Why the New Democratic Majority Could Work Better Than the Last

House Democrats today are far more ideologically and geographically cohesive than they were during Nancy Pelosi’s previous speakership.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / Getty

The new Democratic majority that takes command of the House on Thursday starts with 21 fewer seats than the party held the last time it elected Nancy Pelosi as speaker. But this new majority may prove easier for the party to both manage legislatively and defend electorally.

Though slightly smaller, the Democratic caucus that’s assuming power is far more ideologically and geographically cohesive than the party’s previous majority 10 years ago. While the 2009 class included a large number of Democrats from blue-collar, culturally conservative, rural seats that were politically trending away from the party, the new majority revolves around white-collar and racially diverse urban and suburban districts that are trending toward it.

That won’t eliminate all internal disagreements inside the caucus, particularly as an energized progressive block moves to flex its muscles. But it does mean that as Pelosi returns to the speakership after the party’s eight-year exile in the minority, she is unlikely to face anything comparable to the systematic resistance she confronted before, from the rural and small-town “blue dog” Democrats trying vainly to hold back a rising Republican tide in their districts.

That resistance shadowed every item on the Democratic agenda during former President Barack Obama’s first two years, from health care to climate change. “Nothing was easy,” says Henry Waxman, the veteran former legislator who served as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee over that period. “I remember complaining to Pelosi that she was putting too many blue dogs on the committee and she said,  ‘You’ll have to do what we all have to do: compromise.’”

Compromise was necessary back then because the party still relied on blue dogs to keep its control of the House, though their districts were increasingly attracted to Republicans in presidential elections. CityLab has developed an innovative system for ranking House districts on an urban-rural scale based on the density of their population and other factors. Its analysis found that, in 2009, fully 89 of all House Democrats, or 35 percent, held seats in the two most rural categories. My own previous analysis of the 2009 class found that 76 Democrats represented heavily blue-collar seats that had fewer minorities and fewer white college graduates than the national average.

The moderate-to-conservative blue dogs centered in those rural and blue-collar seats were a consistent source of unease about the aggressive agenda Democrats pursued with unified control of the White House, Senate, and House under Obama. In 2009, 44 Democrats voted against the cap-and-trade climate-change bill that Waxman and Pelosi steered through the House; the next year, 34 voted against final passage of the Affordable Care Act. (“I thought that [cap-and-trade] was difficult but health care would be easy,” recalls Waxman, who shepherded both bills through his committee. “But even health care wasn’t easy.”) After those two votes, the blue dogs’ reluctance to take more risky votes helped convince Pelosi and the White House to abandon consideration of comprehensive immigration reform, much less any new gun-control measures.

That caution couldn’t stem the tide. The rural and blue-dog Democrats were living on borrowed time as small-town, evangelical Christian, and blue-collar whites were becoming more reliably Republican. In the 2010 midterm election, the GOP hunted the blue dogs nearly to extinction: Fifty-one of the 89 rural Democrats CityLab identified were defeated as the GOP surged into the majority.

Critically, the Democrats rebuilt their majority in 2018 without relying on such inherently unstable turf. Instead, the new class has the party advancing into different terrain. Only 35 Democrats in the new caucus hold seats in CityLab’s two most rural categories, according to figures shared by David Montgomery, who developed the ranking system. That represents only about one-fifth of all of those seats—and just 15 percent of the total Democratic caucus. By contrast, 200 of the new Democrats (or 85 percent) hold seats in CityLab’s four most urban and suburban categories. Those districts include almost all of the Republican-held seats that Democrats captured last fall. In the three most urban categories of House seats, Democrats now crush Republicans, 149 to 16.

Other measures also suggest that Democrats are now holding more defensible ground. In 2009, 49 House Democrats represented seats that had voted for John McCain in 2008. Even after November’s gains, only 31 Democrats now hold seats that voted for Donald Trump. Moreover, Republican DNA was more deeply engrained in those earlier split-ticket seats: Of the 49 Democratic-held seats that voted for McCain, 47 also voted for George W. Bush in 2004. This time, only 14 Democrats represent districts that voted for both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012, according to calculations by Tom Bonier, the chief executive officer of the Democratic voter-targeting firm TargetSmart. Just 13 House Democrats are in seats that Trump won by five points or more, Bonier calculates.

On social issues in particular, this heavy urban and suburban tilt should produce much greater unity than Democrats managed under Obama in 2009 or during their two years of unified government control under Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1994. In those Clinton years, the party faced widespread defections from rural and southern House members over gun-control measures. Now the party’s majority is rooted in suburban districts filled with white-collar and minority voters who lean left on most social issues, like gun control, gay rights, and immigration. “Certainly social issues are not going to divide the party, including guns,” says Gary C. Jacobson, a University of California, San Diego, political scientist who studies Congress.

To Jacobson’s point, Peter Ambler, the executive director of Giffords PAC, the gun-control organization founded by former Representative Gabby Giffords, said flatly in a post-election analysis that “Americans now have a gun safety majority in the House of Representatives.” According to the group’s count, 40 incoming House Democrats, almost all from urban and suburban seats, defeated Republicans with “A” rankings or better from the National Rifle Association. That’s a very different world than in 2009, when most of the rural House Democrats were determined to avoid crossing the NRA.

Similarly, it’s been revealing how few House Democrats have expressed concern about Trump’s attempts to portray the party as soft on border security during the government shutdown, which was triggered by his demands for $5 billion to fund a border wall. Democrats have even resisted efforts from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to draw them into a more comprehensive negotiation that would link the wall to broader immigration reform. It’s difficult to imagine that the blue-dog Democrats could have been so confident or quiescent 10 years ago.

“In 2018, immigration did not hurt House Democrats in the places they won,” says Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “Arguably, the issue hurt Republicans. As Trump closed by hammering on the caravan and immigrants as dangerous, the evidence is that a bunch of Republican and independent voters broke late for Democrats. Today’s Democrats just aren’t afraid of this issue the way many blue-dog Democrats were a decade ago.”

The League of Conservation Voters likewise sees a big shift from the last Democratic majority. Like gun-control groups, the organization had enormous success electing its endorsed candidates in suburban districts last fall; it’s running ads this week welcoming 18 members who expressed a strong commitment to action on climate change and transitioning away from fossil fuels. “There are far more members who campaigned on clean energy and climate issues, and who see it as both good policy and good politics,” said Gene Karpinski, the LCV’s president, in an email. “And the issue has much stronger support among the voters who brought them here.”

In this suburban-centered Democratic majority, the most important fissures will probably come over spending and the role of government. It’s likely that some of the new suburban members—several of whom have joined the centrist Blue Dog and New Democrat coalition groups—will resist expensive new initiatives to expand government’s reach (like single-payer health care) or new taxes. Those suburban members, holding districts that previously voted Republican, will inevitably be sensitive to the risk of alienating white-collar voters who dislike Trump and largely agree with Democrats on culture, but may still lean right on spending.

Those strains will take skill to manage. But they are unlikely to prove as daunting as the cracks in House Democrats’ foundation that the party experienced in previous majorities. In fact, compared with the fundamental fault line that defined Democrats through the 20th century—between conservative southern Democrats and more progressive non-southerners—and with the rural/urban divides that have strained them more recently, this new caucus has an opportunity to become the party’s most cohesive in modern times. “My guess is they will be highly cohesive and more liberal on the standard scales that we use to measure that,” Jacobson says.

In 2009, with its large rural contingent and the continued heavy presence of white men in its membership, the House Democratic caucus in key ways looked back to what the party had been. In 2019, with its urban/suburban geographic center; its huge advantages from states along the two coasts (including 46 seats from California alone); and the unprecedented gender, racial, and religious diversity of its members, the House caucus is looking forward to what Democrats are becoming.

That doesn’t guarantee them success at either passing an agenda or defending their majority in 2020. But on both fronts, it does mean that they are rowing with the current of change in the party—and not against it, as they were so often the last time Pelosi held the gavel.