LEESBURG, Va. — The theme for this year’s House Democratic retreat was “Finish the Job,” a swagger-filled motto that would seem just as apropos for a pro sports playoff drive.
But for a party that often seems to focus on how things can go wrong, it’s a bit of a turnabout that also captures the upbeat mood of this year’s gathering at a resort about 35 miles outside of Washington.
On the heels of a high-profile face-plant by House Republicans earlier in the week, Democrats are confident they can take back the House majority. With only a few seats to flip, many feel there are plenty of political cards to play.
“House Democrats will continue to defend our democracy. House Republicans continue to choose dysfunction,” said Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) at the start of the conference, summing up Democrats’ expected themes. Even the slogan is meant to hark back to the previous Congress, when Democratic majorities in both chambers allowed the party to pass significant legislation, including on economic recovery and infrastructure.
“I’m confident,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (Wash.), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “But I’m confident knowing that we’ve got a lot of important work to do to get there.”
History gives them some reason for her optimism.
House Republicans hold a very narrow majority by historical standards, at 219 seats to Democrats’ 212. But on a day-to-day basis, the margin is even closer, as absences due to illnesses and other things can throw a wrench in how many votes each side can rally on any given day.
Republicans found this out Tuesday, when they tried to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas only to lose by one vote when Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) unexpectedly showed up after having surgery days earlier.
Democrats lost nine House seats in the 2022 elections, enough to lose control of the chamber but well below the predictions of a sweeping “red wave” Republicans had hoped for. With turnout higher in a presidential election year and some favorable redistricting decisions, Democrats hope even a moderate swing in results in November would be enough to take back control.
On the Republican side, a recent spate of high-profile retirements gives a hint of the mood. On Dec. 5, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee and, at 48, a relative youngster by congressional standards, announced he would not run again. On Thursday, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also said she would not be running again.
“House Democrats will continue to defend our democracy. House Republicans continue to choose dysfunction.”
Still, Republicans have some cards remaining to play, particularly on two issues that they have put front and center: immigration and the economy.
Polls show the surge of undocumented migrants — Customs and Border Protection reported 2.48 million encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2023 fiscal year, up from 1.75 million in 2021 — remains a huge concern for voters. A YouGov/Economist poll in early February found 59% of voters disapprove of how President Joe Biden is handling immigration, which is the second-most important issue to voters.
The most important issue remains the economy. Though most objective indicators of the economy showed jobs were plentiful and economic growth robust in 2023, Republicans have pounced on worries over inflation to portray the economy as weak. The same YouGov poll gave Biden a 51% disapproval rating on jobs and the economy.
Democrats, though, think they’ve managed to come up with some convincing messaging on both of those issues, in part thanks to Senate Republicans this week sinking the long-gestating bipartisan border security deal that had been linked to foreign aid.
“I think the weak spot is [with] Republicans, who are uninterested and cynical in addressing what we’re seeing at the border,” DelBene said.
“They bring it up, and they’ve brought it up a lot,” she said, only to undermine the process of actually trying to find bipartisan agreement.
“They don’t have an interest in governing. They don’t care. They just want to be able to complain,” she said.
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, made a similar argument.
“What it says is they’re not serious about fixing an issue as important as securing our border and ensuring that it’s strengthened, and they’re not serious about fixing the immigration problem in this country. That is what it signifies the most,” Horsford said.
Republicans had withheld aid for war-torn Ukraine, demanding policy changes to deter migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in exchange. After months of negotiation, Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) settled on a bipartisan bill. But Republican senators, under public pressure from former President Donald Trump to not give a political victory to Biden, balked and scuttled the whole effort.
The economy is a tougher story for Democrats, but even there they have reason for optimism.
For one thing, inflation has continued to cool, and there is evidence people are slowly changing their assessment of the economy. Consumer sentiment, as tracked by the University of Michigan, rose 13% from December to January as consumers felt more certain that inflation was under control.
Other indicators continue to roll along. Unemployment has been under 4% since February 2022, and the economy grew at a healthy 2.5% annual pace for all of 2023.
DelBene acknowledged voters generally focus more on their own situations instead of the broad measures of economic growth.
“People kind of look at what it means for them personally, right? Am I able to save for the future? Do I feel like I’m in a place where I’m strong?” she said.
Democrats will point to things like the child tax credit expansion or local bridges being repaired because of the bipartisan infrastructure law as examples of where their policies are making a difference in peoples’ day-to-day lives, she said.
The child tax credit was part of Biden’s American Recovery Plan in 2021. Though the expansion has lapsed, a bipartisan bill to revive it is pending in the Senate. Under the infrastructure law, the White House has announced nearly $400 billion in funding for more than 40,000 specific projects and awards. The “Finish the Job” slogan, Jeffries emphasized, meant building on these kinds of projects — if Democrats can get a majority in both chambers.
“There’s things that we can do that can make a huge difference. But we need to have folks in Washington, D.C., who can focus on those issues and move us forward,” DelBene added.