Despite being a speculative frontrunner to lead the Department of the Interior when President Donald Trump first appointed his cabinet, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is not interested in the post.
Since Trump announced that Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will depart his administration amid corruption charges on Saturday, speculation about who will replace the former congressman has centered on a handful of Republican members or former members of Congress from western states.
McMorris Rodgers was among those considered for the position as Trump was building his cabinet, but a person familiar with the congresswoman's thinking said she is "not seeking or interested in Interior."
The House Republican Conference Chairwoman taking the position would deprive the party of its only woman in leadership and dwindle the number of Republican women in the House down to just 12.
The other lawmakers would be likely to uphold an overhaul of the department under Zinke that included a dramatic contraction of protected national monuments and a drive towards increased oil and gas drilling on federal lands.
Zinke’s tenure was tarnished by several investigations into allegations of misused taxpayer funds and conflicts of interest, including an inquiry into dealings with a developer working on a project near land in Montana that he and his wife, Lola, own; the Interior Department’s inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department.
On Saturday, Trump announced his departure on Twitter and Zinke submitted a letter of resignation to the White House.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho met with White House officials about the appointment the same day, an unidentified congressional aide told The Associated Press. A cofounder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Labrador lost a bid to become Idaho’s governor in the primary. Labrador’s voting record on rolling back environmental regulations and protected lands has garnered a 4 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
Other candidates include outgoing California Rep. Jeff Denham, the AP reported. Denham lost his re-election race last month despite championing his battle against state plans to direct water out of Central Valley and into to the ocean in order to preserve salmon populations, according to McClatchy.
Another candidate is outgoing Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who was defeated by Jacky Rosen in his bid for reelection last month. Heller left open the possibility of joining the Trump cabinet in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal prior to Zinke’s resignation.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that the White House may also consider Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the presumptive ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee when the new Congress begins in January.
Both Heller and Bishop lobbied the White House to trim the boundaries protecting national monuments including Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada and the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, the Review-Journal reported.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has seen the headlines. The 12-term Maryland Democrat, who in January will take control of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, knows he has the power to become President Donald Trump’s worst nightmare. For now, he’s taking a more measured approach.
“A nightmare has to be in the eyes of the beholder,” Cummings said in a recent interview. “If a nightmare comes with me doing my job that I’m sworn to do, so be it.”
Partisan tensions in Washington already reached a fever pitch during Trump’s first two years in office. But with Democrats taking control of the House in the new Congress, the capital sits on the brink of political warfare.
The shift in power means that Democrats can conduct rigorous oversight of Trump on everything from his personal business dealings to his presidential campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government to his response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. They will be able to call his top deputies to testify in nationally televised hearings. They will have subpoena power, and no shortage of things to investigate.
But they must tread carefully.
Whatever the political stakes for Trump, the investigations also present risks for Democrats, who could further inflame hostilities and see their efforts backfire heading into the 2020 elections. Maintaining an image of fairness will be critical — if that’s still possible in a country where trust in government institutions has eroded and many citizens accept the notion of a “deep state,” anti-Trump conspiracy.
Not only are Democrats up against a president who relishes a fight and has succeeded in sowing doubt over rock-solid facts, they must be wary of the messages from their own liberal base, which has already declared Trump impeachable.
“Democrats need to be mindful of the fact that oversight that appears to be a witch hunt is not going to be seen as credible,” said former California Democratic Rep. Henry A. Waxman, who held the Oversight gavel in the 110th Congress (2007-08) and led investigations into waste, fraud and abuse during the Iraq War and the George W. Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
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Republicans are already accusing Democrats of using their power for political gain. The day after the election, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, who will be the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee next year, said Democrats are “giddy about running roughshod over process and weaponizing taxpayer resources against President Trump.”
“A House majority doesn’t give liberals license to chase political vendettas at deep cost — and no benefit — to the hardworking Americans who trust us to honor the law first by following it ourselves,” said Collins in a press release.
But this kind of criticism from Republicans makes Democrats roll their eyes. They note the two-year, $7 million congressional investigation of the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and GOP attempts to blame then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The 800-page report in the end faulted the Obama administration broadly while placing no blame specifically on Clinton. But she suffered collateral damage.
As House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News in 2015, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable” until the Benghazi committee. It succeeded in portraying her as untrustworthy and her poll numbers dropped.
“No one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen,” McCarthy told Fox News.
The Benghazi and subsequent Clinton email investigations may have turned the public off to investigations because they came across to many as politically motivated and never-ending.
Still, Democrats are confronting some unusual opportunities.
“Over the past two years, the executive branch has created a target-rich environment,” said Justin Rood, who directs the Congressional Oversight Initiative at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.
“The biggest priority overall is to show that there’s a cop on the beat,” Rood said. “Many Americans perceive that the administration can function with impunity and without respect for laws and norms.”
Democrats think they can get creative by making their investigations broader than just Trump himself. If they want to force Trump to release his tax returns, for example, they could try as part of a general probe into abuse of tax loopholes.
“I think it has to be part of something other than, ‘Now we’ll hold the 25th hearing on things the president thinks we don’t like about him,’ ” Waxman said. “But if the Ways and Means Committee wanted to look at tax loophole abuses [to] see how President Trump and Jared Kushner, even though they make millions of dollars each year, pay no taxes, that’s worth learning.”
The tax returns are a major target for House Democrats. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who appears set to take the speaker’s gavel for the second time in January, said in October that forcing Trump to release them would be a Democratic priority and the “easiest thing in the world.” Cummings believes Trump’s stubborn refusal to release them has further elevated their importance.
“He’s had plenty of time to do it, so why not?” he says.
Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, who’s in line to be the next Ways and Means chairman, has told reporters he’s “intent” on requesting Trump’s tax returns. He could do so through the use of a 1924 law that allows Congress, under some circumstances, to ask for them. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the Cabinet official tasked with producing the records, could resist, setting off a long series of legal battles that could test the limits of executive privilege.
Cummings envisions a two-pronged approach to investigating Trump. He won’t shy away from investigations of Trump’s personal business dealings, whether they violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, or implicate his presidential campaign for colluding with Russia. And he wants to probe the “harm” he says Trump has inflicted on the foundations of American democracy.
But Cummings also wants investigations into issues that affect regular people in their daily lives. Rising prescription drug prices, one of his longtime priorities, is at the top of the list. So is sabotage of the health care markets created under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. He’s also interested in alleged abuse by the Trump administration of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Rood, of the Project on Government Oversight, said these types of investigations are crucial if Democrats want to convince the public they’re interested in doing more than going after Trump.
“Americans expect that their food will be safe, their cars will be safe, that their bridges won’t collapse, that criminals will go to jail,” he said. “I think we’re seeing alarms go off across the federal government for programs that are going off track, not being properly administered, and no one is asking the right questions.”
Other top Democrats are eyeing their own investigations. Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Adam B. Schiff of California, who are set to take charge of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively, are expected to play major roles.
A report issued by Nadler in April gives a preview of what the administration can expect from the Judiciary Committee, including oversight of election security and federal ethics compliance. Nadler may also investigate whether Trump undermined the Justice Department’s independence by removing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James B. Comey.
Nadler would also spearhead any effort to remove Trump from office, though he’s refrained from favoring such action unless special counsel Robert S. Mueller III produces evidence of an impeachable offense. Pelosi and Cummings have adopted the same line.
“If the evidence leads down that road, it’ll lead down that road,” Cummings said. “I want Mueller to do his job.”
Should Trump try to fire Mueller or seek to create obstacles for his investigation, Democrats will almost surely investigate. Trump’s removal of Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation to avoid a potential conflict of interest, “fits a clear pattern of interference,” Nadler said.
“Trump may think he has the power to hire and fire whomever he pleases, but he cannot take such action if it is determined that it is for the purposes of subverting the rule of law and obstructing justice,” the New York Democrat said in a news release. “If he abuses his office in such a fashion, then there will be consequences.”
Schiff, meanwhile, is likely to revive the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. A report issued in March by current Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, and that was written and approved only by committee Republicans, found no evidence that Trump’s personal business dealings led to collusion between his campaign and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Democrats strongly objected to that GOP-only report and promised to pursue the investigation further, and now they’ll have the power to do so. The committee needs to “fully assess what areas of inquiry in the Russia investigation still require a full accounting based on a review of the extensive body of information we have collected, along with what the Senate and the special counsel have uncovered,” Schiff said.
Other committees will take on policy-based probes. The Energy and Commerce’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, under the anticipated leadership of Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, is expected to hold hearings on actions by the administration that may have undermined health insurance markets. The full committee will also probe the EPA’s deregulatory efforts.
“The first thing we have to deal with is the assessing of the EPA,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby L. Rush of Illinois, who is poised to take over the Energy Subcommittee chairmanship. “We have to have hearings.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is set to take the Homeland Security gavel, wants to investigate Trump’s ban on travelers from majority-Muslim countries and the zero-tolerance border security policy that resulted in the separation of more than 2,500 migrant children from their parents earlier this year.
Trump’s border security and immigration agenda has exposed the administration to investigations by other committees, too. Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the likely next chairman of the Armed Services Committee, may press the Defense Department to explain the military’s role on the southern border after Trump ordered the deployment of nearly 6,000 troops prior to the midterm elections.
“This is yet another unnecessary step towards the militarization of the southern border and is not a proportionate response to individuals that wish to legally seek asylum as they flee violence and persecution in their countries,” Smith said in a letter to Trump last month.
The list goes on. Nearly every committee with oversight power has its eye on some piece of Trump’s agenda. And while Pelosi has confidence in her top lieutenants, she has also warned that their investigations should remain disciplined.
“I don’t think we’ll have any scattershot freelancing,” she told reporters recently. “When we go down any of these paths, we’ll know what we’re doing and we’ll do it right.”
But reining in the more impassioned members of her rank and file could prove a constant challenge for Pelosi, especially if Trump decides to go on the attack.
Trump is a new kind of adversary in Washington; one who sees personal advantage in open public conflict and shows little regard for the truth.
“I’m not exactly sure what type of ball we’re going to have to play,” said Cummings, though he notes he won’t be afraid to issue subpoenas. Since Trump took office, Cummings has on 64 occasions requested the committee issue subpoenas on a variety of topics. He has been unsuccessful each time.
Under siege by the steady flow of Democratic probes, Trump is likely to become even more combative than usual. At a Nov. 7 news conference, he vowed to adopt a “warlike posture” when dealing with investigations.
“If that happens, then we’re going to do the same thing, and government comes to a halt,” he told reporters at the White House.
The reaction is textbook Trump, said author and frequent critic David Cay Johnston, who covered the president’s rise over the course of three decades and wrote a biography of him in 2016. Trump learned the aggressive counter-punching approach from his mentor Roy Cohn, who helped Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunt down supposed Communists in the U.S. government during the Cold War.
“Roy Cohn taught him, when you’re being investigated by the government, attack, attack, attack,” Johnston said.
When Trump feels particularly exposed he’ll seek to discredit his accusers and distract the public.
“Donald does the most basic form of scientific method: Guess and test and see what works,” Johnston said. “The Democrats’ principal risk is overplaying their hand, and Trump knows this, so he will do his best to try and make it look like they’re being abusive and partisan.”
Trump has already clashed personally with some House Democrats, of course. His feud with Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who referred to the president as “the most deplorable person” she’s ever known, has made her a favorite target of conservative bloggers and pundits. Waters will control the House Financial Services Committee next year, which will allow her to probe Trump’s personal business dealings. Trump excels at exploiting his opponents’ words to be used against them, Johnston said, and Democrats “have to be careful to reel in anyone that wants to go on a diatribe or a rant.”
Party leaders know that Trump will paint anything he perceives as threatening or invasive as illegitimate. Democrats also understand the precociousness of some within their ranks, including those who are already calling for Trump’s impeachment. In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine, Pelosi called such lawmakers the “Pound of Flesh Club.”
“That’s not who we are,” she told the magazine.
Some observers believe Trump will prove more agreeable to cooperating with policy-based investigations and working with Democrats on their legislative priorities if it means diverting attention from inquiries into his business dealings or his children.
“If it’s his money, if it’s Ivanka, if it’s Don Jr., that’s where he’s going to be focused,” Johnston said.
Joel Aberbach, a political science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies congressional oversight, said it would be advisable for Democrats “to pick things that don’t get stymied right away by total obfuscation or refusal to cooperate.”
“They have to pick their targets carefully,” Aberbach said.
Should Democrats conduct their probes in a manner that does not provoke Trump, a model for how the White House might handle the document and witness requests could be its response to Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Even as Trump has publicly — and loudly — dismissed Mueller’s probe, senior White House aides say they have sent “thousands” of pages of documents to the special counsel’s team, with one report putting the count in the “tens of thousands.”
A White House official declined to discuss how Democratic subpoenas and requests for information and witnesses would be reviewed and answered, saying it is official policy to never describe internal processes. But that official did indicate that White House Counsel Pat Cipollone would be in charge of considering and answering Democrats’ requests and demands.
Even if Cipollone opts to resist the probes and slow-walk the White House’s response, those who have taken part in both sides of the oversight process say the executive branch’s luck will eventually run out.
“I don’t think there’s a way for them to gain control of this process,” said W. Neil Eggleston, who helped Congress investigate the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration and later served as White House counsel for Obama from 2014 to 2017.
To date, Trump has remained relatively unharmed by the probes that have resulted in indictments and convictions of multiple deputies and former campaign officials, and has been remarkably resilient to the myriad public scandals plaguing him. His poll numbers hold steady. His staunchest supporters are distrustful of the institutions investigating him and have made it clear they aren’t likely to abandon him.
And Trump himself has gone a long way in trying to undermine confidence in the institutions investigating him: Mueller, the FBI and the Justice Department.
“We have a lot of phony stuff, like the Russian witch hunt garbage,” Trump told an audience of supporters in Mississippi on Nov. 26.
This raises questions about what effect investigations into his administration’s conduct could have, short of actual removal of office through impeachment, which is a long shot while Republicans control the Senate and would seemingly vote to acquit Trump in almost any trial.
Democrats calling for Trump’s impeachment argue that he has already misused his power for personal gain. In 2017, dozens of House Democrats backed an effort to force consideration of articles of impeachment. But they never gained the backing of key caucus leaders like Nadler and Pelosi.
Nadler has said any effort to impeach Trump would need to be bipartisan.
“If evidence arises that is of sufficient gravity to justify impeaching the president, and of sufficient persuasiveness to persuade people, at least by the end of the process, some of the people who voted on the other side, then you consider an impeachment, but not before,” he told MSNBC in February.
Short of impeachment or any serious legal trouble for Trump, the oversight battle could come down to who wins in the court of public opinion. Trump is a master manipulator, but the steady drip of revelations wrought by House Democrats will test his skills of distraction.
“The powers that you have to compel the other branch to do anything are somewhat limited and intentionally vague,” Rood of the Project on Government Oversight said. “So compliance by the executive branch is reliant heavily on public perception of what compliance or noncompliance may be.”
In today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere, it remains to be seen whether the results of investigations into Trump will have the power to change how voters feel about him.
“We may be at a point where people who sympathize with Trump aren’t going to accept anything as legitimate” grounds for impeachment, Aberbach said. “And people on the other side will accept almost anything.”
The White House’s response could end up the result of a political calculation aimed at elevating Trump’s chances in the 2020 presidential election.
While Trump’s “warlike posture” excites his most fervent supporters, it could also cost him in key swing states.
“They’re going to have to calibrate all the time how it’s playing not just with their base,” said Eggleston, the former Obama White House counsel, “but with independents and swing voters that either party is going to need to win.”
John T. Bennett, Andrew Clevenger, Jeremy Dillon, Lindsey McPherson, Gopal Ratnam and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.
Poliquin lost his race as part of the state’s new ranked-choice voting system for congressional races. Voters rank their choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority, the last place candidate’s votes are distributed to his or her supporters’ second choice. The process of elimination continues until a candidate gets majority support.
Poliquin had a slight lead in the first round but did not win a majority. Golden went on to win a majority on the second round of the process.
“The recount process has confirmed, and re-affirmed, an important fact: I won the largest number of votes on Election Day,” Poliquin said in a statement posted on Facebook. “... Although we continue to evaluate the legal process and the need for an Appeal on the Constitutionality of rank voting, due to the impending Holidays, I believe it’s important to end the recount process.”
Poliquin had also challenged the ranked-choice system in court, but a federal judge rejected that challenge Thursday.
Poliquin’s defeat means there will be no Republicans from New England in the House next year. But Golden, a Marine veteran and state legislator, will likely be a top GOP target in 2020. Trump carried the expansive 2nd District by 11 points in 2016.
Rep. Chris Collins indirectly continued his feud with late colleague Louise Slaughter by declining to co-sponsor a bill that would rename a post office in New York after the congresswoman who died in March.
Collins, a Republican, is the only member of the New York delegation not to co-sponsor the post office renaming bill.
Slaughter, a New York Democrat, played a significant role in sparking an investigation into Collins for insider trading that eventually resulted in an indictment.
Slaughter authored and often pushed for Congress to adopt the so-called STOCK Act to ban insider trading by federal officials, including members of Congress.
Collins pleaded not guilty earlier this year to multiple charges involving alleged insider trading tips he gave family members and friends about an Australian biotech company for which he was a board member and held significant stock.
In 2017, Slaughter called on the Office of Congressional Ethics to probe allegations of insider trading against Collins. The OCE independently reviews claims of misconduct — criminal, ethical, and otherwise — against House members and then decides whether to refer certain matters to the House Ethics Committee if they warrant deeper investigation.
In October of that year, Collins fired back at the congresswoman, calling her a “despicable human” and suggesting that members should not pursue ethics inquiries against one another.
“She’s on a witch hunt, she’s a despicable human,” Collins said of Slaughter, Fox News reported. “You don’t go after another member.”
New York Rep. Joseph D. Morelle, along with two dozen other cosponsors from the Empire State, introduced the bill Friday to rename the post office in Fairport, New York, after Slaughter and her husband.
“Louise Slaughter was a dear friend, a trailblazer, and a champion for families in Monroe County and across the nation,” Morelle said in a statement. “Louise has left a lasting impact on our entire community, and we remain grateful to her and her husband for their immeasurable contributions to our society.”
Two lame-duck House Republican women are sounding the alarm on their own party for excluding minorities and women from their messaging.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina to ever hold federally elected office, is retiring after 30 years from her seat representing South Florida and its Hispanic-heavy population.
Both are leaving Congress in less than three weeks, and both have delivered stark warnings to the GOP that it needs to act fast to win over historically marginalized communities such as blacks and women.
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In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Love staunchly adhered to the core principles of conservatism but said Republicans have not effectively packaged those principles and pitched them to minorities in American cities and elsewhere.
Republicans are losing the messaging battle, Love suggested.
“For too long, conservatives in my party have focused on administering purity tests instead of expanding our audience. And in doing so, we have too often failed to adequately articulate our party’s principles to others, allowing our opponents to define or caricature our principles for us,” the Utah Republican wrote.
“We have especially failed to bring our message to, and connect with, women and racial minorities. And we have effectively written off cities as Democratic strongholds. Our nation is poorer for it,” she wrote.
Ros-Lehtinen suggested the Republican party has tacked too hard toward the cultural insecurities and economic hardship of white men, even as demographic shifts have trended toward a more diverse electorate.
Ros-Lehtinen has for years represented South Florida’s 27th District, where 43 percent of the population is Cuban-American, a reliably Republican voting group. But Hillary Clinton carried the 27th District by more than 20 points in 2016, and the district flipped blue this cycle after Ros-Lehtinen elected to retire instead of running for a 16th term.
The Florida Republican warned in an interview with NPR that her party has not adapted over the years to include members of society who are not white men.
“Instead of going forward, we’re going backward,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We need to pay attention to the changing demographics of our country. We have not been attuned to that. We have been appealing to one certain section of America. I don’t know what you want to call it. The white, male conservative is definitely getting a lot of issues thrown their way.”
Ros-Lehtinen said that young people “rejected” the GOP this past election, suggesting that Republicans are in danger of failing to capture future generations of voters unless they cultivate a more inclusive tone.
“Young people rejected the Republican Party ... Suburban women left our party. And minorities did not see us as a welcoming voice. You just have to show people that you care,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “And we’re not even willing to do that. We don’t go to those neighborhoods. We don’t go to suburbia. We don’t talk to women.
“We’re not doing anything to appeal to those groups,” she said.
Runoff elections aren’t just for Mississippi and Louisiana — radio and television correspondents on Capitol Hill will vote in a runoff on Dec. 19 for the final position on the Radio-Television Correspondents Association.
Members of the RTCA, the primary organization promoting access for broadcasters on Capitol Hill, voted Thursday to elect the group’s executive committee. Seven candidates ran to fill four vacancies.
Three of the slots were filled after vote counting concluded Thursday evening, just as the Radio-TV and photographers holiday parties were getting underway.
Fox News Capitol Hill producer Jason Donner was elected RTCA chairman with 132 votes. Ben Siegel of ABC and Kelsey Snell of NPR decisively won executive committee seats with 131 and 113 votes, respectively.
The runoff election next week will be a face off between Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Paul Courson and The Associated Press’ Padma Rama, who each earned 101 votes.
Committee members were told Thursday evening that the tie for the fourth seat would be decided during an executive committee meeting Friday, but just after midnight the committee announced the runoff election.
“All credentialed members are invited to vote, even if you voted in the original election this week,” advised Ellen Eckert, deputy director of the Senate Radio & Television Correspondents Gallery, in the overnight email to members.
Both candidates said they would push for expansion of video access on Capitol Hill. There are many locations where still photography is allowed and reporters are permitted to interview lawmakers, but video recording is not permitted.
Thomas McKinless contributed to this report.Watch: The ‘Fun’ in Dysfunction, iPhone Confusion and the Sound of Silence: Congressional Hits and Misses
Amid a debate within the Democratic Party about whether progressive ideas can sway voters in suburbia, candidates affiliated with an advocacy group that campaigns against gun violence sought — and won — elected office even in historically conservative suburban districts.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America appealed to suburban women on overhauling gun laws amid a rash of mass shootings in recent years, including the one in Parkland, Florida, in February.
The organization advocates so-called red-flag laws and banning bump stocks and assault weapons, and it opposes allowing guns on college campuses. It plans to achieve those policy aims by campaigning aggressively in future election cycles.
“Exit polling is still being parsed, but one thing is clear: In an election where women voters were crucial in swaying the balance of power, gun violence prevention was a priority issue for women from all walks of life,” the group’s founder, Shannon Watts, wrote about the midterm elections. “Gun violence isn’t a right-or-left issue — it’s a life-or-death issue.”
Putting that theory to practice, Moms Demand Action launched a formal training program last year for volunteers interested in running for office — an ambitious new stage for the six-year-old organization. It’s just one sign of the group’s growing influence: Everytown for Gun Safety, its parent organization, and Giffords PAC, another gun control group, outspent the National Rifle Association this midterm cycle.
The groups say views on guns in America’s suburbs have altered in a way that is unfavorable to the guns rights movement, especially among women. And that shift coincides with gun rights groups becoming increasingly aligned with the Republican Party.
In all, volunteer leaders with Moms Demand Action won at least 16 elected offices across the country last month, according to the group, unseating some suburban incumbents who had never been challenged before. The winners include Democratic Rep.-elect Lucy McBath, a onetime national spokesperson for the group, who captured a House seat in Georgia once held by Newt Gingrich.
Anecdotal evidence on Election Day complemented earlier polling by EveryTown/Hart Research Associates that showed 75 percent of women of color and 72 percent of suburban women want to hear more from candidates about gun violence. The poll also found suburban women backing Democrats over Republicans on gun policy by a 26-point margin.
“Suburban voters made gun safety a top issue, and until something is done to stem the tide of gun violence, it’s safe to say their focus on the issue will remain,” Katie Peters, communications director for Giffords PAC, wrote on the group’s website after the election.
But political scientists are still parsing how the politics around guns are changing. They caution that the issue’s salience reaches beyond single-issue voters.
“The broader gun culture — one that values individualism, independence, and ideas on public safety — motivates gun owners to vote for a variety of reasons,” said Abigail Vegter, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Kansas who recently presented research on the political participation of gun rights voters at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association.
“This makes them a tough bloc to go up against as our research suggests that they turn out to vote even when guns are not a salient issue in a given election,” Vegter continued. She also pointed to disappointing results for Democratic candidates in Florida last month, where the March for Our Lives after the Parkland shooting pushed the issue of guns to the forefront.
Still, Moms Demand Action undoubtably changed how political scientists and pundits talk about guns when McBath scored a significant victory over Republican Karen Handel in the affluent but rapidly changing suburbs of Atlanta. It was a stinging upset for the GOP in a district where it had defeated an extremely well-funded challenger just 15 months earlier.
The day after Thanksgiving marked a painful anniversary for McBath: Six years have passed since her son Jordan Davis was shot to death.
In 2012, a 45-year-old white man fired at the black teenager and his friends as they sat in a parked car at a Florida gas station after berating them about the volume of the rap music they were listening to.
“One of the most effective ways to inform and persuade people is by telling them about your first-person experience,” McBath wrote at the launch of her campaign. “It’s a credential I wish upon no one, but I’ve found solace and purpose through my fight.”
Moms Demand Action has found other candidates in its ranks of volunteers whose lives were suddenly defined by gun-related tragedies.
Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was murdered at the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre in 2012, won a state House seat in suburban Denver, ousting the chamber’s second-highest-ranking Republican. He said speaking plainly about his tragedy made him an effective campaigner.
“It could be as simple as we all love our kids, and they look at me and see that only through the grace of God, it’s not them. I hope they see part of themselves in me,” said Sullivan, who described himself as a “labor guy” who also campaigned on increasing vocational training.
Like McBath, Sullivan said advocating changes to gun laws has given him a new sense of purpose. (He will be the lead sponsor of a red flag bill, aimed at confiscating guns from people deemed to be a public safety hazard, in his first legislative session.) But the work does not repair his grief.
“People say tragedy doesn’t change you, it reveals you. And it revealed to me I had these capabilities,” Sullivan said. “But people ask, ‘Was this always your retirement plan?’ I say, ‘No, I planned to sit in the backyard with Alex and pick our fantasy football teams.’ Maybe he would have had kids by this time. That’s what I thought it would be like and it was all taken away.”
While the Democrats’ flipped 40 House seats last month on a battlefield that stretched largely across suburban districts, their jubilation in the weeks since Election Day has been tempered by a debate about the durability of those gains.
The success of Moms Demand Action — which Watts describes as “one of the largest grassroots movements in the country” — might point to the issue of gun control as a path to securing reliable Democratic footholds in the suburbs and changing the country’s gun laws.
Watts founded Moms Demand Action by creating a Facebook group and seeking out other parents who felt horrified by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. But these days, the group positions itself as a dogged rival to the NRA, one of the most powerful interest groups in the country.
The NRA derives much of its political heft from its ability to engage and motivate staunchly pro-gun rights voters with television ads, mailers and other media. But Moms Demand Action might provide a counterweight.
Take the McBath race. She prevailed with a modest $1.2 million campaign chest in the same district where Democrat Jon Ossoff, running for Rep. Tom Price’s vacated seat in a 2017 special election, had failed, despite spending thirty-fold more: $31 million.
But those numbers belie McBath’s “built-in grassroots arm” in the form of Moms Demand Action volunteers who knocked on doors, made phone calls, and sent postcards to voters, according to Watts.
In New Hampshire, Democrat Linda Harriott-Garthright credited Moms Demand Action for helping her win back her state House seat in part by supplying volunteers to knock doors, an important asset in a state that values face time with candidates.
Her campaign was also aided by calls and donations, “the whole nine yards,” Harriott-Garthright said. She also campaigned on increasing the minimum wage.
Her position on guns is informed by the 1980 shooting death of her brother-in-law, a case still unsolved.
She thinks the issue of gun control resonated with voters “because it’s real for them: moms and dads, aunts and uncles. With all of the shootings going on, they realize that could have happened at my school, and my church. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Moms Demand Action volunteers also boosted Chrissy Clark, a mother stirred to advocacy by school shootings who won a North Carolina state House seat north of Charlotte that Republicans had held for 18 years. Clark attributes that history in part to gerrymandering.
Clark started to think about running for office when her state legislators kept rescheduling hearings on a spate of guns rights bills, which she viewed as an attempt to shut out Moms Demand Action volunteers. But as a stay-at-home mom with a relatively flexible schedule, she was often able to stick around until the meeting occurred.
“I had this misconception that politicians wanted to hear from their constituents,” said Clark, who also ran on expanding Medicaid and increasing funding for education.
“One of the most important things Moms Demand Action did was to provide training for volunteers — everything from letters to the editor to speaking to the media to understanding legislation to phone banking — everything you need to run a campaign,” Clark said. “Running an issue-based campaign [for gun safety] translated pretty easily to campaigning for office.”
From the Vault: Gun Control Front and Center in Remaining Democratic Primaries