Inside the battle to flip a New York seat key to House GOP majority: 'People were horrified'

Piermont, New York

When President Joe Biden came to this must-win US House district in New York just a few months ago, he did something that privately enraged members of his own party.

He praised one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

“Mike is the kind of guy that when I was in the Congress, the kind of Republican I used to deal with,” Biden said of freshman Rep. Mike Lawler, speaking in Valhalla, New York. “But he’s not one of these MAGA Republicans.”

Democrats were aghast.

“People were horrified when they heard what Joe Biden had to say,” former Rep. Mondaire Jones, a Democrat looking to unseat Lawler, told CNN, calling Biden’s comments “factually absurd” and attacking his GOP rival for a “record of extremism.”

Asked if she agreed with Biden, Democratic candidate Liz Gereghty said that Lawler “would like to appear that he’s not (MAGA) because he knows that doesn’t work here. But I would look at his voting record, and I would say, there’s evidence.”

Biden’s comments – and the reaction from Democrats here – underscore the significance of the New York suburbs in the furious battle for control of the US House of Representatives. Six freshman Republicans – who are among the 18 GOP lawmakers in districts that Biden carried in 2020 – pulled off victories last cycle, handing Kevin McCarthy the speaker’s gavel and cementing Republican control of the chamber by the slimmest of margins.

Now, those same six freshmen New York Republicans are among the most endangered in the country with both parties prepared to spend huge sums of money as GOP lawmakers seek to hang onto their seats in Democratic battlegrounds. And Lawler is at the top of the list.

“I don’t look at it as a vulnerability. I’ve won twice in two-to-one Democratic districts,” said Lawler, 36, referring to his win in the House race and prior bid for the New York state assembly. “I did it by appealing to voters regardless of their party, talking about the issues that matter.”

Lawler didn’t hold back, attacking Jones and accusing him of shifting his positions to appear moderate after espousing a more liberal record when representing a bluer New York district from 2021-2023.

“You’re not a pragmatist,” he said of Jones. “You’re not somebody who’s willing to work in a bipartisan way. You’re a political hack.”

Democrats believe this cycle is different than the 2022 midterms – with the prospects of former President Donald Trump atop the GOP ticket, the potential that the New York district lines could be redrawn to become more Democratic and the challenges of running in a swing district while serving in a chamber dominated by conservative hardliners.

Indeed, in the first eight months of the new Congress, McCarthy has at times found himself catering to the demands of the far-right of his conference, putting swing-district Republicans in a difficult spot – as they were during debate over a major defense bill amended to include a host of hot-button social issues, including abortion. And as McCarthy now is under growing pressure to launch an impeachment inquiry into Biden, he’ll have to rely on his blue-district Republicans to vote to advance such proceedings.

Lawler told CNN repeatedly he’s not ready to support an impeachment inquiry into Biden, even as he contended there was “damaging and disturbing facts” by the GOP probe into the president’s son Hunter Biden. Republicans are trying to tie Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings to his father’s actions as vice president, but so far they haven’t proven that the president took official action to benefit his son.

“I think for me with respect to impeachment, we’re not there yet,” he told CNN.

Asked if Republicans should drop the matter if they can’t tie Hunter Biden’s foreign payments directly to the president’s actions, Lawler said: “If there’s nothing tying him to it, then that’s a separate issue.”

Some voters here in the district are leery about seeing the House go down the impeachment route.

Walter Sevastian, a Nyack native and voter here, said he appreciates that Lawler wants to approach the job in a bipartisan fashion, but so far, he would give him a “C+” on his performance.

“On the one hand, it’s very easy to say you want to reach out and work across the aisle, on the other hand, how you vote is how you vote,” Sevastian said.

Lawler is confident he can win more votes than Trump if the former president is the GOP nominee, pointing to the fact that he won about 5% more of the vote than Trump did in the district in 2020. But Joe Biden carried New York’s 17th Congressional District by 10 points in 2020, underscoring the challenge ahead for the freshman Republican.

“Mike Lawler cannot run away from Donald Trump,” said Jones, 36. “And this is a district that hates Donald Trump.”

Democrats believe that Trump’s criminal indictments – and the House Republicans’ handling of them – will give them fresh ammunition in districts like this one. And Jones doesn’t shy away from his view about the litany of charges facing Trump.

“I think Trump deserves to be in prison,” Jones said, adding that it’s up to juries to make a final decision. “I think that anyone else having done a fraction of the things that Donald Trump has done over the course of his presidency, and in the days and weeks and months following would have been put in prison a long time ago.”

Lawler said the former president “is going to have his day in court” even as he said the party needs to go “in a different direction” in 2024.

When asked if he’d back Trump as the nominee, Lawler didn’t answer directly.

“At the end of the day, the Republican primary voters are going to choose who the nominee is, just as the Democrats are going to choose who their nominee is,” Lawler said before seeking to rebut Trump’s false stolen election claims.

“It can’t be focused on perceived grievances or the 2020 election. As I said, many times Donald Trump lost in 2020,” Lawler said, adding that Trump’s conduct was “wrong” after that election.

But Lawler also was in line with many in his party as he argued that “people feel there are two forms of justice – one for Donald Trump and one for others, including Hillary Clinton and Hunter Biden.”

Lawler, however, drew a line.

“If he’s convicted, he should not be running for public office – period,” he said of the former president.

Then-Rep. Mondaire Jones speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Republicans believe they’ll be able to hang onto this seat in part because of Jones’ progressive politics and the Democratic primary fight between Jones, former Bedford councilwoman and supervisor MaryAnn Carr and Gereghty, a local school board member whose sister is Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Indeed, Lawler repeatedly criticized Jones for being outside of the mainstream and aligning himself with the most progressive members of his party, pointing to comments he made while running for a different district of New York including Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In 2020, for instance, Jones faced backlash after saying: “We need to end mass incarceration and legalize cannabis and defund the police.”

On Wednesday, Jones told CNN of his “defund” comment: “In retrospect, (it was a) poor choices of words,” saying he was trying to convey support for directing funding toward first responders.

Gereghty said Jones’ position on that issue and a handful of others would haunt him in a general election.

“He’s taken positions that I think are going to cause him problems in a general election,” Gereghty said. “There are positions that he had to take in the 10th District that don’t really work in the 17th. And I think that it’s going to be difficult for him to answer.”

Jones is seeking to recalibrate his positions and embracing the term as “pragmatist” over progressive in this race – something Lawler has scoffed at.

“Folks here know me to be pragmatic,” Jones said. “Yes, I believe everyone should have health care in the richest nation in the history of the world. I’ve also been consistent in my support for Israel. I’ve been consistent in voting for record levels of police funding.”

Jones was an on-air CNN political commentator for several months earlier this year before leaving the network.

Both Jones and Gereghty have so far been careful not to harshly criticize the president, though neither called Biden the best candidate for their party heading into 2024.

Asked if Biden was the best candidate, Jones said: “I am focused on continuing the work that Democrats in Congress last term,” calling Biden a “very accomplished president.” Asked again, Jones said that he is “proud” that Biden will be on the same ticket and that “I will be running against Mike Lawler as he runs against Donald Trump.”

“I think he’s an excellent candidate, and I support him,” Gereghty said when asked if he’s the best candidate for Democrats.

At times, the House GOP has put Lawler and swing-district Republicans in a difficult position, demanding deeper spending cuts than many in their party want and injecting cultural issues into the traditionally bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act. Democrats in the race are spotlighting Lawler’s vote to rescind a Pentagon policy providing reimbursements for military personnel traveling out of state for abortion services.

“He’s totally fine with women in the military fighting for his freedom, but he won’t even protect their rights,” Gereghty said. “That’s appalling. And I think this district understands that and doesn’t accept it.”

Lawler defended the vote as “a very specific thing” that related to using taxpayer funds to pay for travel related to abortion services and insisted he would not support a federal ban on abortion. “When you look at people like Mondaire Jones, they’re the extremists on abortion,” Lawler said.

Both sides are trying to tie the other to the most extreme elements of their parties. Indeed, Democrats are touting a ProPublica study showing that Lawler votes the same as the hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene roughly 81% of the time. Lawler pushed back, and pointed out that Jones voted with liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 97% of the time, calling him a “radical progressive.”

“I have the second lowest agreement record with Marjorie Taylor Greene in my conference,” Lawler said, noting: “I’ve already disagreed with her nearly 20% of the time.”

It’s all an effort to convince swing voters like Sevastian who are torn about their choices.

“No one has won my vote yet,” he said.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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