The new year could not have started any worse for House Republicans: 11 failed attempts to elect Kevin McCarthy as House speaker, infighting among the rank and file as fringe members of the party hold the rest of the chamber hostage, and a unified Democratic caucus that’s watching Republicans tear themselves apart.
That’s exactly the narrative a coalition of Democratic and liberal groups want to cement in the minds of American voters for the next two years. These groups have developed a new plan to put the Democratic Party on offense and use Republican talking points and priorities against them. That effort includes an “investigate-the-investigators” approach: attacking the new House GOP leadership as they launch investigations into the Biden administration.
Describing themselves as collaborators in a war room to coordinate messaging, polling, paid and earned media, rallies, and local organizing, the groups include the relaunched Congressional Integrity Project and a campaign of mostly progressive activists called Courage for America. Helping with public opinion surveys is Navigator, a progressive research and polling group; Common Defense, a progressive veteran-focused organization; and a new rapid response and opposition research team called the House Accountability War Room, which Courage for America launched.
All of these organizations will be focused on crafting attack ads, social media messaging, local awareness campaigns, and the occasional stunt, which would represent a bit of a departure for Democrats in Congress if they embrace the outside efforts. For most of the 2022 cycle, President Joe Biden and more moderate congressional candidates were less enthusiastic about attacking Republicans, opting instead for bipartisan messaging where they could, even as progressive firebrands called for more confrontation with the GOP’s right flank. That changed after the summer, and the more combative tone may be here to stay.
The efforts also aim to prevent a repeat of congressional Republicans’ two-year Benghazi investigations, which damaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by uncovering her private email use, accusing her of mishandling the State Department’s response to the terrorist attack, and selectively leaking information from closed-door testimony.
Democrats don’t just want to avoid another Benghazi investigation, however. They learned from it and are borrowing some of the GOP’s messaging tactics with social media campaigns, opposition research distributed to journalists, and scrutiny of their funders, subordinates, and supporters. The hope is that the liberal groups will counterbalance the conservative think tanks, activists, and organizations that have been prepping Republicans to use their power in the majority for probes.
How progressive groups plan to control the narrative
Though these groups aren’t all operating under the same umbrella organization, they share similar goals: set the narrative for how the House GOP will operate before they have the power to start their investigations, push their conservative agenda, and create new rules for Congress.
“One of the key goals here is to help educate the American people about how this House is run and controlled by MAGA extremists, which is becoming increasingly clear as we witness this speaker fight,” Zac Petkanas, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential and Harry Reid’s senate campaigns and is running the House Accountability War Room, told me.
Petkanas said that the goal of these groups is to “make sure that none of the work that this new House does goes unnoticed.” The idea is to hold a mirror up to Republicans’ priorities. “So when they pass legislation,” he said, “doing what they said they were going to do, which is to cut Social Security and Medicare, to raise prescription drug costs, to pass a national abortion ban, we’re going to make sure that people don’t just shrug it off here in DC so that people back at home don’t hear about it, we’re going to hold a lantern to that.”
The groups geared up in the fall of 2022, after it seemed apparent that despite Democratic candidates defying the odds in battleground districts and states, they would lose their House majority by the slimmest of margins.
For example, Common Defense, which usually focuses on veteran-specific policy advocacy, partnered with Courage for America, the network of activists, to “start preparing as soon as the election ended in November for what was going to inevitably be this Republican shitshow,” Naveed Shah, the political director for Common Defense and a senior adviser to Courage for America, told me. “Common Defense and Courage for America are working to ensure that our elected officials hear from their constituents, and they need to know that they are going to be held accountable by us.”
That includes press conferences, like the one that both groups delivered Thursday in front of the Capitol building to call for the House GOP to condemn political violence two years after the January 6 Capitol attack. In attendance were four Democratic members of Congress, former Metropolitan Police officer Michael Fanone, and about 40 military veterans. And it includes directly confronting Republican members of Congress either through local demonstrations in their districts (like one in Long Island, New York, to call for an investigation of Representative-elect George Santos) or on the Hill and filming those interactions for social media, like encounters this week with Reps.-elect Troy Nehls of Texas, Mike Carey and Bill Johnson of Ohio, and Fanone delivering a petition to Georgia Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene’s office.
Those confrontations show the different attitude these outside groups have for dealing with the GOP; compared to official Democratic Party groups, these new organizations are bolder about keeping Republicans on their toes on Capitol Hill and tarnishing the reputations of these future investigators and power brokers.
This week, House Accountability War Room also released its first opposition research document focused on 39 current and incoming GOP lawmakers. Highlighting figures like Greene, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, the “MAGA Guidebook” was distributed around congressional offices, Metro stations, and in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Boosting the guidebook and the effort to tie the House Republican majority to its furthest right flank is the revamped Congressional Integrity Project, which put up posters and projected a display near the Capitol to exploit the GOP’s chaotic speaker election, highlighting McCarthy’s efforts to gain favor with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s and the House Freedom Caucus that is so far blocking McCarthy’s bid.
Beyond that, the Congressional Integrity Project plans to “engage in other paid activities. We’re looking at putting people in key swing districts around the country because we want to have a discussion with the constituents of Republican members in swing districts to ask, ‘Is this what you want Congress focused on?’” Brad Woodhouse, a veteran Democratic strategist helping to lead the project, told me. “We’re gonna spend money, we’re gonna grow our organization, we’re gonna go down into the district level, and we’re going to be on offense.”
That offensive posture would be a new strategy for Democrats, especially in the context of the eventual congressional investigations that Republicans want to conduct of the Biden administration, Woodhouse told me. “Someone could look at the effort to push back investigations against President Biden and his administration and Democrats and democratic policies, it would be defensive,” he said, “but we don’t consider it that way. We are on offense.” He added that the goal is “to undermine their political standing. We’re going to make them pay a price.”
And that means crafting a coordinated anti-MAGA Republican narrative in the press and social media, informing partners in the White House and in both chambers of Congress of polling and opposition research, and taking that knowledge to voters, in the same spirit that Republicans did the last time they had a House majority with a Democratic president (like the Benghazi hearings) and had begun to prepare with outside groups late last year.
“I take a lot of optimism from how unified the message was by Democrats and the president putting this MAGA ideology front and center, making Republicans accountable for it,” Woodhouse said. “And it’s not a hard concept.”