Juan Ciscomani. Tom Kean Jr. Brian Fitzpatrick. Marc Molinaro. David Schweikert. Brandon Williams … Many Americans would struggle to identify who these people are or what they do.

They are all, in fact, Republican members of Congress. And progressive activists argue that their fate is more crucial to the future of American democracy than more high-profile rightwing political figures such as Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Indivisible, a leftwing political umbrella movement founded in response to Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, has launched a campaign to unseat 18 Republican members of the House of Representatives from districts that Joe Biden won in the election of 2020.

The “Unrepresentatives” initiative is based on the premise that these 18 districts – not the safe, deep red ones of Gaetz and Greene – will determine if Republicans maintain control of the US lower chamber next year. They are the “Achilles heel” of the Maga (Make America great again) House.

“These are folks who are not in the headlines,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of Indivisible, acknowledging that the sole exception is Congressman George Santos because of his outlandish lies. “But the other 17, I would guess practically no Americans have ever heard of and are not hearing of right now because they have a different pathway to re-election. They understand this. They’re not dummies.”

Although the 18 are in swing districts, they are not really moderates. They are under pressure to raise money for their next election campaign. That means they have to make commitments to donors about how they will vote in Congress – which is in line with Greene and the Maga wing of the party about 95% of the time.

Speaking from Austin, Texas, Levin explained: “They are basically Marjorie Taylor Greenes in how they vote. But then that gets to the third step: they’ve got to convince the constituents in their own districts that, while Congress is messed up and there’s a lot of dysfunction there, they’re normal, everyday folks who just want the best for their constituents.”

Freshman congressman Juan Ciscomani is embraced by the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, in January.
Freshman congressman Juan Ciscomani is embraced by the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, in January. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“It’s tricky to do that when you have a voting record that looks like Marjorie Taylor Greene. But that is the strategy. The way you accomplish that is by keeping your head down, by not making a lot of headlines, by not advertising every vote you take that looks like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s vote.”

These Republicans work hard to cultivate a low profile away from the bright lights of Fox News or other rightwing media, steering clear of hot button topics such as abortion or Maga circuses such as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

But now Levin, a former congressional staffer, intends to shine a light on them and ensure they have no hiding place.

“We have a clear goal and that is: let’s make these folks famous – famous locally, specifically. Let’s make it as clear as possible to their constituents that they are in fact backing up the Maga majority.”

Ezra Levin speaks from a podium
‘Had we taken all those Biden-won seats in New York, there would be a Democratic trifecta right now.’ Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Stand Up America

Indivisible is coordinating groups in the battleground districts across eight states and supporting them with training, media training and public relations help, and funding for billboards and ads, props and costumes.

The effort includes rapid response-style protests calling attention to Republicans’ votes and pressuring them to publicly condemn their fellow Republicans’ worst positions, highlighting such instances in local media.

Levin hopes that this might sometimes persuade the 18 Republicans to flip their votes, for example on lifting the debt ceiling: six would be enough to stave off a default.

“The second possible outcome is that you don’t flip their vote but everybody knows then in the district that they voted with the Magas. If you accomplish that, then they’re more easy to defeat next year because they’ll have a harder time accomplishing that last step in their re-election strategy, which is trying to convince their constituents that they are not indeed part of the Maga problem.”

Democrats fared much better than widely expected in last year’s midterm elections, maintaining control of the Senate and only narrowly losing the House – even that outcome might have been avoided if only the party had not underperformed badly in New York. A third of Indivisible’s targets are in the Empire state, traditionally a Democratic stronghold.

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“In New York many folks on the Democratic side played up an artificial rise in crime,” Levin recalled. “The dominant story was not how extreme these Republicans are and how they’re coming after your freedoms, your abortion rights, your schools, your community, your democracy. It was fought on an entirely different field. We fought on the field that the Republicans chose and I do think that was a mistake. That is a shame because had we taken all those Biden-won seats, there would be a Democratic trifecta right now.”

Even so, Levin found plenty of grounds for optimism in the midterms as Republicans fell short of expectations and Trump-endorsed extremists were wiped out in Arizona, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He did not approve of Democrats’ efforts to boost election deniers in Republican primaries – “playing with fire, a dangerous strategy” – but believes the 2024 landscape is propitious.

“I see these 18 Democratic districts currently represented by Republicans, eminently winnable. I see a presidential contest in which the Republican party is tearing itself apart with [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis or Trump or folks who are trying to take both of them on.

Marc Molinaro campaigns in Westchester county, New York, in October 2022. His swing district is a Democratic target.
Marc Molinaro campaigns in Westchester county, New York, in October 2022. His swing district is a Democratic target. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/AP

“And I see a Senate map that is indisputably tougher than the presidential and the House map but one that is quite winnable. You look at the polling that we’re seeing now in Montana, in Ohio, in West Virginia, in Arizona, some of these tough seats that we’d better hold, and they look pretty darn good for us, which is why for Indivisible’s political work, our north star is retake the House, hold the Senate, hold the presidency.”

Levin argues that, should Democrats replace the Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema, now an independent who has defended a Senate procedural rule known as the filibuster, with challenger Ruben Gallego, they have a shot at reforming the filibuster and working towards the codification of Roe v Wade, the recently overturned supreme court ruling that enshrined a woman’s right to abortion.

Biden is an important part of that equation. Levin notes that the president was widely criticised for focusing on abortion rights and democracy in his last two speeches of the midterms campaign. “He got a ton of flak for that. There were folks even on our side calling it a strategic blunder. And yet he did indeed double down on that strategy and the proof is in the pudding. It was the best midterm margins arguably in modern American history.”

There is no sign of the Republican fever breaking for now. Greene has risen to prominence in the House and appears to wield influence over the speaker, Kevin McCarthy. Trump and DeSantis are racing to the right ahead of the Republican presidential primary.

Representative George Santos displays a deck of cards depicting Republican House leaders and freshmen members; Santos, the seven of spades, is the only household name among Indivisible’s 18 targets.
Representative George Santos displays a deck of cards depicting Republican House leaders and freshmen members; Santos, the seven of spades, is the only household name among Indivisible’s 18 targets. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

But Levin keeps faith in the survival of US democracy. “I do believe that the Republican party can be saved. It’s got to be drilled into their heads that as long as the Marjorie Taylor Greenes are wielding the gavel, they’re going to have at best a tenuous grip on power. That is doable.

“The vast majority of Republicans were privately and publicly predicting a massive red wave in 2022. They are not dummies. The folks who look at the same numbers I look at know the reason why they lost is because, when the folks got into the voting booth, they looked at the names on the list and they thought, well, the Republicans are being driven by folks who are coming after my schools, my communities, my freedoms, abortion rights, my family, I can’t empower them.”

Levin added: “Their brand is in the gutter because they’re empowering the Marjorie Taylor Greenes. They don’t currently have the latitude to kick folks like them out of the party. There’s a reason why George Santos is still a member of the House of Representatives. But if they suffer enough electoral defeats they will be forced into moderation and the dream: to have two pro-democracy parties in the Congress. We’re not there right now but I do think it’s an achievable outcome.”

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