To retake control of the House of Representatives, Republicans need to pick up just five seats in the 2022 midterm elections. It's Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney's job to make sure that doesn't happen.
The New York Democrat and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee told NPR that the party is hopeful that an ambitious, multitrillion-dollar economic agenda trumpeted by the Biden administration will resonate with voters when it's time to head to the polls next fall.
Betting on major domestic policy programs
"We're making a bet on substance," Maloney says, before adding a colorful adage: "What's the old saying — any jackass can kick down a barn, it takes a carpenter to build one. It's harder to build it than to kick it down. And so we're the party that's going to build the future."
That future includes proposals to combat climate change; overhaul immigration laws; massively invest in traditional infrastructure like roads, bridges and expanded access to broadband, along with investments in affordable child care and early childhood education; and provide an expanded child tax credit with payments that top out at $3,600 a year per child.
Tens of millions of American families are already starting to receive those direct cash payments.
"That's a huge thing for a family trying to pay for the kids' basketball shoes or keep food in the fridge till Saturday when it's been running out on Thursday," Maloney says.
The monthly credit is scheduled to last one year, but some Democrats have already discussed making it permanent.
"No Democratic majority, no Democratic president, has made this much progress in a long time," Maloney says.
But there are roadblocks to fully enacting Democrats' agenda. Their thin majorities in both chambers of Congress mean nearly all Democrats have to get on board with every agenda item in order to push through major legislative priorities. And without adjusting or eliminating the legislative filibuster in the Senate, Democrats need 10 Republicans to join them for various legislation — a near-impossible task.
Possible 2010 or 2014 midterm repeat?
Big bets on policy also don't necessarily pay off at the ballot box, a lesson Democrats learned a decade ago when they passed the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama's domestic policy achievement also helped decimate congressional Democratic majorities in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.
It's just one reason why Republicans feel good about their chances in 2022, along with structural advantages like the redistricting process, where House districts are redrawn every decade to reflect population changes. Republicans control the process in more states and are better positioned to gain seats.
"This deck is already stacked, because they've been gerrymandering these districts," Maloney says. "And now they're trying to do even more of it and add to that with these Jim Crow-style voter suppression laws throughout the country."
He maintains that efforts among Republican-led state legislatures to enact more voting restrictions show the party has a losing policy hand for the midterm elections.
"If they're going to try to rely on rigging this game, because they don't have a plan for the future and they can't talk to the voters about their ideas and their vision, well, I think that makes me proud to be a Democrat."
Maloney also posits that GOP turnout will be depressed in an election that doesn't feature former President Donald Trump himself.
"There's no evidence that this toxic Trump message will motivate voters without Trump on the ballot," he says. "If the other side is making one big mistake, I think that might be it, which is a doubling down on this toxic Trump message of division and anger and racism and yet there's no evidence they can pull out voters with the message without the messenger."
He points to Texas Republican Jake Ellzey as a recent example. Ellzey was sworn in to the House on Friday, days after winning a special election that saw him defeat a Trump-backed candidate.
Maloney underscores: "It seems like the Trump endorsement's not what it used to be."
Here are more highlights from his conversation with NPR's Susan Davis.
On polarization in Congress:
"I think when you watch your colleagues spread an incendiary lie that leads to a violent attack on the Capitol, that gets a lot of people hurt — hundreds of cops in a violent, vicious, hand-to-hand fight with these lunatics that were coming in the Capitol ... I don't think it's the kind of thing where you say, 'Well, reasonable people can disagree and let's go have a beer, all due respect.' I think that's a time where you find a moral voice, and you say, this is wrong. And if you can't see that it's wrong, then you need to go walk around the block and think about your values. And it's not my job to meet you in the middle, because this one is black and white."
On the Republican Party:
"It's very hard to be a responsible Republican right now in Washington. If you don't believe me, ask Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Liz Cheney has lost her leadership position because she told the truth about what happened on Jan. 6. So unfortunately, the Republican Party has been captured by some reckless and extreme elements who believe in dangerous conspiracy theories, who spread an incendiary lie about the election that resulted in the attack on the Capitol and the death of a bunch of police officers, and who are now hampering our efforts to end the pandemic because they will not get on the program with masking and the vaccine. And I don't think that's going to be good politics in the districts that are competitive for them."
On his own reelection in 2022:
"I go to my voters every two years and ask them to renew my contract and I don't take anything for granted. I have a record I'm proud of ... I haven't stopped working for the Hudson Valley for one minute. But let me tell you what, if the Republicans want to waste a bunch of money trying to beat me, it's going to make it easy for me to beat a bunch of their guys that are in districts I'm gonna win. So bring it, is what I say. If they want to waste their money trying to beat Sean Maloney, that's great, because they're gonna wake up in the minority."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
House Democrats are betting against history in the 2022 midterms. On average, a president's party loses about two dozen seats during the first midterm they're in office. Next year, Republicans need to gain just five seats to take control of the House. And New York Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is trying to make sure that does not happen. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis sat down with Maloney to talk about how he plans to beat the odds.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Maloney is quick to reject the conventional wisdom that House Democrats will likely lose their majority next November.
SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: No, of course not.
DAVIS: Democrats are making a big bet, a multitrillion-dollar bet, that the Biden economic agenda will save them.
MALONEY: We're going to rebuild our country. We're going to make historic investments in infrastructure - doing it a bipartisan way, by the way - and make, you know, these billionaires who are blasting themselves into space and paying no taxes, you know, pay their fair share.
DAVIS: Already, Biden secured a nearly $2 trillion economic relief package that included $1,400 stimulus checks and a child tax credit sending new monthly payments right now to millions of American families. Last week, another expected victory - a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that the White House says will create millions of new jobs.
MALONEY: No Democratic majority, no Democratic president has made this much progress in a long time.
DAVIS: Democrats are just getting started. The party intends to pass this year, without any Republican support, a $3.5 trillion package to radically alter the existing social safety net. It includes new programs to help pay for child care, universal pre-K education, free community college and expanded Medicare coverage for hearing, dental and vision. Democrats are also considering including in it legislation to combat climate change and overhaul immigration laws.
MALONEY: Point is, is that we're making a bet on substance. And what's the old saying? Any jackass can kick down a barn that takes a carpenter to build one, and it's harder to build it than to kick it down. And so we're the party that's going to build the future.
DAVIS: Big bets on policy don't always pay off in elections. Democrats learned that lesson a decade ago when they passed the Affordable Care Act. President Barack Obama's singular domestic achievement also helped decimate congressional Democratic majorities in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. That's just one reason why Republicans feel good about their chances in 2022. They think Democrats are spending too much on big government and voters will reject it. They also have structural advantages, like the redistricting process, where House districts are redrawn every decade to reflect population changes. Republicans control the process in more than twice as many districts, and there's not much Democrats can do about it but get mad.
MALONEY: If they're going to try to rely on rigging this game because they don't have a plan for the future and they can't talk to the voters about their ideas and their vision, well, I think that makes me proud to be a Democrat.
DAVIS: What Democrats are betting on is lower Republican turnout without former President Trump on the ballot. Maloney was encouraged by a Texas special House election last week in which the Trump-endorsed candidate lost and turnout for the Republican seat was just 8% of eligible voters.
MALONEY: There's no evidence they can pull out voters with the message without the messenger.
DAVIS: Maloney believes the GOP's ongoing embrace of Trump will hurt the 21 Republicans they're targeting for defeat because they represent more moderate and swing districts.
MALONEY: The Republican Party has been captured by some reckless and extreme elements who believe in dangerous conspiracy theories, who spread an incendiary lie about the election that resulted in the attack on the Capitol and the death of a bunch of police officers. And I don't think that's going to be good politics in the districts that are competitive for them.
DAVIS: Republicans are targeting twice as many Democratic lawmakers next year, including Maloney himself. While he handily won reelection last year, Trump narrowly carried his district in 2016 before Biden won it in 2020.
MALONEY: If they want to waste their money trying to beat Sean Maloney, that's great because they're going to wake up in the minority.
DAVIS: Democrats may not have history on their side in 2022, but they have an optimist leading the way.
Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.