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Democrats Flip NY House Seat, Narrowing GOP Majority; Suozzi: "We Won" Despite "The Less About Tom Suozzi And The Squad"; Immigration Was A Dominant Issue In NY Special Election; Trump: GOP Candidate A "Foolish Woman" For Not Embracing Me More; Speaker Johnson Downplays Democratic Win In NY House Race; Republicans Defend Expelling Santos From House; GOP Rep. Johnson Could Lose Speakership Over Ukraine Aid. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2024 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Today on Inside Politics. If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. Democrats maybe humming some Sinatra, hoping what happened in old New York last night will continue in November, making more little towns blue.

Plus, divisiveness, dysfunction and not getting a lot done. That's how former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan once described the U.S. Senate. So why does he want a job there? I'll ask him this hour in his first interview since announcing his Senate campaign.

And it could end the Trump business empire and forced the former president to fork over more than $300 million. A judge is expected to make a ruling at Donald Trump's civil fraud case this week. As the broader Trump legal team is gearing up for a very busy few days in court.

I'm Dana Bash. Let's go behind the headlines at Inside Politics.

First up, the race that launched a thousand takes. Pretty much everyone has an opinion on what the special election in New York's Third Congressional District means after Democrats flipped a seat, making Republicans already narrow majority even slimmer. But what caught our attention is what three remaining presidential candidates agree on. That it's all about Donald Trump.

The Biden campaign's response, quote, Donald Trump lost again. Nikki Haley's reaction, quote, we just lost another winnable Republican House seat because voters overwhelmingly reject Donald Trump, and even the former president thinks it's about him.

He's blaming the Republican candidate for not kissing his ring, saying quote, MAGA, which is most of the Republican Party stayed home and it always will, unless it is treated with the respect that it deserves. Moments ago, we heard from the two-House leaders.


REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): The result last night is not something in my view that Democrats should celebrate too much. Think about what happened there. They spent about $15 million to win a seat that President Biden won by eight points.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): Tom Suozzi talked about common sense solutions and finding bipartisan common ground, Tom Suozzi won.


BASH: Bottom line is that Tom Suozzi is heading back to Congress. The Democrat thinks he can move past the crippling dysfunction.


TOM SUOZZI, (D) NEW YORK, CONGRESSMAN ELECT: It's time to move beyond the petty partisan bickering and the finger pointing. It's time to focus on how to solve the problems. It's time to get to work on immigration. Let's send a message to our friends running the Congress these days. Stop running around for Trump and start running the country.


BASH: Let's get straight to our great panel of reporters to break all of this down. CNN's Melanie Zanona, PBS NewsHour's Laura Barron-Lopez, and Margaret Talev of Axios. Happy Valentine's Day. I'm obviously leaning very far into Tuesday (Ph) and loving it. Let's just play one more bite from Tom Suozzi about what one of the issues -- may be the issue that he tried to flip the script on, and it looks like he did successfully in that immigration.


SUOZZI: Despite all the lies about Tom Suozzi and the squad, about Tom Suozzi being the godfather of the migrant crisis, about sanctuary Suozzi. We won.


BASH: So, there he is, not only talking about the immigration issue, which I want you to weigh in on. He's also doing what he did throughout this very short campaign in the special election, which is separating himself from the squad, meaning the left racist party, not to mention President Biden.

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN, CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yeah. He distanced himself from his own party. In a lot of instances, he embraced the immigration issue head on. And this morning and talking to Republicans outside the conference meeting that they had, there was a lot of finger pointing. And one of the things that they pointed to was that Republicans rejected the bipartisan deal to secure the southern border.


So, I do think there are some questions this morning about how that may have impacted the race and an issue where immigration was seen as really central. In New York, the migrant crisis was a defining issue. Now Republicans are also downplaying last night. They said this is a district that Joe Biden carried by eight points. They were heavily outspent. Tom Suozzi was a member of Congress for many years. He had very high name ID. All of that is true.

But it's also a fact that now, Republicans are one step closer to losing the majority Democrats, one step closer to winning it. And I do think there's going to be potentially some soul searching about what the message is going to be ---

BASH: That's interesting. You heard from some House Republicans regret that they killed the immigration bill, or maybe these were members who ever wanted to -- privately, that's where you get the best stuff, Melanie?


BASH: The idea just sticking on immigration for one minute, Laura. The idea that people in this third congressional district really did pay attention was interesting to me. When I went up to New York last week, I did hear from voters coming out of the early voting areas that we went to saying -- several of them said, unsolicited that they were upset that the immigration bill was killed. And that's not just because of the border but because of what it says about the inability to get things done here in Washington.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN, POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And you've seen Democrats, including President Biden as well as Suozzi like take advantage of that the fact that Republicans killed that border deal, that Trump himself said that he didn't want Republicans to vote for it. And he talked about that.

On the campaign trail, Tom Suozzi didn't -- he also, I think what's notable is he didn't just say, use language about being tough on the border and saying secure the border, which he did say. But he also said that he wanted to provide a pathway to citizenship for people who follow the rules, for migrants who follow the rules.

And I think that's key because a lot of Democrats, you know, sometimes they shy away from the pathway to citizenship, even though polls show that it's very popular to grant a pathway to citizenship to dreamers, and it's something that President Biden came into the White House promising. And in this border deal, they didn't have that. But I think that Suozzi arguing that on the campaign trail is notable and something that Democrats can do potentially in future races.

BASH: You know, one of the things, Margaret, that it is maybe a lesson from this, is that it's the way Nancy Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries still does, runs the politics of the caucus, which is what's good for somebody in the most liberal of districts is not the same as somebody in a swing district like the Suozzi district. And that is something that a member of that previously discussed squad said on CNN last night.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): Our main prerogative is to win the House back. I know that Representative -- former representative Suozzi, he knows his district. The idea that we are, you know, that we're part of the same kind of cadre in Congress is incorrect. It's wrong. But that doesn't mean that we're not on the same team.


BASH: So practical. And that's not something which I want you to weigh in on Melanie, that we're seeing on the Republican side.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, AXIOS: Yeah. It's an interesting distinction. And the way she weaves that nuance to keep her constituents knowing that she's -- she might be on his team, but she's really on their team, is interesting. I think if Tom Suozzi had lost this race, it would be about weather -- and we would be talking about it really intensely today. And Joe Biden would be in a lot of trouble. This was a disruptive one before by eight points.

The fact that Suozzi won given the -- like sort of horrendous, short, whatever infamous run of George Santos and the leanings of that district anyway. I don't know how much you can take to the bank if you're the Democratic Party, but I think it does offer a few playbooks. One is early voting. It made a difference if there is a snowstorm, and many of your voters have already voted, it's less important whether they can get out of their house or not, right.

So early voting is important. The abortion issue is really important. I know we've been talking about immigration, but in the suburban swing district where a lot of the women are voters or believe that women should have reproductive rights. That was an important issue for him to hammer on and he did. And then the immigration approach seems to be to argue a tough security approach to the border, but sort of tough but humane and try to contrast that with the legacy of the Trump administration.

The challenge for Biden is going to be that Biden himself cannot use the Tom Suozzi playbook because the Tom Suozzi playbook evolves distancing himself from Joe Biden. So, this may be a playbook for Democrats in tough races. But I think the president himself is going to need a different strategy for talking about ---

BASH: It's so well said, such a good point. Sticking on to continue with that a very astute observation. The congressional races, especially in New York, where the Republican wins there in 2022 gave the Republicans the majority. Listen to what Mike Lawler who is one of the most endangered Republicans is also from New York sat on CNN this morning.



REP. MIKE LAWLER (R-NY): I give them kudos. But each race is going to be different. I think certainly Democrats, you know, can look at this race and see a pathway forward in some of these districts. But it comes down to the candidate.


ZANONA: I mean, he's right. It does come down to the candidate. And himself and D'Esposito and some of these other guys who are freshmen Republicans in these districts, they will have the benefit of running as an incumbent, whereas Mazi Pilip wasn't. And she had lower name ID in the district.

But behind the scenes, there is some nervousness among these new Republicans. The pastor majority runs exactly through their districts. And I do think today, there's going to be some effort to try to get the new Republicans -- this Republican majority to do things that will help the New York Republicans. A perfect example is this assault legislation and the state and local tax income deduction. They've been trying to push through this bill It's coming into resistance from the right flank.

And I'm told that Mike Lawler actually made a pitch this morning behind closed doors, please support this bill. We need a boost. Give us a win in New York. We'll see if that works.

But so far, it does not seem like conservatives have the same sort of AOC mentality, which is we might be on different pages on policy, but we're on the same team. That just does not seem to ---

BASH: Example of the difference there. OK. Before we sort of get off this top or move on from this micro topic about what happened in New York, we have to talk about what Donald Trump said in his post last night. Nevermind blaming Mazi Pilip for not endorsing MAGA. He said, I stayed out of the race, "I want to be loved!" OK, this is a jump ball, who wants to take that? So, I'm trying to figure out what that was about.


TALEV: Yeah. I just like -- it's her fault because she didn't embrace him enough. But he loves her even though he thinks she's an idiot. And that's why he stayed out because he's really in control. But he's not in control and that's why she lost. So, I don't know, it's on brand. I don't know. I don't think it means anything.

BARRON-LOPEZ: I mean, never there is a lost. Trump wants to find someone else to blame. I mean, he clearly stayed out because he was advised that in a district like this and a Biden won district, you know, forceful endorsements aren't necessarily going to help the candidate.

BASH: That was pretty good. I don't think I could have come up with that.

TALEV: Well, I meant what she said.

BASH: What she said. Up next. What did the New York results mean for Mike Johnson's already tenuous ability to leave the House? We're going to look at the challenges he's facing from all sides.



BASH: House Republicans are reeling after their slim majority got even slimmer last night. After the New York results, House Speaker Mike Johnson has a two-vote margin to pass legislation. And yet, he says there's nothing to see here.


JOHNSON: The result last night is not something in my view that Democrats should celebrate too much. Think about what happened there. They spent about $15 million to win a seat that President Biden won by eight points. They want it by less than eight points. Their candidate ran like a Republican. He said, I'd like a Republican talking about the border and immigration because everybody knows that's the top issue.


BASH: The chief congressional correspondent Manu Raju was at that press conference and pretty much everywhere else already this morning on Capitol Hill. Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN, CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. And I asked the speaker about whether or not he gave Tom Suozzi an issue to campaign on by essentially scuttling the Senate bipartisan border deal that Suozzi later railed against Republicans over that decision. But Johnson downplayed that, said it was not at all an issue and still contending that the American public is behind them on that matter. But not everyone in his conference agrees.

In fact, some Republicans particularly in swing districts believe that they should have done more to negotiate, not looking at they're simply trying to block that proposal. Others said that their handling of early voting and certain campaign tactics, certainly pouring cold water on those early voting and mail-in voting as a former president has done. They need to change that.

And some patently blame New York freshman Republicans for pushing out George Santos and essentially shrinking the Republican majority. And the Republicans who will respond behind that effort to push out Santos defended that move.


LAWLER: You have to have standards in the halls of Congress. And so, I don't regret voting to expel George Santos. He was unfit to serve.

REP. MARCUS MOLINARO (R-NY): George Santos was a con man and a crook and shouldn't have been a member of Congress. There are a lot of decisions that have occurred these last a couple of months that have shrunk the majority. Perhaps George Santos being honest, would have kept to one more seat here in Congress. REP. MARK ALFORD (R-MO): I think the American people see a certain dysfunction to our body right now. I don't see it as a dysfunction. This is the way that we do function to get the things that we want, that the American people want.


RAJU: And that's been part of the debate here is that in the House GOP is devolved into finger pointing and internal chaos and the aftermath of Kevin McCarthy's ouster in October, and really having a difficult time putting together any sort of agenda here. And there are such huge issues here, Dana, confronting this majority, not just dealing with Ukraine aid and Israel aid.

How to deal with the border. The speaker saying that he would not accept the Senate's proposal to provide $95 billion in emergency aid to U.S. allies overseas. All part of the GOP infighting that many members are concerned about will hurt them in November. Dana?


BASH: Absolutely, Manu. Thank you so much for that reporting. Our panel is back here. Let me just put up on the screen the numbers because it really is stark when you look at what the majority really is for Republicans or will be as soon as Tom Suozzi's sworn in. I mean, if you look at the way that the voting goes, it is a two-vote governing body, which is like nothing.

ZANONA: Right. It was already so razor thin, and the fact that it just got even smaller is going to make Johnson's life that much more difficult. Now what I will say is that all the major pieces of legislation are going to need bipartisan support anyway. This does come into play, though when it comes to party line votes. If they're trying to do a Biden impeachment. If they're trying to do a FISA spy powers renewal bill.

And just in general, I mean, I think Speaker Mike Johnson is going to really have to sit down with his conference, figure out where everyone is on some of these key issues, including Senate aid. The Senate aid packages just got sent over. I mean, he is just in such an incredibly tight spot and definitely mirrors like Kevin McCarthy went through, but worse.

BASH: Well, you just said perfect -- said up perfectly an exchange that Manu had with Warren Davidson, Republican of Ohio, about what would happen to Mike Johnson if he dared to put a bill on the floor or even allow a bill to come up for a vote that would find Ukraine.


RAJU: If the speaker were to put the Senate package on the floor, what would that mean for his ability to hold on to the gavel?

REP. WARREN DAVIDSON (R-OH): He would need Democrats to hold on to the gavel at that point.

RAJU: Because there would be an effort to push him out.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, multiple of my colleagues have already promised that. I believe that it's not an empty threat.


BASH: Laura?

BARRON-LOPEZ: I mean, yeah, Speaker Johnson, as Mel said, is potentially in trouble and thinking about his speakership right now. But also, that's the very thing that the majority makers probably want him to do, which is to put something like that on the floor, to put aid for Ukraine, aid for Israel. They want to be able to vote for something like that. These Republicans that are in Biden districts.

And so, if you want to hold on to your majority, I mean, this just goes back to what we saw from AOC, from Ocasio-Cortez, either these conservatives realize that the majority makers in their conference need something to vote on and take to their districts, or they don't because they've decided that they want to go along with former President Donald Trump, who says no more aid to Ukraine.

BASH: And they are not the ones who dictate what happens in that conference if they're the hardliners. And that is the reality. And I just think a little historical context is important. I put up the numbers of how slim the majority is. Democrats' majority, Nancy Pelosi was not -- was about the same, maybe a tiny bit, maybe ---

TALEV: Just a little bit bigger.

BASH: One seat bigger. And they got stuff done.

TALEV: Well, and there were a couple of reasons why. One is that the left flank and you sort of saw AOC do some of that in the clip we just saw. But the left flank would push and push and push and push and push and hold out, and you know, Joe Manchin, yada, yada. But then in the end, most of the time would come together. There were a couple of close moments and a lot of wasted time. And it impacted Joe Biden approval ratings.

BASH: Yes.

TALEV: But they came together usually at the end. But the other is Nancy Pelosi. Mike Johnson is not Nancy Pelosi. I mean, he couldn't possibly be. He doesn't have the years of experience. He does not have the decades of training on the job. And even the strongest, most experienced longstanding House -- Republican House speaker at this moment. It might not matter anyway, because the politics of some of those far-right seats are just entrenched in, you know, plus 37 districts or what have you.

But on top of that, if you don't have the personal chits, the ability to instill fear as well as loyalty. If you don't have that those longstanding patterns and skills that take literally decades to build, how can you steer a ship like this? BASH: And the thing that we're not talking about. And Melanie, you have these conversations every day on Capitol Hill. Is that there genuinely are different goals and different approaches to governing? We're all talking about it with the premise that they want to get things done. There are a lot -- genuinely a lot of Republicans who came to Congress in order to blow things up because they don't like the way the government works.

ZANONA: Yeah. And certainly, the critics of the Freedom Caucus would argue that they are just case (Ph) agents. And that they actually like being in the minority better because it's easier to just sit there and rail against whatever the other party is doing.

And what we have seen as a lot of these governing members of the Republican Party are heading for the exits right now and in their replace is coming these more far right Republicans in the mold of Donald Trump. I mean, it's just remarkable.

We saw Cathy McMorris Rodgers. She is the chair of a very powerful committee. She wasn't even term limited. She announced her retirement recently and that sent some real shockwaves through the House GOP.


BASH: Yeah. That says so much. And Mike Gallagher.

ZANONA: And Mike Gallagher.

BASH: Yeah, yeah. Republican. Everyone said had the big future, and he said my future is not here. Coming up. A CNN exclusive former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan now wants to be in the U.S. Senate. Can a Republican win a statewide race in a deep blue state with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot? It could happen. Governor Hogan -- former governor is my guest next.


BASH: Larry Hogan served for eight years as a popular Republican governor in a very blue state. He's been one of Donald Trump's most outspoken critics in the Republican Party. And last week he announced, he is running for the U.S. Senate.