President Obama will face his largest Republican audience, at 300 strong, at the State of the Union tonight -- 246 House Republicans and 54 Senate Republicans -- setting up a challenging political course for the president to navigate as he outlines his agenda for the next year.
While the president will likely attempt to appeal to voters throughout the political spectrum, the optics of a partisan address are sure to be on full display -- even before President Obama delivers his opening lines.
Up until a few years ago, Republicans and Democrats have traditionally sat on their respective sides of the aisle when the president comes to the Capitol for a joint session of Congress.
That all changed in 2011 after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in an assassination attempt. Weeks later, members of Congress teamed up in about 100 bipartisan duos, projecting a thin sense of unity and civility in politics.
It was Obama’s first experience facing a divided Congress for a joint session -- just months after the tea party wave carried Republicans into the House majority. But as Obama delivered his remarks, TV producers and viewers quickly noticed: Suddenly it was harder to tell which lines drew partisan responses with Republicans and Democrats spread throughout the chamber.
The mixed seating arrangement was first promoted by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, who was voted out of office in 2014. The bipartisan display prevailed to a lesser degree in subsequent years but by 2015, enthusiasm for "Date Night" has just about evaporated.
So far, just a handful of couples have surfaced as bipartisan seat-mates tonight.
Instead, the focus has turned to the various guests that lawmakers will invite. Most bring constituents tied to a pet project or policy. Some even bring prominent celebrities. Rep. Vance McAllister brought Willie Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame last year.
Among House Speaker John Boehner's guests this year is Jorge Luis García Pérez (Antunez), a leader of the Cuban resistance movement who spent over 17 years in jail as a political prisoner for publicly denouncing the Castro regime. On the other hand, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, is bringing Milwaukee Brewers All Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy.