Analysis: As Biden courts swing voters, Republicans play to their base

McCarthy, wearing a dark suit, white shirt and pink tie, is walking in the Capitol's Statuary Hall
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy arrives to speak during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday after the new Republican majority in the House passed its first legislative measures.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Motivate the base or appeal to swing voters?

A lot of political arguments turn on which of those strategies should take precedence in campaigns.

If you’re watching Washington right now, you’re seeing a real-time experiment play out on which works better.

House Republicans, who got down to business this week after spending the previous one fighting over whether Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) should be speaker, appear to be staking their majority on motivating their core, conservative voters.


By contrast, President Biden, who tacked left during the first two years of his presidency, has started the year with steps toward the center as he readies a reelection campaign that remains unannounced but clearly underway.

Battling over extremism

Republicans suffered from a key weakness in the midterm election: A significant share of voters in the center of the electorate — independents and moderates — saw them as extremists, exit polls indicate.

That belief that Republicans were “too extreme,” was a prime reason Democrats were able to hold down their losses among voters who were upset about the state of the economy, as election analyst Ron Brownstein recently wrote.

Biden’s aides and other Democrats are seeing those same polls and clearly intend to make accusations of Republican extremism a central element of their campaign over the next two years.

“You win elections by addition, not subtraction, but the Republicans are so motivated by what drives a narrow fringe of their base that they’re putting themselves out of touch with the majority of the country,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. The Republican agenda is “about what ignites right-wing social media,” rather than issues that most voters consider priorities, he said.

White House officials share that sentiment and have worked to create contrasts. When House Republicans were enmeshed in their internal battle over the speakership, Biden traveled to Kentucky to stand with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and tout the bipartisan infrastructure law that is providing money to upgrade a major bridge over the Ohio River from McConnell’s home state to Ohio.

Then, Biden took another step with potential appeal to centrist voters — announcing a new immigration plan that would help some Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians apply for legal entry to the U.S. but would also expand the authority of border agents to quickly turn back migrants at the border.


The plan, which accompanied a Biden visit to the border, drew angry objections from immigrant advocates. They expressed outrage at Biden’s use of a policy first put into place by former President Trump.

But Biden’s move responded to the widespread concern among voters who feel that the southern border is out of control. That concern runs strongest among Republicans but is shared by large numbers of independents and Democrats. In a Pew Research Center poll in September, for example, 73% of Americans said that increased security along the border should be a priority for U.S. immigration policy. That included 59% of Democrats.

Whether the new policy works over the long run remains to be seen, but for now, it forms part of a White House effort to position Biden as centrist and pragmatic, which appears to have paid dividends for the president.

“President Biden has had a couple of really, really good weeks,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. With inflation easing, the job market staying strong and Republicans still flummoxed by their poor showing in the midterm elections, he’s “in the strongest position of his presidency,” he added.

Not everything has gone Biden’s way: News that classified documents from the Obama administration had been found at his home and storage facilities prompted Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland to announce Thursday that he had appointed a special counsel to look into the matter.

So far, however, Biden’s job approval has ticked up slowly but steadily. In his standing with the public, the president has now recouped the ground he lost during the course of 2022.

House Republicans, most of whom represent very conservative districts where Biden remains deeply unpopular, have not tried to match the president’s appeals to the middle. So far, they’ve played to their base. Given the strength the party’s right wing has in the House, McCarthy has little leeway to do otherwise.

The first votes House Republicans took this week set the groundwork for wide-ranging investigations into allegations of misconduct by the president’s son, Hunter Biden, and accusations that Democrats have politicized the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Those topics rank low on the scale of public priorities, polls show, but they work predictably to gin up intensity among partisans.

The same is true of the first bills the new House majority took up, which fell into the category that Capitol Hill operatives call message bills — measures that stand no serious chance of becoming law but which convey to voters what a party stands for.

Ideally, such votes please a major constituency while putting the opposing party on the defensive. The first bills that Republican leaders took to the floor, however, conspicuously flunked that second test — Democrats seemed happy to vote against them.

One bill would impose criminal penalties on doctors if they fail to provide care to babies born alive during an attempted abortion, an extremely rare event.

Republicans saw the bill as a first step in an effort to restrict abortion — a high priority for many in their party. But after a midterm election in which abortion played a significant role in mobilizing Democratic voters, they put off votes on more sweeping legislation that antiabortion groups have sought.

All but one Democrat in the House opposed the bill. They argued that existing laws already require doctors to provide care in such an unusual situation and that the bill would set a dangerous precedent by subjecting abortions to federal criminal law.

The other measure would cut roughly $71 billion from the money that Congress approved last year to improve technology and customer service at the IRS over the next decade and to beef up the tax agency’s ability to audit high-income Americans.

Cutting the IRS appeals to a core anti-tax constituency in the GOP — Republicans have repeatedly, but falsely, suggested that the IRS would use the new money to hire tens of thousands of new revenue agents to pursue middle-class taxpayers.

Democrats, by contrast, portrayed the bill as a give-away to billionaires — “a windfall for rich tax cheats and major corporations who break the law by gaming the system to pay nothing in federal taxes,” as White House spokesperson Andrew Bates put it.

The Treasury Department estimated in 2021 that under-staffing and outdated technology lead to the IRS’ failure to collect about 15% of taxes owed, with the bulk of the tax avoidance involving the very wealthiest Americans.

At his news conference Thursday, Biden hit House Republicans for proposing measures that “would help the wealthy cheat on their taxes” and increase the federal deficit.

“C’mon. This is how House Republicans are starting their new term?” he said.

The members of Congress who are most at risk from the Republican’s base-focused strategy are those who represent potential swing districts. As the House got underway, they were already beginning to voice their unhappiness.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), expressed her unease, especially about the party’s hard-line stand against abortion rights, during an interview on MSNBC.

“This is probably not the way to start off the week,” she said.

California’s Senate race

Senate seats in California open only rarely: Over the last 30 years, the state has had only four senators. So the likelihood that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, will step down rather than run for another term in 2024 has set off feverish speculation among the state’s Democratic majority.

On Tuesday, that contest burst into public view as Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine announced that she would run, regardless of what Feinstein decided.

Getting the race out into the open is a good thing, Mark Barabak wrote in his column. The campaign to replace Feinstein is in full swing and has been for a good while. Why not let voters in on the action?

As Seema Mehta and Nolan McCaskill wrote, Porter’s early announcement will give her time to raise money for what’s likely to be one of the nation’s most expensive primaries.

Porter spent a large share of the campaign fund last year in winning reelection to the House. She still has about $7 million available, but that’s dwarfed by one of her chief rivals, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, who has nearly $21 million on hand. Schiff has strongly indicated he plans to run but hasn’t formally announced.

The day after Porter’s announcement, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland told members of the Congressional Black Caucus that she plans to run. As McCaskill and Mehta reported, Lee has a long record as a staunch progressive but could face some significant hurdles, including a lack of a strong fundraising base. In addition, at 76, she may not appeal to voters looking for a generational change after Feinstein.

Several other Democrats, including Reps. Ro Khanna of Fremont and Eric Swalwell of Dublin, are considering entering the race.

In a sign of the deep troubles facing the state’s Republican Party, no prominent Republicans have yet talked about running.

Under California’s top-two primary system, candidates from all parties will appear on the primary ballot in March 2024. The two with the largest vote totals will go on to the general election. Chances are strong that both of those will be Democrats as was the case in the 2016 and 2018 Senate elections.

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The latest from Washington

— As mentioned previously, Atty. Gen. Garland on Thursday named a special counsel to investigate the unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents that were discovered in Biden’s office and home. As Sarah Wire reported, Garland tapped the former U.S. attorney for Maryland, Robert Hur, to conduct the investigation and examine whether “any person or entity violated the law in connection with this matter.”

— The U.S. government is struggling to contend with the Florida stay of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whom many blame for riots this week in Brazil’s capital. As Tracy Wilkinson wrote, top U.S. officials, from Biden on down, condemned the violence and voiced support for Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who entered office Jan 1. Biden telephoned him and again extended an invitation to the White House, expressing “the unwavering support of the United States for Brazil’s democracy and for the free will of the Brazilian people.” He called the violence “outrageous.” But the elephant in the room — or in Florida, in this case — was not mentioned in the conversation between the two leaders.

— Biden will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on Friday, a meeting intended to signal a more confrontational approach to China as Tokyo’s defense turns south toward the Taiwan Strait, Wilkinson and Courtney Subramanian wrote.

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The latest from California

— The divides that have split the national GOP, humiliating McCarthy and temporarily stalling his long bid for the speaker’s gavel, are also palpable in his reliably red district, which became even more conservative after congressional maps were redrawn in 2021, as Mehta and Hailey Branson-Potts wrote from Bakersfield. Mainstream Republicans are thrilled by McCarthy’s ascension and the spotlight it shines on the Central Valley. But McCarthy’s embarrassing saga got cheers on his home turf from a vocal contingent on his right, who accuse him of being a RINO — Republican in Name Only — more concerned about personal power, Washington politics and fundraising than serving the Central Valley.

— When she was running for mayor of Los Angeles last year, Karen Bass spoke often about how the homelessness crisis prompted her to leave a safe seat in Congress and “come home.” It was the crisis of our time, Bass said. In an extensive interview with Liam Dillon and Ben Oreskes, the new mayor gave a detailed accounting of her views. “The city is demanding the tents go away,” she said. “That is the way every Angeleno feels this crisis. For me, the tents represent the people who are suffering the most.”

— Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin de León addressed his colleagues for more than eight minutes Wednesday, speaking publicly in council chambers for the first time since an incendiary leaked audio conversation upended local politics in October. As Julia Wick and David Zahniser wrote, De León spoke out against a council proposal that would explore new penalties that could be imposed on censured council members. De León repeatedly described the council’s proposal as “a slippery slope” that could ultimately undermine the rights of constituents in his largely Latino, working-class district.

— Gov. Gavin Newsom is arguably the luckiest California governor ever, George Skelton writes in his column. But some of that luck may have run out. As Skelton notes, Newsom was fortunate that Democrats controlled the federal government the last two years. Biden and Congress showered California (and other states) with tens of billions in economic aid, enough for the governor to avoid a budget crisis this winter. He’s also been lucky to have governed, so far, through mostly good economic times. Unlike Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Newsom hasn’t had to gut popular state programs to balance the books, angering political allies. But this year, for the first time, Newsom is confronting a real deficit, as the downturn in the tech industry has cut state revenue.

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