Dems Scramble to Find Their Foil for GOP’s Big Biden Probes

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty
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When Republicans take control of the U.S. House a month from now, they’ve promised to kick off investigations into everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop and the FBI’s search of Mar-A-Lago to many planks of the Biden administration’s so-called “woke ideology.”

It’s déjà vu all over again for many House Democrats. From 2011 to 2016, they were in the minority, defending a different Democratic president—and then a Democratic presidential nominee—from a veritable kitchen sink of GOP probes, from Benghazi to the Fast and Furious operation tracking guns to Mexican cartels.

With Republicans like Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and James Comer (R-KY) aiming to make that era look quaint by comparison, Democrats are deciding who will lead their counterattack—and there’s an open contest for the party’s top slot on the House’s most powerful investigative body.

Three members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform—Reps. Gerry Connolly (VA), Stephen Lynch (MA), and Jamie Raskin (MD)—are vying for the job of ranking member, replacing the retiring chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (NY).

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Democrats’ choice in the race, expected to come at a full-caucus vote next week, will be the earliest and biggest signal of how the party intends to counter the freshly sharpened knives of the GOP investigative apparatus.

Each candidate has a distinct profile. Connolly, who has spent his 14-year career on Oversight, cut his teeth countering the trigger-happy GOP investigators of the Obama years.

Lynch, whose biggest splash on the committee came when he harangued Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in a 2020 hearing, is leaning on his status as the panel’s senior Democrat. Lynch’s office did not make him available for an interview and did not provide any statement on his behalf by press time.

And Raskin, though the most junior of the three, is seen by Democrats as an exceptional communicator and skilled prosecutor of the case against Donald Trump and his party.

According to a number of Democratic insiders on Capitol Hill, the frontrunners are Connolly and Raskin. In interviews, both lawmakers envisioned aggressive pushback to what both expect to be a GOP investigative apparatus fully unleashed.If they are similar in substance, the two diverge in style. Connolly, an old-school Capitol Hill pugilist, eagerly embraces the brand. “He’s got a great, combative personality,” said his ally, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA).

For his campaign, Connolly created a webpage with numerous highlight videos from his years duking it out with Republicans on the committee, defending figures like former Attorney General Eric Holder. Featured prominently is an old quote from the panel’s former chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA): “Gerry, you’ve often been the bane of my existence.”

“You do need a bulldog, in the minority, to defend a Democratic White House, and puncture the false narrative that the Republicans are going to create,” Connolly told The Daily Beast. “We’re in a feisty mood.”

Raskin, meanwhile, is every bit the constitutional law professor he was before coming to Congress, prone to unspooling Democrats’ most eloquent and high-minded critiques of the GOP and defenses of democracy.

In the Trump era, very few have had more opportunities.

Raskin not only serves on Oversight but also on the Jan. 6 select committee and the House Judiciary Committee. He also served as an impeachment manager during Trump’s second Senate trial in 2021—a duty he undertook shortly after the death of his son.

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“What I offer is the experience gained in throwing myself, over the last six years, into the aggressive defense of democracy, the rule of law, government accountability, and transparency,” Raskin told The Daily Beast.

Democrats, then, may be choosing what kind of fighter they want. But it’s clear the party wants fighters—period—taking on the new Republican majority.

“Democrats really have to be prepared for the worst and most ridiculous trolling they can think of,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, a congressional expert with the liberal group Indivisible and a former staffer on the Oversight panel. “You can’t have pushovers in ranking member roles.”

The Oversight Committee, which has the broadest investigative jurisdiction of any panel in Congress, is poised to be the venue for any probes into the Biden family. But other committees will see aggressive investigations into the administration on a number of topics, from COVID-19 response measures to transgender policy to student loan forgiveness.

Democrats, then, see effective pushback not only as a necessity to defend Biden and his administration, but to draw a bright line between their priorities and the GOP’s as they seek to claw back the majority in 2024.

“We’re the last line of defense, so we have to have people who are really on top of how we respond best,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), chair of the Progressive Caucus, who is supporting Raskin for the Oversight post. “It’s incredibly important for us to be able to lay out the case to the American people over the next two years—what the contrast is.”

In the Democratic caucus, seniority has historically been the most important qualification for committee leaders. But in recent years, Democrats have occasionally bypassed a panel’s most senior member in favor of another veteran who they feel is better suited to the job.

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That’s what happened the last time Democrats selected a leader on Oversight. In 2019, following the death of the former chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Maloney, Lynch, and Connolly all ran for the position. In terms of seniority, Lynch was next in line, but members chose Maloney.

To some Democrats, Lynch’s campaign for the post that year wasn’t exactly inspiring. At the time, the Oversight Committee was Democrats’ foremost vehicle for investigating the Trump administration. There was no shortage of potential targets and goals for an ambitious chair.

But according to a source present during a closed-door pitch Lynch made to members, he didn’t detail many aspirations. The Massachusetts Democrat said repeatedly he was “running to protect my prerogative,” the source recalled.

Still, seniority remains a key advantage for Lynch. The Congressional Black Caucus, the party’s most important voting bloc, have typically made it their top consideration.

“There’s still a strong predisposition towards seniority, and when it’s overruled, it tends to be because we look and say a person close in seniority could maybe do a stronger job,” said Beyer. “If they pick Gerry or Jamie over Steve, it would be for the same reasons. We all have our different strengths.”

Key Republicans, for their part, say they don’t especially care who gets the job. “I wish them all the best, whoever wins,” said Comer, the incoming Oversight chairman. “If they want to defend the indefensible, then more power to them, but we’re going to be substantive.”

Jordan, who will be Judiciary chairman but currently serves on Oversight, laughed that “I’ve worked against all of them” when asked about the three candidates. “I’m not that concerned about who they put up,” he told The Daily Beast. “I know we’re going to get our work done, regardless of who their ranking member is.”

The Judiciary Committee under Jordan may prove the House’s most combative climate. The Ohio Republican was Chairman Jerry Nadler’s (D-NY) chief antagonist during the panel’s two impeachments of Trump and its hearings on the Russia investigation, leading a panel stocked with bomb-throwers like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL).

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Those Republicans have waited years for payback—and have compiled a long list of grievances about the Department of Justice and FBI. In a document summarizing the party’s oversight targets, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the likely next Speaker, devoted an entire section to federal law enforcement.

Nadler is expected to remain the panel’s top Democrat and has no challenger. But some observers have wondered how much longer the 75-year-old, who has served since 1992, will remain in office.

In August, when redistricting forced Nadler and Maloney into a primary, Maloney approvingly cited a New York Post editorial that called Nadler “senile” after he made some verbal missteps in a debate. Voters in the district clearly disagreed and overwhelmingly backed Nadler in the election.

Daniel Schuman, who closely tracks committee activity at the liberal group Demand Progress, said that Nadler “knows issues, knows substance, and he’s not willing to get bullied” by Jordan. “Are there others that’d be more successful? Probably, maybe,” Schuman said. “But I think Nadler would be capable of playing the role he needs to play.”

A spokesman for Nadler did not respond to a request for comment on the Democrat’s plans to counter the GOP majority next year.

The larger question hanging over Democrats’ moves is just how far down certain rabbit holes—like Hunter Biden’s laptop, for instance—that Republicans might go over the next two years.

On this, there’s something of a split in the caucus. Some believe that it’s obvious that Republicans will overreach—if only because McCarthy will need to satisfy the far-right flank of his conference in order to become Speaker and remain in power.

Others hold out hope that other political considerations might constrain the GOP. In 2011, House Republicans launched an armada of investigations after picking up a staggering 63 seats. In 2022, they picked up nine, and several incoming lawmakers responsible for that meager majority have already thrown cold water on certain investigative targets.

A senior member of the Oversight panel, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), was not assuming a maximal approach from the GOP. “Who knows, they might end up going down that path, and then they learn that voters really don’t want to go there,” he told The Daily Beast.

Raskin and Connolly, for their part, say they are prepared for anything.

“We will have to act as a truth squad against their conspiracy theories,” said Raskin, adding that Democrats have grown “painfully familiar” with GOP tactics over the last six years. “We’ve gained some experience in how to address [them] and how to turn back to the positive agenda that motivates all of us to be in government.”

Connolly said Republicans “have to make up their minds” about how they want to proceed. If they go too far, “they’re going to have an aggressive, assertive Democrat as ranking member who has experience doing precisely this.”

Whoever wins, Democratic activists counting on lawmakers to hold the line have a simple message.

“There’s a lot of value in being the adults in the room,” said Hatcher-Mays, with Indivisible. “I don’t see any value in Democrats showing up and turning the committee into a clown show in the way Gaetz and Jordan did in the minority. Let the MAGA GOP be the clowns, Democrats can be serious.”

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