GOP impeachment voters as “smacking the base of the Republican Party in the face.” “Kevin McCarthy, right now he’s running a classic GOP grift,” Kent said. “The Republican Party is, what, 93 percent behind Trump? So he’s going and funding half of the impeachment voters, and people need to realize that it’s a big grift.”
To say that Kent is bitter about McCarthy’s support for Herrera Beutler would be an understatement. He said Kevin McCarthy and other “country club Republicans” consistently “wear the MAGA and America First like a bumper sticker just to raise funds.” During the Trump era, Kent claims, McCarthy and his allies “did nothing but prevent the America First agenda—Trump had to fight them every step of the way.”
For all his bluster, might he be out of touch with the base? His decision to speak at Saturday’s rally underscores deep fissures in the Republican Party over which institutions and elected Republicans Trump supporters ought to trust now that Trump is no longer in the White House. “The reaction to the J6 political prisoners rally is telling. Many are saying it’s a trap etc.,” he tweeted a day before the rally. “The ugly truth is that we have to show up if we want things to change. It’s on us, there’s no plan to trust.”
Kent told The Dispatch that his biggest role models in the House Republican conference are Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar, and Matt Gaetz, all of whom regularly traffic conspiracy theories about the 2020 election but nonetheless steered clear of Saturday’s rally.
Gaetz and his allies are eager for more MAGA-aligned congressional candidates to join their ranks in the House GOP conference. The Florida congressman campaigned for Kent in Ridgefield, Washington, earlier this month and told The Dispatch on Monday he hopes his colleagues will join him in supporting Kent. “I think he’s the better candidate in that race,” Gaetz said.
Finally, here’s Chris on who is playing 3D chess and who is actually playing checkers these days!
Will Voters Fall For Dems’ Shutdown Jiu Jitsu?
What are the political consequences of a federal fiscal crisis when one party controls both houses of Congress and the White House? How about if the party in power is staring down potentially massive midterm losses?
Democratic leaders in Congress face a two-week deadline to continue government funding and then another fiscal cliff soon afterward as the government hits its borrowing limit, which will likely be sometime in October. These must-do items are especially problematic since the bulk of President Biden’s agenda rests on two big bills pending in Congress: a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a huge Democrats-only package focused on social welfare spending. The social welfare bill alone would be larger than all federal spending combined for fiscal year 2010. The Senate has already passed the infrastructure plan, but House Democrats have threatened to kill it if they do not also get the welfare package. But moderate Senate Democrats have balked at the price tag, which is big trouble for a party that can’t afford any defections—even using a procedural maneuver that would allow the bill to pass with 51 votes by dressing it up as a budget.
The threat of a shutdown and a debt breach could doom both bills. Democrats can debate whether going big on deficit-funded spending is a good political idea for 2020, but there is no question that a shutdown combined with a debt crisis would be a catastrophe. Not only would it threaten the vulnerable economy, it would reinforce the idea suggested by the Afghanistan debacle that the Biden-era Democratic Party might be a bunch of nincompoops. After promising to bring stability and end the chaos and nincompoopery of the Trump era, it would not be a good look if Democrats can’t keep the government open and the credit card up to date. A shutdown and debt breach would also end any real conversation about borrowing another $5 trillion for wish-list spending. That would send Democrats into the heart of the midterm cycle with neither accomplishments of which to boast nor the claim of competency.
On Monday, Democrats rolled out their plan to put Republicans on the hook for the potential fiscal fizzle, revealing a plan to fund the government through December attached to a measure to waive the debt limit through the end of 2022. The package would need all the Democrats in the Senate—which is no sure thing—and 10 Republicans. But almost all of the GOP senators have already vowed to oppose any debt-ceiling lift as long as Democrats are advancing their mega spending plans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said immediately after the package plan was out that the same embargo applied even with the shutdown-prevention component attached. Democrats could lift the debt limit on their own, if they stick together and make the borrowing increase part of their big spending package. But that would combine two dangerous votes for vulnerable moderates: big spending and big borrowing. They want Republican votes on a debt-limit suspension for 15 months, not an all-Democrat vote to add trillions more to the massive national debt. If that’s part of the package, the spending bill itself becomes far less likely to pass.
The hope by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is that Republicans will either crack under the pressure of the potential shutdown and relent, or that if the crackup comes, midterm voters will blame the GOP for the whole mess. I’m certainly skeptical that Democrats could avoid taking the blame for such a mess while in total control in Washington, but to understand why they think they might pull it off look back to the last time a party was in total control and still slid into shutdown.
Republicans managed that rare feat for one weekend in January 2018, when Senate Democrats demanded legislation to protect individuals who came to the United States illegally as minors in exchange for their votes to keep the government open. Republicans needed 10 Democrats to vote with them for another continuing resolution.
Democrats, led by Schumer, hoped that Republicans would take the blame for the shutdown, seeing as they were in charge of both Houses and the White House. But Schumer & Co. had committed a serious strategic blunder. By making a demand unrelated to the funding process, they had no clear way to negotiate out of the shutdown they triggered. They wanted to put the heat on then-President Donald Trump over his threat to deport those who came to the U.S. illegally as minors, but did not have a way to force such legislation into consideration. The Trump administration prepared to diminish the effects of a shutdown on public-facing federal function while letting the brunt fall on government workers—the reverse of traditional shutdown theater, in which presidents try to increase pressure on Congress by annoying their constituents. Government workers are a key Democratic constituency, so the gambit increased pressure on the blue-team senators to end what was ultimately a publicity stunt.
It’s hard to say what the exact consequences were in that November’s midterms, but we do know a few things. All five of the Democrats who voted against the shutdown were red-staters facing tough re-election bids. Four of the five lost anyway. Indeed, Republicans ended up expanding their majority by two seats. This was thanks in part to a favorable map. But there was certainly no evidence that Democrats were able to stick the majority party with the blame for the shutdown.
Perhaps Schumer and Pelosi are hoping for a similar result this time. But that forgets a couple of key variables. First, the Republican demand is about spending, not an unrelated issue. Democrats couldn’t defend shutting down the government to try to retaliate against Trump’s deportation threat. And unlike the case three years ago, Democrats have the power to resolve half of the crisis by themselves. They are the ones complicating the “clean” stopgap spending package because they don’t want to be stuck with the debt-ceiling vote. Voters have short memories for these fiscal fistfights, but if there is some kind of catastrophe that shapes opinions next year, Democrats will pay a price.