WASHINGTON – Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) woke up thoroughly depressed one late June morning earlier this year. His best friend in Congress had lost his primary race to a MAGA Republican, leaving Joyce to think about both losing his wingman but also the direction of his party.
“What am I doing here?” the five-term Midwestern moderate recalled thinking. If he hadn’t already won his own primary weeks earlier, Joyce acknowledged that he might have just given up and retired.
Instead, after winning another two-year term by more than 20 percentage points last month, Joyce has thrown himself into the deep end of the House Republican Conference’s ideological swimming pool. He’s the new chairman of the Republican Governance Group, a collection of just under 50 GOP lawmakers who quietly like to see Congress function.
They often end up under siege from what he calls “the exotics” from the far-right flank, the loudest, most media-seeking Republicans who pine for former president Donald Trump’s attention on conservative media by disparaging the likes of Joyce as RINOs – Republicans in name only.
This means Joyce has to be the lead moderate at meetings with GOP leaders, as he did on Tuesday, around a table with representatives from the most Trumpian wings of the conference who issued many demands about how to do things.
Joyce sat painstakingly through the meeting about internal party rules and tried to explain their origins and the rationale behind them, however obscure, trying to shift the focus away from the Trump-focused wing.
“I want to see this through. And if I’m here, I want to try to continue to fix it,” Joyce said Wednesday in an almost hour-long discussion inside his office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Joyce, 65, comes to this post with the right mix of uncontained optimism and total fatalism. He’s an Irish Catholic who was born on St. Patrick’s Day, yet he’s been cursed with deep loyalty to the Cleveland Browns.
“I think we’re going to go to Super Bowl sometime in my lifetime,” he said of a team that has never played in that big game.
The moderates who founded the Republican Governance Group decades ago called themselves the Tuesday Group, simply because that was the day they would most often lunch together. But a couple years ago they adopted the new moniker, with a hashtag ready “RG2” as shorthand, that better expressed their overall approach about wanting to actually see government function.
When Republicans had healthy majorities in the past, these lawmakers got derisively labeled “squishes,” ultimately getting run over by leadership teams that regularly hail from more conservative ranks.
But, after an incredibly ahistorical midterm, voters have sent a near even split of House Republicans (likely 222) and Democrats (213) to the incoming 118th Congress. With likely just four votes to spare, GOP leaders will have to come to grips with the idea that Joyce’s group could decide to form its own blockade of their ambitions if they overly accommodate the “exotics.”
“Everybody’s a Joe Manchin,” Joyce said of the West Virginia Democrat who positioned himself as the pivot point of the 50-50 Senate for the past two years.
Joyce is keeping his cards close to his vest about the group’s strategy in trying to prevent the far-right flank from dominating as it did in the recent tenures of GOP speakers John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.). Any visitor learns his inclinations are to support his leadership, with two large framed photos of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) playing with Joyce’s late Golden retriever, Winnie, over his desk.
Joyce led a letter Friday calling on other holdout Republicans to line up behind McCarthy ahead of the Jan. 3 vote for House speaker, which has turned into a House GOP version of a Manchin-style hostage-taking moment.
The RG2 folks argue that the key Republican gains came from outside New York City and Los Angeles, as well as a few other suburban seats. “They’re majority makers, and so we have to put out policy and vote for policy that addresses the issues in their districts,” Joyce said.
He wants to steer these swing-district Republicans out of the harm’s way that comes from the most flamboyant conservatives. “There’s some exotics that like chaos, they thrive in chaos because that’s how they get the media,” Joyce added.
He had a front-row seat for what happens with nominees viewed as too in line with Trump’s MAGA wing. Ohio’s House delegation shrank from an eight-member edge for Republicans to just 10-5 because voters rejected several outlandish GOP candidates, even as Gov. Mike DeWine (R) won reelection by a 25-percentage-point landslide.
Those developments played out across the nation up and down the ballot, leaving Democrats in charge of the Senate and Republicans underperforming in their House races.
“Democrats didn’t win anything. We lost. And we lost because some of the arguments that were being made and some of the candidates that we had,” Joyce said, pointing to Republicans who dabble in Trump’s false claims about his 2020 defeat as turning off voters who want Congress to work on inflation and crime.
Joyce, who spent 25 years as a local prosecutor, said he learned how to keep quiet and listen during interrogations of accused criminals, just letting them talk. Oftentimes they just incriminate themselves.
“Look at Lauren Boebert, she damn near got knocked off. And people don’t appreciate that,” he said of the Republican whose first term was marked by outlandish statements. (Boebert is only ahead by about 500 votes in her reliably conservative northwest Colorado district.)
Joyce is viewed as an honest broker with other members of the House Appropriations Committee, as well as with centrist Democrats who are looking for GOP partners in the next Congress.
“I think that there’s a dynamic in that party where they have workhorses and show horses, like we do. And you know, Dave is a workhorse,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.), a veteran leader of the New Democrat Coalition.
Joyce’s entry into congressional politics came as its own unexpected jolt. A local judge had been killed by a drunk driver and then, in February 2012, a troubled 17-year-old went into his former high school in Northeast Ohio and shot six students, killing three.
“I’m done. I got to try something else. I just can’t take this anymore,” he told his wife that night.
A few months later the 18-year incumbent congressman, Steven C. LaTourette (R), who was one of Joyce’s bosses as a prosecutor, backed out of his election campaign. Local GOP officials chose Joyce out of a crowded field and he won with 54 percent in November 2012, the lowest share he’s received in his six successful elections.
He arrived for freshman orientation just before Thanksgiving with no background in Congress, still surprised to be there, and the first person he met was Rep.-elect Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), who had spent years working for a different central Illinois congressman.
Their moderate Midwestern demeanor, and a passion for sports and beer, turned them into instant best friends and they’ve had walk-in privileges into each other’s office ever since.
Davis’s loss in June shook Joyce to his core, as Illinois Democrats threw his friend into a conservative district against a Trump favorite, Rep. Mary E. Miller, in a member-member primary.
Davis tried to paint himself a little more MAGA than his natural style, but it didn’t help as Trump’s endorsement of Miller swamped the 10-year veteran.
Once the thoughts of quitting himself subsided, Joyce took on his new role with a fair bit of gusto. He has talked to McCarthy about reinvigorating the committee process and decentralizing power beyond the speaker’s office, so that he “can heal the House.”
He holds out hope – reminder, he was born on St. Patrick’s Day – that he can play a role in making Congress properly govern again.
“Somebody will say, Joyce is part of the process that healed this place. But then again,” he said, “I’m a Browns fan.”
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