The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Independent voters wary of investigations, want House GOP to deliver results

A voter drops a ballot into the drop box in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Nov. 5. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)
7 min

A 64-year-old from Virginia’s politically crucial Hampton Roads region perused a list of 12 potential investigations that the new Republican House majority might launch, and two piqued his interest: China and border security.

The more he thought about it, however, the more those seemed unnecessary. By now, leaders should just get moving on securing the border and battling China’s economic might — don’t bother with any investigations.

“Nothing on that list is going to improve my life. They are more occupied with busywork than doing anything substantial. This is all a get-even list,” the man said during a focus-group session run by Navigator Research.

The liberal firm conducted three focus groups with independent voters in mid-January in Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin. The strategists allowed The Washington Post to watch the sessions on the condition of not using the names of the voters. They were conducted remotely over video, with a focus on the new Republican majority and its priorities.

To be sure, these voters were not at all happy with the Democratic-controlled Washington of 2021 and 2022. Of the six Virginia voters, who all consider themselves highly engaged in government and political news, four voted for President Biden, one for Donald Trump and another wrote in an alternative. At least one voted for Biden in 2020 after supporting Trump in 2016.

When asked to give a one-word response on how they feel about the state of the country, their responses were bleak: “Concerned.” “Scared.” “Upset.” “Disgusted.” “Depressed.” “Anxious.”

In all three groups, out of nearly 20 independent voters, just one used a positive phrase — “optimistic” — to describe their feelings, according to Navigator’s researchers.

But the focus groups found that these voters, while deeply displeased with Biden’s performance so far, are very skeptical about the Republican majority’s priorities.

That dovetails with new polling released Thursday from CNN, in which independents soundly rejected the early focus for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his lieutenants: Just 24 percent agreed with the key priorities, while 76 percent were opposed.

And it aligns with Republican pollster David Winston’s extensive research on the 2022 midterm elections dubbed “It’s the Year of the Independent,” an 11-page rejection of both parties’ efforts to gin up their base at the expense of losing key support from independent voters who will inevitably decide the closest elections.

GOP nominees, particularly in a handful of Senate races, went so far to the right that they managed to allow Democrats to win independent voters overall, 49 percent to 47 percent, according to exit polls. That’s just the second time in the last 19 elections in which these voters sided with the party holding the White House, Winston wrote.

Moreover, among independent voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden’s performance, Democrats won those voters in a rout, 52 percent to 36 percent, a stunning turnabout.

“This was a missed opportunity for Republicans, and indicates that independents needed to hear a more substantive economic message,” Winston, president of the Winston Group, wrote in the analysis sent to his clients, which include congressional GOP leaders.

The Navigator-assembled focus groups brought those data points to life, illustrating why Republicans only won a narrow House majority and lost a seat in the still Democratic-controlled Senate — and why the decisions McCarthy and other House Republicans make in the coming months could help or hurt the national brand ahead of the 2024 campaign.

Among the highly engaged Virginia voters, the top concerns were inflation and whether the economy would dip into a recession, as well as crime and personal security.

But these Virginia voters, all with some college-level education, also expressed alarm at feeling abandoned by both parties. “There’s no one that represents me,” said a 45-year-old White man who lives in Stafford County, about 40 miles south of Washington, with his wife and two children.

He voted to reelect Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) entirely because of her record of working with Republicans. He was the only person in the focus group who believed this split-control Congress would force the two parties to work together on some key issues, mostly for their own political benefit in the next election.

“That’s going to force them to start working together,” the man said.

“I don’t see any hope,” interjected a 43-year-old father of two children who lives with his wife in Fairfax County, in the capital’s suburbs.

The focus groups were asked what they had seen from the new House majority, and a 50-year-old White woman from Stafford County pointed to the 15 votes that it took for McCarthy to win the speaker’s gavel, the first such multi-ballot race in 100 years and the most rounds of voting since before the Civil War.

“Embarrassing,” the mother of five said. The others nodded in agreement, as all of them had closely followed the speaker’s race.

“Public spectacle,” a 50-year-old White man from Campbell County in southwestern Virginia said.

Asked for their description of McCarthy, a 33-year-old Black woman from York County, in the Hampton Roads region, summed him up in one word: “Moderate.”

The others chimed in with similar assessments, a sign that for all his concessions to the hard-right faction of his caucus, independent voters view the new speaker as outside of the faction they associate with Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Republicans do have opportunities to make inroads with these independent voters, particularly if they focus on issues connected to the economy and inflation.

Issues related to China, something these voters connect to global competition and the decline of U.S. manufacturing, resonated with them, giving a real chance for the newly formed committee to investigate economic and national security issues related to China. With McCarthy’s choice as chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a widely respected Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Democrats joined in voting overwhelmingly to create the select committee.

These voters hold the keys to close races, such as the 64-year-old White man from James City County. That region voted for Biden by 10 percentage points in 2020, but then favored Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) by two percentage points in the 2021 election and gave Rep. Rob Wittman (R) a three-point margin in his reelection in November.

But the focus-group independents instead viewed these early days of the majority as moves mostly getting back at Democrats — “tit for tat” — or an appeasement to the right flank. On the list of possible oversight investigations, the pending examination of Hunter Biden’s financial dealings received little interest.

“What is Hunter Biden’s laptop going to tell us?” the Stafford County woman asked.

One independent, the 43-year-old Fairfax man who works in defense contracting, saw the classified document scandal for Biden as a serious breach — but just as serious for Trump. “Every one of them should be in jail,” he said.

Most of the other independents found that issue to be a distraction that doesn’t connect to their daily life concerns.

The 2024 outlook for the GOP might depend on the national image this House Republican majority crafts. In 1995, after claiming the majority, Republicans became the party of disruption aligned with the new speaker, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton won a second presidential term in 1996.

In 2011, after the House GOP took charge, the tea party mantle took hold — and Barack Obama won a second presidential term in 2012.

When Republicans won the Senate majority in 2014, the incoming majority leader had a mantra: Don’t be “scary,” Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview with The Post.

They weren’t, and the GOP swept the 2016 elections.

Winston, the Republican pollster, viewed the 2022 midterms through the prism of scared independent voters. The Republican lost independent voters in five of the six closest Senate races, three by double-digit margins. They won just two of those races.

“Independents wanted solutions, not the blame game,” he wrote.