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House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 30, 2023.
CNN  — 

Hakeem Jeffries’ path to winning the majority and becoming speaker runs through his backyard in New York, and he is methodically staging a takeover of Democratic House campaigns in the state to make it happen.

Jeffries, a New York Democrat, is installing his own loyalists in key positions as he effectively takes over much of the state party operations that would usually be controlled by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

CNN’s conversations with two dozen elected officials and operatives involved detail the extent that the House minority leader is already digging in, a year and a half ahead of the 2024 elections: he’s hosting regular political brainstorming dinners in Washington with the Democrats in the state’s House delegation, deputizing several to oversee political operations down to the county level. He’s making his case personally to some of the biggest Democratic donors in the country. He’s personally traveling to swing congressional districts all around the state.

New Yorkers always think of themselves as the center of the universe. In the battle for control of the House next year, they sort of will be: Democrats need five seats to get the majority in the US House in 2024, and there are currently six Republican freshmen who won last year in Democratic-leaning districts of New York.

“New York,” Jeffries told CNN in an interview in his Capitol office, “will play an important and outsized role in the outcome of the 2024 House elections. Period. Full stop.”

Asked about efforts already underway to sidestep the tradition of Democratic leaders staying out of primaries, Jeffries suppressed a smirk.

Top ally Rep. Greg Meeks wasn’t so coy.

“We will be looking at and talking to all possible candidates and trying to talk to folks to say, ‘Who is more likely to beat the extreme Republican that they will be running against?’” said Meeks, who also serves as the Queens County Democratic chairman.

Whether Jeffries can wrangle New York’s infamously infighting parochial party players will be the biggest test of his own political and fundraising abilities. He only recently took over for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the leader of House Democrats.

But he’s already scored the kind of win that President Joe Biden and Democrats nationally are hoping for. Leaders of powerful groups on the left will prioritize campaigning on traditional Democratic mainstream issues of protecting Social Security and Medicare, rather than issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

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Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Rep. Gregory Meeks attend the portrait unveiling ceremony for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the US Capitol's Statuary Hall on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

“If you’re a member of Congress from New York, you have a pretty healthy ego and a pretty strong survival instinct, so you tend to be more entrepreneurial and more individualistic,” said Steve Israel, a former congressman from Long Island and two-time chair of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It seems that there’s a greater understanding that cooperation is actually a good political strategy, and competition is not.”

Many of the people involved in the efforts say they worry crime will surge back as an issue, allowing Republicans to capitalize in New York races as they did in 2022, or that the dreams of unity will not be able to hold among New York Democrats who for years have been more about finger-pointing and parochialism.

But most New York Democrats expect to capitalize on higher base turnout expected in a presidential election year. They think a measure on the ballot to codify abortion and other rights will also drive turnout among the base. And they are holding out hope for a court decision that would scrap the redistricting map forced by Republican-backed litigation last year, enabling them to draw more favorable districts for their candidates to run in.

There is also the pride in potentially putting the gavel not just in the hands of a New Yorker for the first time in 150 years (the last one was only speaker for a day), but one who would make history as the first Black speaker. Several top officials also pointed out that if Jeffries is running the House while fellow Brooklynite Chuck Schumer is majority leader in the Senate, it will mean more attention and federal money coming back home.

Two weeks ago, Jeffries had 300 donors and activists on a Zoom call, officially launching what they’re calling the Battleground Coordinated Campaign. Two nights later, at the Astor Place apartment of Alex Soros—who this month took over political spending for his father, George—pitching some of the city’s biggest Democratic donors to spend their money locally with the House Majority super PAC.

The PAC banked $4 million for a centralized hub of opposition research and attack ads in New York that is already at work, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has started advertising in the state earlier than ever before and created fundraising efforts to bank money for whichever candidates emerge from primaries.

“When literally the stakes are people threatening our entire democracy,” said Rep. Pat Ryan, the upstate Democrat who already hosted Jeffries for several events in his frontline district the day after they were together at the fundraiser at Soros’s apartment, “that has unified and rallied everyone.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who will be the only statewide Democratic candidate on the ticket next year, has already transferred $300,000 to the state party along with having campaign aides meet with operatives fresh off races in places like Nevada, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia.

“We have,” she said on the Battleground Coordinated Campaign launch Zoom call, “a unique opportunity to change the course of the country ourselves.”

Victor Blue/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Kathy Hochul, governor of New York, center, speaks during an event with US President Joe Biden at SUNY Westchester Community College in Valhalla, New York, US, on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, left, listens.

Effective takeover of the state Democratic Party

House races in New York went about as badly for Democrats as they could have last year. From Pelosi on down, many blame Hochul for not responding quickly enough to Republican attacks that their party was soft on crime, and for not running a strong enough re-election campaign of her own to help provide coattails for the candidates lower down on the ticket.

Hochul pushed back on those complaints, while also making a point of highlighting the changes she backed to the bail reform laws which provided the opening for last year’s Republican narrative about the rise in crime.

“The truth was no barrier to anything [Republicans] did,” Hochul told CNN in an interview. “But we know it’s coming.”

Calling this “unprecedented coordination,” Hochul said she’s been raising money for the state party and pushing revamps on both communications and operational strategies, attributing the slow start to the fact that she took over less than two years ago following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation. She was almost immediately plunged right into a re-election campaign. She says this coming election cycle is “a chance to assert my influence on the New York State Democratic Party.”

“I think about it all day long,” said Hochul. She called flipping the House seats held by Republicans “my number one political priority.”

But the House delegation is already stepping in.

Rep. Grace Meng, who served with Jeffries in the state assembly and is now another main lieutenant in the delegation, has already conducted a review of what was felt to be fumbling Black, Latino and Asian outreach in the 2022 elections. She co-wrote a memo to the state party advising a revamp of operations, and is digging deep into Tuesday’s city council primaries and the county-level races this fall that they’re viewing as practice for next year.

Meng, along with fellow Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ryan and Brian Higgins also collaborated on a memo to the state party of ideas that they want to see progress on. High on that list was a big push on college campus outreach, which they feel has been largely ignored to date.

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Jeffries and Rep. Grace Meng at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on the finaly night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Cautious in every word he says publicly himself, Jeffries is also looking to get candidates and activists unified on talking points about crime and immigration.

Even a year and a half out from election day, many of the leaders involved were using almost exactly Jeffries’ phrasing in multiple separate interviews with CNN. They say New York Republicans are extremists who masquerade as moderates back home despite going along with the GOP majority on nearly every vote.

“We will not allow them to fool the American people, and most importantly, New Yorkers, in November of 2024,” Jeffries told CNN.

Meanwhile, rumors that Adams might support a separate political group to further his own interests as mayor have dissipated. A person familiar with his thinking expects Adams to help with raising money and other behind-the-scenes moves.

Still, not everyone is ready to commit.

Howard Wolfson, top political advisor to former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, has met several times with House Majority PAC operatives. But Bloomberg isn’t ready to make any of the multi-million dollar commitments that they and others are counting on.

A lot depends where the crime rates are, Wolfson said, and how Jeffries and others do on recruiting strong candidates. But, he added, “there is definitely a lot of opportunity here if we play our cards right.”

Already on board, though, are many of the same activists who have clashed with Jeffries in the past, accusing him of being too moderate or a corporatist sellout.

Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the liberal and union coalition Working Families Party, called the collaboration “just a recognition of the political conditions that we’re in.”

Eventually he and other left-wing activists in New York will come back to their usual issues, Mitchell said, but “I can’t even engage that conversation in terms of governing if a bunch of extremists are in power. So it’s an order of operations question for me.”

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries waits to speak during a news conference at the annual House Democrats Issues Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel March 1, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Republicans acknowledge their problems in New York

Ed Cox, the GOP state chair, told CNN that he expects a “tough fight” to hold onto the House seats given the expected turnout in a presidential election year. But he promised to raise enough money to keep even with the Democrats for candidates he said had proven strong in their districts.

“Competition’s good,” Cox said. “We’re not scared of competition.”

Cox, who two weeks ago attended the speech Trump gave at his New Jersey golf course after his federal indictment from retaining classified material, ducked answering whether the Republican incumbents in New York would benefit or suffer if the former president is at the top of the ticket again as the Republican nominee.

But already the Republicans who will be on the ballot are largely veering away from talking like the former president who was famous for stamping his name all over New York before he stamped in on the Republican Party.

Chris Russell, a senior political adviser to Rep. Mike Lawler, pointed to Biden’s comments during a trip to the district in May that the congressman is “the kind of Republican I was used to dealing with.”

Rep. Marc Molinaro, who represents another upstate district at the top of Democrats’ list, told CNN he was disappointed but not surprised to hear Jeffries’ attack.

“He has a responsibility to say the things that he said,” Molinaro said. “I suggest that most people I represent and most people he represents want us to work together to try to get solutions to problems that face us. That’s what we’re focused on right now.”

One incumbent that Republicans are not planning to protect: Rep. George Santos, who is currently facing charges of fraud and misuse of public funds and who has been disavowed by his colleagues and local Republican officials.

But Cox said Republicans are still going to fight for his seat, and dismissed the chances that ties to the congressman would weigh other Republicans down.

“This is going to be a totally new race with new candidates. It depends who they are. It’s a district that we won, and we can win it again,” Cox said. “Santos will be left in the dust. Forgotten.”