A handful of progressive congresswomen have become household names in 2019: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib, to name a few. But with that attention has also come increased scrutiny. In the short time they’ve been in office, Omar of Minnesota and Tlaib of Michigan have been criticized for making remarks condemned by fellow Democrats as anti-Semitic. Ocasio-Cortez of New York is battling a reputation among conservatives as nothing more than a celebrity socialist. (On Monday night, a teenager invited her to a prom.) But that attention has already translated into real-world effects beyond the headlines, as the policies championed by these progressive women have quickly become litmus tests for Democratic candidates in the early stages of the 2020 presidential election.
Elsewhere in the Capitol, another cabal of freshmen Democrats is hoping to remind voters that there are still pragmatists in Congress. Their efforts underscore a major challenge for the party ahead of its fight to retake the Senate and maintain its House majority. Five female military veterans, who represent one-eighth of the seats Democrats flipped from red to blue during the 2018 midterm elections, have launched a joint fundraising effort, the Service First Women’s Victory Fund, to highlight their experiences in the military and to raise money collectively for their reelection campaigns. The five lawmakers participating in the joint fundraising agreement—Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elaine Luria of Virginia, and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey—are veterans of the CIA, the Navy, and the Air Force.
The lawmakers want to position themselves as problem-solving moderates and paint a “new” portrait of the Democratic Party for their constituents. “When I’m in my community, I think a lot of times people have read the news, and they are concerned because they see one message about what’s happening in Washington, and then they see me,” Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, told me this week.
“From my perspective, there has been an overwhelming focus on a small number of members in our caucus who did not flip seats, who did not help win the House,” Slotkin said at a recent breakfast announcing the effort in Washington, D.C. While she did not name names, Slotkin was likely referring to Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar—all of whom were elected in solidly blue districts in November. (Slotkin’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment seeking clarification as to whom she was speaking about.) She told the room that her constituents “want more pragmatic voices sticking up for us. And we don’t see enough of that [in Congress].”
The moderate group’s goal is to show “that leaders from service backgrounds have a lot to offer our politics, and can be part of the solution of getting Congress and our political system working better,” according to David Heifetz, the chief communications officer at New Politics, a bipartisan organization that recruits candidates from the military and intelligence communities, as well as alumni of national-service programs like AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. The leaders say they plan to spend the next year and a half hosting fundraisers and policy briefings around the country, as well as highlighting other women service members who are active in state and local politics. “When I was successful in winning this seat, it was important to me to make this permanent,” Houlahan told me, referring to the steadily increasing number of women and women veterans in Congress. Last year, each of the five women touted her military experience as something that made her uniquely qualified to work in Congress, pledging to put “the mission above partisanship.”
“We came into this knowing each other already and knowing instinctively that [we] are the workhorses” rather than “show ponies,” Slotkin said at the recent breakfast. Houlahan, who represents a district outside Philadelphia that is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, said bipartisanship matters “very much” to her constituents. That’s likely true of many voters. Indeed, the ideological makeup of the actual Democratic electorate seems to lean toward the center. Fifty-six percent of Democrats self-identify as “moderate,” and 9 percent embrace the label “conservative,” according to an April poll from the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy.
Four of the five women involved in the Victory Fund won in heavily Republican districts last fall, and the lawmakers believe that their pledge to work across the aisle is ultimately what helped them. For that, some mainstream Democrats argue, they should be getting more recognition. “[Ocasio-Cortez] and a few others have become the face of the Democratic Party at a time when the real story … [is] the story of these women,” Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, the former chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a centrist ideological group in the Democratic caucus, told me. “They are all about persuading skeptical people to vote Democratic. It was them that made [winning the majority] possible.”
In the months since the midterm elections, the lawmakers lamented, the national conversation has been dominated by progressive goals, such as the Green New Deal, while they feel that admittedly less revolutionary bipartisan projects, such as lowering prescription-drug prices or reforming the nation’s infrastructure, have been pushed to the sidelines. The women believe that the events they plan to hold together as part of the Victory Fund will help remind their constituents and the rest of America that moderates are still serving in Congress. “I’m able to point to a group like the service women and say, ‘I’m not an aberration,’” Houlahan told me. The project is a way to communicate to their constituents “that being a Democrat is more than being a far-left progressive,” Slotkin told the event attendees.
Yet despite their numbers, it will be difficult for these House moderates to achieve the same kind of star status as lawmakers such as Ocasio-Cortez. They generally skew older, and they aren’t nearly as omnipresent—or snarky—on social media as some of their younger, more progressive counterparts. Plus, they’re moderates: Their policies are not typically designed to excite and incite revolution.
Still, senior Democratic leaders are clearly trying to temper the party’s most progressive impulses. Speaker Nancy Pelosi reminded her party in April that Democrats regained control of the House in November with a slew of “right-down-the-middle, mainstream, hold-the-center victories.” And she has repeatedly brushed off the ideas put forward by Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive lawmakers, dismissing the Green New Deal as a “green dream.”
Some of the 2020 Democratic candidates have been equally hesitant about glomming on to the leading progressive issues of the day. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has dominated the polls since announcing his candidacy last month, said on Tuesday that he doesn’t support a single-payer health-care system because “the vast majority of people are satisfied with their own health-care system today.” Senator Kamala Harris has equivocated on her plans for private health insurance.
Some argue that if Democratic leaders tack to the middle, the party risks alienating its most enthusiastic supporters—young voters who have become energized by some of Congress’s progressive newcomers and the policies they champion. But at the same time, in failing to emphasize the work and priorities of its “right-down-the-middle” members, the party risks scaring away moderate voters and losing vulnerable districts.
“The challenge for us is not choosing between exciting the base and expanding the electorate—it’s figuring out a way to do both,” Himes told me.
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