By Lindsey McPherson
The two largest ideology-based Democratic factions in the House — the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition — are both projecting they’ll have more than 90 members next year after the party picked up over 30 seats in last week’s midterms.
The growth comes at a time when numbers will matter for these groups, more than they have for the past eight years when their party has been in the minority. With the House in their hands next year, Democrats will get to set the legislative agenda and control what bills come to the floor.
Any disagreements among Democrats about what legislative items to pursue will likely be between the more liberal Progressive Caucus and the more moderate New Democrat and Blue Dog coalitions.
Growth all around
The Progressive Caucus had 78 members this year, and more than 20 of the 41 candidates its political arm endorsed this cycle won their elections last week.
Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chairman of the CPC, said his group is expecting a net gain of at least 13 members, factoring in retirements of some current members. A further six CPC-endorsed candidates are in races yet to be called.
Those additions would grow the CPC to somewhere between 91 and 97 members in the next Congress.
“We’re going to be advocating for bold solutions to match where the electorate was at on Nov. 6,” Pocan said. “A number of members of Congress prefer to spend their life in fetal position, rocking in the corner of the room. We don’t do that. We’re the folks out there trying to advocate for big change.”
The New Democrat Coalition is eyeing similar growth. The pro-business group currently has 68 members, six of whom are retiring or ran for other office. So far, 27 candidates endorsed by the NewDemPAC have won their races, so the coalition should have at least 89 members next year.
But the New Democrats are expecting more members from races still uncalled, and 10 other winning candidates were on the NewDemPAC’s watch list and might also join the coalition.
New Democrats have been active in crafting policy solutions on issues that could see movement next Congress, such as infrastructure, housing affordability and workforce development, said Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, the coalition’s vice chairman for policy coordination.
The Blue Dog Coalition, while much smaller than the Progressive Caucus and the New Democrats, is also poised to grow by 25 percent. (There’s a lot of overlap between the New Democrats and the Blue Dogs, but the latter group focuses primarily on policies designed to promote fiscal responsibility.)
Only one of the 18 current Blue Dogs is not returning — Kyrsten Sinema, who won the Arizona Senate race.
Five of the coalition’s endorsed candidates have won their races, and two others, Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th District and Anthony Brindisi in New York’s 22nd, are leading. If they win, the coalition will have 24 members next year.
“The Blue Dogs have always put America before partisan politics. In the new Congress, as in past Congresses, very little will get done if members of both parties don’t come together to find common ground. Blue Dogs stand ready to work with Democrats and Republicans alike in the best interest of the country and to advance the core Blue Dog principles of fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense,” Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, who co-chairs the coalition’s campaign arm, said in a statement.
The ideological caucuses are looking to be a larger source of power in the majority, since the groups’ central purpose is to develop and debate policy.
In the minority, much of the power has been delegated to the Congressional Tri-Caucus — composed of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Democrats have been divided along ideological lines on their top campaign issue of health care. Progressives have generally pushed for “Medicare for All” legislation, while many of the more moderate members have called for a more tempered solution such as a public health insurance option.
Despite those differences, Kilmer said he doesn’t anticipate much clashing between the various ideology-based caucuses.
“There’s far more that unites Democrats than that divides us,” he said. “And you heard Democrats speaking with one voice about needing to end the sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, the need to protect Americans with pre-existing conditions, the need to stabilize the insurance marketplace.”
Chrissy Houlahan, who was just elected from Pennsylvania’s 6th District, had not heard of the New Democrats before she started exploring a run for Congress. She recalled speaking to the secretary of the Chester County Democratic Committee about her background, political sensibilities and view of the Democratic Party when he told her she sounded like a “New Dem,” the shorthand name ascribed to coalition members.
A few weeks later, she met with some of the New Democrats and learned more about the coalition.
“It did seem like that was my political home,” she said.
Coming from a “purple region” where most people regardless of party affiliation tend to sit in the political center, Houlahan said she and many of her constituents believe in fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship opportunities for everyone, and policies that allow the economy to thrive. But they also believe in social equality and taking care of one another and the planet, she said.
“Those two ideas are not dissonant. They can exist in one head,” she said.
The New Democrats share similar ideas and values. In addition to the financial support the coalition provided to her campaign — a moderate amount in an expensive race, she acknowledged — Houlahan would reach out to the group occasionally to get some background on how issues were playing around the country.
CPC leaders on Monday held a new member orientation with some of the candidates they endorsed who are joining the caucus.
“The Congressional Progressive Caucus has been fighting for human issues,” Joe Neguse, who succeeds Rep. Jared Polis in Colorado’s 2nd District, said during a media availability the CPC held with the candidates.
He cited issues such as being able to afford health care and having access to good public schools as priorities he shares with the CPC.
Escobar, appearing at the CPC new member orientation, said having the group’s endorsement helped her in her blue district.
“I didn’t have to flip a seat, but my race was very competitive, my primary,” she said. “I had five opponents. I had a Republican super PAC running against me, trying to paint me as too liberal for the district.”
Escobar said she sought out the Progressive Caucus’s endorsement and was honored to receive it.
“We have many shared values, obviously — not 100 percent. There probably are areas where we’re just a little bit not completely aligned,” she said. “But by and large, the values of the Progressive Caucus, which is access to education, access to health care, an economy that works for everyone and just and humane immigration reform, those are the values of my district.”