How New York's Congressional Race Could Be A Problem for Republicans | Crooked Media
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April 29, 2024
What A Day
How New York's Congressional Race Could Be A Problem for Republicans

In This Episode

  • New York holds a special election today to fill a seat vacated by Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins. The Democrat in the race, state Sen. Tim Kennedy, is expected to win. If he does, it would leave Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson’s majority as slim as possible: a single vote. Todd Zwillich, a longtime Washington journalist and friend of the show, explains how it will make Johnson’s job even more complicated.
  • And in headlines: Columbia University began suspending students at the Gaza solidarity encampment, a federal appeals court ruled that certain state insurance plans must provide coverage for gender-affirming care, and the Supreme Court refused to hear billionaire and Tesla and X CEO Elon Musk’s bid to challenge the SEC’s restrictions on what he can post on social media.


Show Notes:



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Josie Duffy Rice: It’s Tuesday, April 30th. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson and this is What a Day where we are looking forward to the release of Mufasa, the prequel to Disney’s Lion King that stars none other than Beyonce and Blue Ivy Carter. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And it’s directed by Barry Jenkins. This is going to be amazing. The only way it could be better if it was called Scar and it was about Scar’s origin story. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Not you want a whole different movie, Josie? 


Josie Duffy Rice: I want a whole different movie. [laughter] Related. [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, a federal appellate court weighs in on transgender health care policies. Plus, we continue to follow the anti-war protests on Columbia’s campus. 


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, New York is holding a special election today. Voters are choosing a replacement for House Democrat Brian Higgins, who held the seat for almost 20 years. Higgins resigned in February, saying Congress had gotten just too dysfunctional. The 26 district is centered in Buffalo. It’s heavily Democratic, and the party’s nominee, state Senator Tim Kennedy, is expected to win. He’s running against Republican Gary Dixon, a local town supervisor. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Okay, so let’s assume that the predictions are right and Kennedy beats Dixon. What does that mean for Republicans? Don’t they have a sliver of a majority right now? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. So if Kennedy wins, the Republican House majority would shrink to just one seat. And it will add even more pressure on speaker Mike Johnson to keep his caucus in line, which is honestly not a very easy feat given that one member in particular, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, seems hellbent on ousting him for working with Democrats. She said that Johnson, quote, “betrayed” Republican voters after the House approved aid for Ukraine with overwhelming bipartisan support. She’s chaos embodied. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So to understand what the dysfunction inside the House Republican caucus looks like right now, I spoke with Todd Zwillich. He’s a longtime Washington journalist, a friend of the show, and I started by asking him about what he is looking for in tonight’s special election. 


Todd Zwillich: The special is not going to have any surprises. I think it’s a safe Democratic seat. I think what’s important about it is that it’s going to further narrow Republican’s altogether, way too narrow majority in the House. I mean, the current majority as of today is 217 to 212. Democrat probably takes the seat in the New York special. That makes it 217 to 213. And when you go on your fingers and count the votes, 217 to 13 is actually a one vote majority. It sounds like five, but it’s not five, because as soon as one of the two seventeens goes to the other side, it becomes 216 to 214 and a tie vote in the house is a loser. So that’s where this goes. It goes to the razor thin Republican majority, which apart from the numbers, has been just completely ungovernable. And the numbers show it, but also the votes have shown it. Marjorie Taylor Greene might show it. So we’re all here to watch. 


Josie Duffy Rice: On that point about this one vote margin, right, like what is the mood right now among House Republicans? Because as you said, there’s really no room to move. 


Todd Zwillich: The mood is grim. How do I know that? The number of Republicans who’ve retired or resigned, including powerful committee chairmen who aren’t coming back next year. It might be eight or nine or as many as 11. I can’t remember the exact number. It’s gigantic. And traditionally, what I can tell you is a member who spends all of that time and all of that money and all of that time away from family and all those years becoming a committee chairman, and then decides, I’m tapping out. It’s because they don’t want to be in the minority. It’s because they think they’re going to lose. I don’t know if they’re going to lose, but they think they’re going to lose because why would they leave if they are going to have all that power next year? There’s nothing that sucks more in politics than being in the House minority. You don’t have any power unless you’re a Democrat in this situation with a one vote majority and Republicans who can’t govern themselves. Then all of a sudden you do have power. And that’s what makes this situation so extraordinary. 


Josie Duffy Rice: On that same kind of point, we’ve seen slim margins in Congress before, especially in the Senate. So can you talk a little more about why this particular House Republican conference is so ungovernable? 


Todd Zwillich: I think the big part of it is just the rending of the Republican Party by MAGA. I mean, Trump has turned this party on its head in so many ways, upending norms of every fashion, turning his party pro-Russia, you know, having them be against law enforcement, trying to defund the FBI, trying to undermine prosecutions on his behalf. I mean, not the Republican Party you thought you knew a couple of years ago. That’s part of it, the MAGA philosophy, we’re going to go a little bit deeper here. It’s not about governance. It’s not about compromise. You don’t need me to convince you of that. It’s not about getting your best argument out there, getting all you can and then cutting a deal. It’s about scorched earth. It’s about crashing and burning things when you don’t get your way. It’s about threatening your enemies, threatening the press. Really, it is I I’d love to feel like I’m exaggerating, but when that’s your operating philosophy in an institution like the House and you’re an anti institutionalist, you’re not there to be governed and you’re not there to govern really. You’re there to light it up and get attention on the internet, raise money and tear it down. And not all the members sign up for that philosophy, but those that do have been empowered. There’s more than them than ever. And because of some quirks in the House rules, individuals like Marjorie Taylor Greene and others, but especially her this week, they can wreak maximum havoc. And I think that’s what you’re seeing. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. So as we were talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene, I’m in Georgia, so she’s unfortunately she’s not my congresswoman, but she’s too close for comfort. She has introduced this motion to vacate, which would start the process of potentially ousting the speaker. Most Republicans, even Trump, it seems like, don’t want another fight. Obviously, the fight about Republican Speaker of the House has been going on in some form for years now. But what do you think the likelihood is that she actually pulls the trigger on this? 


Todd Zwillich: Look, I think what you’re going to see over the next 24 hours, you’re going to see a lot of reporters running around trying to get in the faces of Republican rank and file members to find out what they think about this motion to vacate and whether MTG should pull the trigger or whether she would have support. I mean, she said before the recess, I’m doing this. He’s been essentially a traitor to the Republican cause. He should resign. Um. He has operated in the service of Democrats, mostly for passing the Ukraine funding bill. I mean, that’s really the key reason. Increasingly pro-Russia, anti Ukraine, right wing members of the House did not want Ukraine funded in Russia’s war against Ukraine. And they lost. In fact, it’s not just Marjorie Taylor Greene who didn’t want that. That bill passed with a minority of the Republican conference voting for it. Keep in mind, a majority of Republicans voted against it. So you’ve got a speaker of the House passing major legislation, major legislation to fund a foreign war, you know, against a major adversary that the majority of their party didn’t support. In fairness, honestly, to Marjorie Taylor Greene, in any House of Representatives, doing that is a recipe to get your butt kicked out. Because passing a major, major bill like that, essentially with a majority of the other party isn’t done in our system. Not if you want to survive into next week. But she doesn’t have a lot of people with her. Look um, more and more Republicans are saying they don’t want this fight. You’re right. She has three people with her right now on the Republican side who say they would vote for it. She says she’s not backing down. She hasn’t said directly her office. I saw one report has said she’s not backing down. And if you think she is, you’re drunk or high something to that effect, her spokesperson said. So I don’t know what she’s going to do. I don’t know if she knows what she’s going to do, but I do know if she calls the question she’s going to lose. And we should talk about the implications of calling that vote and what it would mean. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. So can you put this into a little bit of context for us? This is a very religious Christian conservative MAGA Republican, Mike Johnson is, from deep Red Louisiana. He’s kind of having to rely on Democrats to save him right now. These are the same people he talks about as the enemy traditionally. So what does this mean about his own ability to lead his conference? And like what does this say about his future? 


Todd Zwillich: The amazing thing is that Mike Johnson is already leading something, in my experience, I think in anybody’s experience, it’s just basically unheard of in the house. He’s already sort of leading a coalitional government like a bipartisan coalition in the House. Not officially. You know, he’s still a Republican. Republicans still have the majority. But if you dig down into some of the procedures of the House that go on behind the scenes, that most people don’t see, things like the operation of the Rules Committee or when rules votes come to the floor governing debate, we don’t have to spend a lot of time on it. I don’t want to glaze people over with procedure, but there are a lot of insidery kind of dusty ways to tell how efficiently the house is operating. They keep losing these votes that are supposed to make the House run. And what that means is that the House conference is dysfunctional and like we said, ungovernable. They couldn’t have passed Ukraine funding or even Israel funding in that package, Taiwan funding, the way it was set up with Republican votes. I mean, the governing majority could not have funded Ukraine or Israel. Major priorities, especially Israel for many of them. So Mike Johnson had to turn to Democrats to get a majority of the vote. That’s not done. That’s unheard of. And and what would happen here would be even more amazing if Marjorie Taylor Greene calls the question, right? And forces a situation where Democrats prop up Mike Johnson, they force a situation where he becomes a bipartisan leader in an era when Republicans are fighting a holy war against their enemies, you know, against people who are enemies of the Republic and enemies of Christian morality, I suppose. I mean, there’s a lots of rhetoric out there. I’m not making it up. He’s not a bipartisan guy. He’s not a reach across the aisle moderate from northern New York. He’s from deep red Louisiana, and he’s a Christian nationalist, as you mentioned. So she would force him into an extraordinary and really untenable position beyond, you know, beyond November for sure. 


Josie Duffy Rice: So there is some reprieve coming for Republicans in the next few weeks, thanks to a handful of special elections. So the first one is in California in late May to fill the seat vacated by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. That’s a runoff between two Republicans, then two more special elections in June. Even if Republicans sweep all three, which is expected. To what extent is that going to solve the problem that the Republicans currently have? This ungovernable conference, and does it relieve the pressure that is currently on Republicans, given how slim the majority is? 


Todd Zwillich: It might loosen the pressure a little. Only because four is better than one. But that’s the superficial part of it. The fundamental part of it is already the part that we talked about, which is Donald Trump has torn the Republican Party in two. He has taken it over completely. He’s gotten the endorsement of even people who say he’s unfit for office, like Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr, two senior Republicans from inside and outside of Congress who on the one hand say he’s unfit to be president and on the other hand, endorse him. So it’s his party, but he doesn’t have control of every single member. There’s still traditional Republicans around who think they can survive the MAGA era by go along and get along and come out and not be held to account for sponsoring an authoritarian takeover of their party. Nothing is written, so I don’t know what the future of that is, but that’s the fundamental problem. And that fundamental division doesn’t go away whether the majority is one, two, three, five or six. 


Josie Duffy Rice: That was my conversation with Todd Zwillich. We’ll keep an eye on this story, but that is the latest for now. We will be back after some ads. [music break]




Tre’vell Anderson: Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Columbia University began suspending students at the Gaza Solidarity encampment on Monday afternoon. These students won’t be able to finish their semester or graduate. They’re also banned from university housing and academic buildings, according to CNN. The school set a deadline that morning telling protesters that if they didn’t leave by 2 p.m., they’d risk suspension. After the school informed students that they, quote, “will not divest from Israel,” Sueda Polat, a student organizer with the encampment, said in a news conference on Monday that the university refused to comply with the protesters’ demands. 


[clip of Sueda Polat] We demand divestment. We will not be moved unless by force. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Now, once that 2 p.m. deadline hit, hundreds of university faculty, staff, and other students began forming a human chain around the encampment in solidarity with the protesters. Students at Columbia have occupied the main lawn for almost two weeks now. Monday was the last day of classes. As of now, the university commencement ceremony is still scheduled for May 15th. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I attended that university, and I can tell you that the number one thing they care about is those lawns. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Shame. Mm mmm.


Josie Duffy Rice: They love those lawns. They don’t want you on them. They don’t want you messing up their grass. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Especially with graduation coming up, honey. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Those lawns are their primary care. Easily. A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that certain state insurance plans must provide coverage for gender affirming care. The Fourth Circuit issued the ruling, the first of its kind in the country, which dealt with cases brought in West Virginia and North Carolina. The North Carolina case was brought by state employees who weren’t able to get health care coverage for their transgender children. And in West Virginia, trans folks on Medicaid were limited to coverage for some treatments, like hormones, but not for surgery. The court ruled that these policies are discriminatory, affirming two lower court rulings. It’s a big win. We spoke with Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, who was part of the legal team in the North Carolina case. 


[clip of Omar Gonzalez-Pagan] There is serious harm for being denied coverage for the health care that you need. And in this day and age right now, where we’re seeing 24 states ban this care or restrict this care for transgender youth, this is an important reminder that there is light at the end of the tunnel that our Constitution should and does include all of us, and we will continue this fight at every venue possible. 


Josie Duffy Rice: The states are already seeking review from the Supreme Court. We’ll see if the highest court takes up this case. But in the meantime, these exclusionary policies are not in place right now. So trans folks in not just West Virginia and North Carolina, but South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland are covered under state insurance plans. 


Tre’vell Anderson: As we mentioned yesterday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in the Middle East working on a cease fire deal with world leaders. And Hamas officials are reportedly considering an offer from Israel. On Monday, Blinken said Israeli officials offered Hamas a, quote, “very generous deal.” Blinken made the remarks at the World Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia, urging members of Hamas to accept the deal. Cease fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas have stalled for months while the humanitarian crisis in Gaza continues to worsen. An Israeli official told CNN that the agreement asks that Hamas release between 20 to 33 hostages in exchange for the release of more Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. The trade would take place over 40 days, and a temporary cease fire would be in place during that time. Hamas officials reportedly went to Egypt Monday to discuss the deal, and are expected to issue a response soon. The last time there was a ceasefire in Gaza was in late November, when officials from Israel and Hamas agreed to a week long truce. 


Josie Duffy Rice: And finally, on Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear billionaire and Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s bid to challenge the Security and Exchange Commission’s restrictions on what he can post on social media. The case revolves around a settlement that the SEC reached with Musk in 2018, regarding his previous posts on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter that Musk now owns. Musk got in trouble with the agency when he tweeted that he had enough money to take Tesla private, something he did not do. The post prompted shares in his company to skyrocket, but the SEC deemed the claim, quote, “materially false and misleading” to the market and said that it violated federal law. Musk signed a deal with the agency agreeing to get legal approval before tweeting about Tesla business matters moving forward, a provision known as the quote, “Twitter sitter” policy. And now Musk is arguing that that restriction goes against his constitutional right to free speech and that he was coerced into the deal. The High Court sided with the SEC, turning away the case altogether and keeping Musk bound to the agreement’s terms. 


Tre’vell Anderson: I love when Elon Musk loses. I don’t care what it’s about. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I just want the SEC to require this man to get off Twitter/X entirely. When he talks, it’s bad. 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laughing] Well, then he might have a case Josie, okay? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Then he might have a case, yeah. [laughter] Against me. And those are the headlines. 




Josie Duffy Rice: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, watch the Mufasa trailer and tell your friends to listen. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And if you are into reading and not just SEC regulations like me, What a Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at! I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


Josie Duffy Rice: I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 


[spoken together] And who’s your favorite Lion King character? 


Josie Duffy Rice: Simba, lowkey might be my least favorite. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Oh, wow. [laughing]


Josie Duffy Rice: What a teen.


Tre’vell Anderson: Hot take Josie. 


Josie Duffy Rice: Hot take. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Shout out to the hyenas, though. Okay?


Josie Duffy Rice: Shout out to the hyenas. Shout out to Timon. Shout out to the parrot. Toucan?


[spoken together] The bird. [laughter] [music break]


Tre’vell Anderson: What a Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our associate producers are Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf. We had production help today from Michell Eloy, Greg Walters and Julia Claire. Our showrunner is Erica Morrison and our executive producer is Adriene Hill. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.