Mod Dems Won the House in 2018, That Was Just the Beginning

September 5, 2019 by Dan McCue
U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – What it comes down to is this: Despite many in the media trumpeting the “fact” that all the momentum in the Democratic Party in 2018 was on the far-left, mid-term voters overwhelmingly endorsed moderates, rewarding their common-sense approach to politics and governing with victory after victory.

By the time the dust settled, Democrats held a 38-seat advantage over Republicans in the House, having flipped 43 seats held by the GOP during the last mid-term cycle.

The result of the litmus test — the one with all the boxes waiting to be checked next to phrases like “Medicare-for-all” and “free four-year college” — was that litmus tests don’t matter.

Voters might have gotten all riled up by the shouting activists in the party, but at the end of the day, they embraced thoughtful candidates with fresh, pragmatic ideas.

Lanae Erickson, vice president of social policy and politics at Third Way, the center-left think tank, attributes some of the misreading of 2018 to people getting caught up in the “fun house mirror effect of Twitter, where the most left-wing members of the party reside, and the echo chamber of like-minded colleagues and friends.

What the vast majority of Democrats are looking for, she told C-SPAN’s Greta Brawner recently, “is a pragmatic progressive path forward” to beat Donald Trump.

That assertion is backed up by ongoing research the Brookings Institution has been analyzing on who votes and who wins in primary elections since 2014.

Among other things, the research showed that in order to win back the House in 2018, Democrats needed to win in traditionally Republican suburbs and to do so they were relying more on moderate candidates than self-described leftists.

“The steady success of establishment candidates calls into question whether the Democrats are being pulled to the left,” Brookings researchers Elaine Kamarck and Alexander Podkul wrote in their analysis.

According to the Brooking researchers, 32 percent of Democratic primary voters identified as moderate and another 34 percent said they were “somewhat” liberal, versus 26 percent who said they were “very liberal.” Another 8 percent of Democrats said they were either somewhat or very conservative.

That breakdown showed itself on election day. Moderate House New Democrats won 86% of the primary races in red-to-blue districts, while the far-left Our Revolution and Justice Democrat groups won just 37% of their contests.

What’s more, 33 moderate New Democrat-endorsed candidates flipped red House seats to blue, accounting for more than 79% of the total Democratic flips. Not a single Our Revolution- or Justice Democrats endorsed candidate flipped a red seat. Not one.

The surge by moderate Democrats extended into critical presidential battleground states, where New Democratic candidates captured seven House seats, flipping two in Michigan, two in Pennsylvania, and one each in Arizona and Iowa.

Moderate Democrats also won six of the 10 gubernatorial races in the Midwest, including those in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The margin in those states was a combined 1.3 million votes, compared to a 100,000 vote margin loss in the three states by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Broad Coalitions Get Things Done

In some ways, the extended 2020 campaign season has been a mirror image of 2018.

Once again, reputable news organizations are all in on the narrative that the left have taken over the party, while likely voters, in poll after poll, say they prefer a candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden, a centrist’s centrist who they expect will reach across the aisle and get things done.

Erickson told C-SPAN that one message of 2018 that should be heeded going into this year is that it’s better to have a broad coalition of people behind you.

“We do not think winning by 50.001% is sufficient to … govern and see the change we want to see,” she said.

“Particularly, right now because Donald Trump is doing major damage to our country, our country’s values, and to a lot of people in this country, and we want to see him gone,” Erickson continued.

“We don’t want Democrats to get distracted by Twitter and think this is where they need to go. We want to win, and we think we need to understand voters, across the country, to do that,” she added.

On Wednesday, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., weighed in on the subject on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

Responding to a question from host Joe Scarborough, Sherrill said “people are realizing now that the chaotic economic politics of [President Trump] are harmful to our country and are going to be harmful to our economic future.”

So what, Scarborough wanted to know, does the Democratic Party need to do to ensure the re-election people like Sherrill, who won in 2018 in districts that voted Republican for decades.

Sherrill responded by saying the party has to continue to be pragmatic, presenting a vision that’s markedly different from Trump, “so that everybody in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin know that they’re going to be part of a great economic future in this country.”

House Moved Quickly on Meaningful Legislation 

Of course, there’s more to a victory than winning. Moderate Democrats responded to regaining the House majority by flexing their collective muscle and getting down to meaningful reform.

In fact, their first accomplishment came just weeks after the election, when the newly elected moderate Democrats joined several of their Republican colleagues in calling for reforms to the House rules that would help break the partisan gridlock in that chamber.

To press their case, several newly re-elected Democrats in the House vowed to withhold their votes for Leader Nancy Pelosi in her bid for the Speakership if the rules changes were not adopted.

“The American people are tired of hyper-partisan gridlock and want to see Members of Congress working together to solve the major challenges we face today as a nation,” said Representative Stephanie Murphy at the time.

By Thanksgiving weekend, 2018, Pelosi and the bipartisan group of lawmakers had a deal.

New House Majority Takes On Wide Swath of Issues

The Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally-responsible Democrats — a caucus co-chaired by Representative Murphy — continued to make their presence felt, fighting to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats to develop common-sense solutions to problems confronting Americans daily.

“The fact is that moderates delivered the House majority in 2018. More than three-quarters of the Democrats who flipped seats in November are now members of the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrat Coalition or both—the moderate wing of the party,” Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, wrote in USA Today, reflecting on how moderates have now become a major force in Congress.

In addition to ensuring the House passage of H.R. 1, the Blue Dogs fought to protect, “PayGo,” a section of the new House rules package that requires new spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

Along the same lines, McAdams and Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, released the Blue Dog Blueprint for Fiscal Reform, a comprehensive plan to help restore much-needed fiscal discipline in Congress.

Among the measures they endorsed were “PayGo,” the self-explanatory “No Budget, No Pay Act,” and a balanced budget amendment.

But that’s not to suggest the only order of business for the moderates making up the 116th Congress was getting the House in order.

They also, within a month of being sworn in, passed H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, which would make it illegal for any person who is not a licensed firearm importer, manufacturer, or dealer to transfer a firearm to any other person who is not licensed, without a background check.

From there, they moved on to election security, moving a package of legislative proposals in response to the conclusions presented in Volume I of the Mueller Report regarding Russia’s attack against the U.S. political system and attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Soon after its release, the House passed the SAFE Act, which requires voting systems to use individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballots, expands risk-limiting audits, and authorizes necessary funding to states to assist in securing election infrastructure. 

Both the House and the Senate have now passed the Blue Dog-endorsed Fentanyl Sanctions Act as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This legislation would apply pressure on the Chinese government to honor its commitment to make all forms of fentanyl illegal and provide the United States more tools and resources to go after illicit traffickers in China, Mexico, and other countries.

And in the wake of two mass shootings in less than 24 hours in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Reps. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., and Vicente Gonzalez’s, D-Texas, introduced the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019 to address the growing threat of white supremacists and other violent right-wing extremists.

Along with all this, the House achieved a milestone ahead of its July 4 recess. For the first time in 13 years, the chamber has passed 10 appropriations bills before the end of June, providing funding for 96% of the federal government.

“We got it done because we put our responsibility to govern ahead of politics and partisanship,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told The Well News at the time. “We got it done because our Caucus is united in our resolve to get things done for the people.”

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