Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
- The freshman class of Democratic members of Congress is the largest since the post-Watergate scandal group in 1974.
- Despite progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grabbing big headlines, most of the freshman Democrats are actually moderates, belonging to a group called the New Democrat Coalition.
- Nearly twice as many freshman lawmakers are part of the moderate New Democrat Coalition than the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
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LEESBURG, Virginia — The massive group of freshman Democratic members of Congress elected in the 2018 midterms is the largest since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974. Since they have taken office, there has been a concerted effort from Republicans to paint them as "socialist" and left-wing with a broad brush.
That is in part due to the large amount of media attention given to freshman lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They’ve generated headlines with bombastic speeches, protests in congressional leaders’ offices, and active social media presences.
But while these progressive members attract headlines, an overwhelming majority of the party’s freshman class are members of moderate groups not at all associated with socialism or the far left of the Democratic base.
Nearly twice as many freshman Democrats are members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition than are in Congressional Progressive Caucus. Overall, both groups boast similar numbers in addition to the freshmen, with the New Democrats and CPC having membership totals of 101 and 104, respectively. And several lawmakers are members of both.
The main group for the moderate freshman Democrats, the New Democrat Coalition (NDC) is predominantly comprised of lawmakers who do not particularly align with their party’s increasingly liberal base.
NDC members have spoken out against the President Donald Trump’s use of tariffs during trade negotiations, mirroring complaints of many free trade advocates — including Republicans — over the last two years.
Their members have also shrugged off the Green New Deal, a key goal of progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, as perhaps a tad overly optimistic, instead looking at incremental steps to combat global climate change.
"The Green New Deal is aspirational, what we plan to do is offer tangible, achievable things not just a resolution," said Rep. Elaina Luria of Virginia, a key member of the Coalition’s Climate Change Task Force. "The entire plan of the task force is to find ways to attack this incrementally,” she said of fighting the increasing global temperatures.
While the more moderate freshman Democrats have attracted less attention than progressives, some of their members have not been without controversy. Members of the group have sometimes leaned too far too the right and drawn the ire of Democratic leadership.
For instance, 18 of the 26 Democrats who voted with Republicans in favor of a motion to recommit a gun background checks bill in February were part of the NDC, many of whom were freshmen new to Washington. The move by centrists caused a headache for Democratic leadership looking to keep the caucus in line, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even scolded lawmakers who voted for the motion behind closed doors.
Rep. Ami Bera of California, who heads the NDC’s political arm and himself is a frequent target of GOP political groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats only managed to take back the House majority through the NDC’s recruits.
"If you look at what we accomplished in 2018, of the 40 red to blue districts that we flipped, 35 were [NDC] districts," he said. "So the path to the majority came through the New Democrat Coalition. The path to holding onto the majority and actually extending the majority comes through the New Democrat Coalition."
Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, a former chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, pushed back on what he characterized as a media narrative that the party has shifted left in recent years.
"We got a rockstar or two who represent deep deep blue districts and who are putting forward ideas that are very very progressive. And that’s great. We embrace that and accept that. We embrace the intellectual diversity within the Democratic Caucus," he said in an obvious reference to firebrand Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez. "But of course we have a majority because we won seats in places like Oklahoma and South Carolina and Virginia and Kansas."
Himes suggested the seats gained in 2018 make the caucus more centrist or perhaps even further to the right than past years.
"And so I will tell you as someone who spends a lot of time inside that caucus, it is actually a caucus that is more centrist, more pragmatic, maybe even slightly right shifted relative to when we were in the minority," Himes said.
Democrats don’t want a civil war in the caucus
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
Since the dawn of the Tea Party, ultra-conservatives have come into Congress bucking leadership at every move, even consolidating amongst themselves to form the House Freedom Caucus. The founding members of the Freedom Caucus successfully united their 30-plus members to push policy to the right or in many cases derail legislation they deemed not sufficiently conservative.
Democrats are very weary of such a scenario manifesting within their caucus, knowing full well how a divided House can fail to follow through on key campaign promises.
Himes downplayed the idea that Democratic members at the center are in any way at odds with the left-wing base.
"The certainty that is largely not true is the fun trope that the centrists are at odds with the progressives," he said. "There will of course, in one big party with the diversity that we have, be lots of different viewpoints. The progressives are certainly to be more unanimous and convinced around things like Medicare for All [than the New Democrat Coalition]."
"We are committed, in contrast to the way we saw the Republicans conducted the majority, we are committed to having that policy discussion in a constructive and respectful way. Respectful in the notion we actually want to get some things done," Himes added. "We don’t want to embarrass our leadership."
Republicans are focusing their down-ballot effort in 2020 on an anti-socialism campaign
Bera acknowledged it is harder for many of the members in heavy swing districts who make up the New Democrat Coalition, to embrace further-left policies like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
"We recognize that I’m from California, Derek [Kilmer] is from Washington state," he said. "It’s easy for us to support some of these policies but difficult for someone in Alabama."
While Democratic moderates are faced with a progressive policy push in their party, Republicans are focusing all of their energy on branding socialism as the new political boogeyman.
That creates a dilemma for many Democrats in red states and swing districts.
But Himes called the accusations a deliberate ploy by Republicans to shut down debate and not engage on policy. Characterizing charges of socialism against moderate members as a sign of "complete intellectual bankruptcy," Himes said it is "a scary word and it’s used to shut down discussion."
"I’m feeling really passionate about addressing this baloney," he said. "It’s not just baloney, right? It’s age-old baloney."
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