In the 2022 midterms, Democratic voters motivated by the repeal of federal abortion protections blunted an expected “red wave” that eventually saw Republicans take control of the House with a smaller-than-expected majority.
But then there were New York and California.
The reliably liberal bastions saw voters successfully swayed by Republican messaging around inflation and crime. It was wins in the two blue states that pushed Republicans into the House majority.
Now, both Republicans and Democrats view those states as critical to winning the House majority in 2024. Democrats see the majority squarely within their grasp as 11 of the 18 House districts held by Republicans that President Biden won in 2020 are embedded throughout California and New York. But Republicans see an opportunity to defend their incumbents and possibly expand their gains, confident that their message will continue to resonate among Democratic and moderate voters. In a presidential year with two unpopular nominees likely to be at the top of the ticket, the playbook is even more complicated.
Democrats need only to win a net of five seats to win back the House majority.
“Those are clear targets of opportunity for us to clearly take back the majority in 2024,” Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said earlier this year in a visit to California, where he surveyed investments made along the San Dieguito River in a swing district that benefited from the Inflation Reduction Act passed under a House Democratic majority. “It’s all about New York and California in addition to several other states.”
The battle to control the House has also turned into a personal proxy war between leaders of both parties who hail from either state as they work to show they maintain critical influence at home and nationally. Roughly two dozen Democratic and Republican Party leaders, lawmakers and campaign officials, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss electoral strategies, agree that the party that takes the majority will have to win in the opposite coastal states.
The intense focus by party leaders has already come into view with a fundraising fight, as House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is set to make his debut to some of the party’s biggest donors in a jam-packed New York fundraising tour this weekend. He’ll host the annual Bright Lights on Broadway fundraiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee, while also attending two events for the New York delegations and three receptions for embattled New York Republicans in their districts.
Additionally, House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who takes much credit for Republicans’ big midterm wins in the Empire State, has set up a joint fundraising committee with Johnson and a separate fundraising apparatus with the New York Republican Party, where she is sharing her 1.5 million-name donor list and half of her fundraising haul with the goal of creating a massive voter outreach effort for the party.
“The states that have gained the most seats for Republicans are in what are historically considered blue states,” Stefanik said. “That’s a big deal to have the newly elected speaker of the House continue to prioritize New York.”
The Republican effort is meant to compete with Jeffries’s coordinated program with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to employ political organizing year-round as Jeffries pursues an indestructible political infrastructure that will win back the House majority and elevate him to the speakership. Democrats credit a strong showing in November’s local elections in Upstate New York and the Hudson Valley as proof the joint venture is working.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ouster as speaker of the House resulted in a significant loss for Republicans. But McCarthy, a prolific fundraiser, is continuing to distribute his war chest to vulnerable incumbents who supported him through the speaker fight. Earlier this month, he doled out more than $650,000 to 26 vulnerable incumbents, including six Californians and four New Yorkers. But McCarthy’s fundraising has dried up, and the coffers could, too.
“I think all of these Republicans know that [McCarthy] protected them and raised resources for them extensively. He never forgot about them, and made some of them competitive, even when they weren’t. I don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore,” Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said. “It’s a significant loss for California Republicans.”
As the highest-ranking Californian in Democratic leadership, Aguilar has launched his California House Majority Fund to serve as a constant flow of campaign cash and resources to flip the five Biden-won districts California Republicans currently represent and defend other Democratic-held swing districts. Aguilar is amassing funds now that will be released once the primaries are over and will work alongside the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to ensure the state is supported.
Two rematches from last cycle are particularly representative of the debate between the two parties.
Democratic challengers in both races are looking to draw contrasts between a House Democratic majority that passed scores of bipartisan bills and Republican infighting that has prevented them from implementing many laws. Republicans say that voters, worried about the rise in crime, prices and migrant crossings at the southern border, will help keep the party in power to serve as a check against Democrats, particularly if they retain control of the White House or the Senate next year.
In Southern California’s 41st Congressional District, Democrat Will Rollins is taking on 30-year incumbent Rep. Ken Calvert (R), whom Rollins lost to by less than five percentage points in 2022. Rollins became a credible challenge to Calvert after redistricting in 2021 stretched the district to now include the more liberal cities of Palm Springs and Palm Desert. The change gave Democrats a 3,000-voter registration advantage in a district where Rollins has since succeeded in turning out independent voters.
Roughly 2,600 miles away in Upstate New York’s 19th Congressional District, Democrat Josh Riley, a former counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, is looking to unseat freshman Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.), who has emerged as a consequential voice representing Republicans in Biden districts. Molinaro defeated Riley by 4,500 votes in the district that stretches from the liberal enclave of Ithaca through the district’s largest city of Binghamton into rural southern New York toward New York City. Riley believes he can win the rematch, now that Molinaro has a voting record in Congress, by showing voters that Molinaro “tries to play the part of a moderate” but “votes with all the extremists.”
The Molinaro vs. Riley rematch is one of seven seats that Biden won in 2020 that are up for grabs in the state. Six are represented by Republicans. Of those, three are on Long Island — which is trending more Republican, including in local elections earlier this month — and four are in Upstate New York, where Democratic candidates exceeded expectations in the same local elections.
The NRCC and other GOP campaign advisers are counseling campaigns in both states to tie Democratic candidates to unpopular decisions made by Hochul and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on issues such as crime and border security. It was a successful tactic in 2022 that both parties say contributed to the unexpected Democratic losses in both states.
“We continue to see policies out of Albany that make it difficult for law enforcement to do their job,” Molinaro said. “And then [voters] see the president truly ignoring … what is a humanitarian crisis at the border. And those [issues] do intersect.”
But the Republicans’ voting history in the House gives both Democratic candidates political ammunition. The incumbents’ congressional term saw: a 15-round vote to elect a speaker; a near government shutdown on two occasions; a fired up right-flank that has forced difficult votes on abortion and steep spending cuts; the first-ever ousting of a speaker of the House; and a three-week battle to elect their second leader in 10 months.
Molinaro admitted the speaker drama was damaging in his district, but said that he has been a voice of reason in a party that is too conservative for his constituents by including provisions that help upstate New Yorkers in the debt ceiling deal as well as federal aviation and Farm Bill legislation, which have not yet passed Congress. More crucially, he said, he has blocked legislation that would hurt his constituents, including spending cuts to Amtrak, cuts to housing for disabled people, attempts to limit access to the abortion drug mifepristone, and undoing a D.C. law that protects women who have sought an abortion from discrimination.
Speaking to Democratic voters who sipped on drinks in the heart of Ithaca, Riley stayed focused on his opponent as he wove in promises to protect abortion rights and Social Security, and to work for gun control legislation. He touted three new semiconductor manufacturing plants being built in the state, including one in the district, because of a bill passed by Democrats and signed into law by President Biden. He repeatedly tied Molinaro to a party that wants to “kill the promise” of Upstate New York, pointing to Molinaro’s votes in support of repealing parts of the infrastructure bill, as well as a Defense Department funding bill that included some restrictions to abortion access.
In California, Rollins is targeting Calvert’s extensive record and contrasting it with his own national security credentials. Rollins has accused Calvert of enriching himself over his three decades in Washington and hammered him on specific votes constituents may not often hear about. Calvert, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, caused a stir over the summer for his staunch defense of an amendment to strip funding for LGBTQ+ centers from the transportation and housing funding bill — a decision that could be politically harmful now that his district includes the LGBTQ-friendly Palm Springs, where Rollins lives with his partner.
As apprentices made measurements to build a project as part of their training at the Southwest Mountain States Carpenters Union in Riverside, Calif., earlier this year, Rollins mentioned that Calvert had voted against the Democratic-led bipartisan infrastructure bill in 2021, which added funds to an already existing project to connect a local interchange that was expected to alleviate traffic and create jobs for construction workers.
“If you’re more obsessed with defunding LGBT centers in Pennsylvania than you are making it easier for people to get from Lake Elsinore to their jobs every day, your senses, your priorities are out of whack,” Rollins said.
In response, Calvert accused Rollins of being out of touch with the district.
“I’ve lived my entire life in the district, I know the challenges and have a proven track record of delivering on infrastructure, flood control, air quality and countless other local priorities,” Calvert said in a statement. “The last thing we need is an LA transplant who doesn’t know the district, bringing more of the backwards ideas that have made California less safe and more unaffordable by the day.”
Democrats are working nationally to put a question on abortion access on the ballot in several states, including in New York, after seeing it help vulnerable incumbents in swing districts last cycle. Abortion, however, did not have the same effect in California last cycle, when voters supported both enshrining abortion rights into the state constitution and electing Republicans to the House.
Republicans firmly say they can grow their majority as long as the House does not take up any controversial abortion legislation. Republicans say the crime and immigration issues are still potent, pointing to election results in Long Island, where a Republican recently flipped a county executive seat long held by Democrats.
It’s not just policy issues that will be central to the outcome in a presidential election year. Two unpopular nominees will probably be at the top of the ticket, which could have a major impact on down-ballot races.
Democrats privately worry that Biden’s weakness among base and independent voters, particularly on issues of crime and immigration, will have a negative impact in House races. But they argue Trump will be a huge liability for Republican candidates, especially as his court cases progress and as news coverage of his policies and behavior increases if he becomes the nominee. Moreover, they have seen Trump serve as a motivator for the Democratic base, which they expect to turn out in higher numbers than in the midterms.
Stefanik argued that Trump isn’t a liability and suggested that Republican candidates should hug the former president.
“President Trump turns out voters more effectively than any other candidate on the ballot and the Republican Party,” she said. “This is ultimately a turnout game.”