The House Will Have Just As Many Moderate Democrats As Progressives Next Year

By Geoffrey Skelley, FiveThirtyEight

The progressive wing of the Democratic caucus has attracted a fair amount of attention, as it will presumably wield far more power than it did the last time Democrats controlled the House in 2010. But another Democratic faction could play a major role in influencing the House’s legislative priorities: the New Democrat Coalition. Fiscally moderate, the New Democrat Coalition has outstripped the dwindling conservative wing of the party — the Blue Dog Coalition1 — and it might even emerge as the primary counterweight to progressives within the Democratic caucus in 2019.

To be clear, the groups aren’t entirely at odds; there will be some overlap between the New Democrat and Congressional Progressive caucuses — 13 members, in fact. They’ll also have roughly the same number of members in Congress: 90 New Democrats and 95 Progressives, according to each group.2 Together, they’ll make up roughly three-quarters of the Democratic caucus and represent the two largest ideology-based groups. The Blue Dogs, on the other hand, will represent roughly 10 percent of the Democratic caucus, but 18 of the 24 Blue Dogs will also be members of the New Democrats.

We can’t predict the political views of newly-elected Democrats, but we know that in the current Congress there is a strong relationship between members’ ideology, as measured by their voting history using Voteview, and the partisan lean of their districts, as measured by FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric.3 So if their districts are anything to go by, the 30 freshmen members of the New Democrats may be even more moderate than their returning colleagues — 22 of the 30 freshmen New Democrats come from districts that lean Republican. But of the 60 New Democrats who won re-election, 55 come from districts that lean Democratic, so it’s not as if the caucus is exclusively made up of members from Republican parts of the country. Still, the large cohort of new members from battleground districts may lead the New Democrats and their policy preferences to more moderate ground. This could in turn generate friction between the New Democrats and the Progressives, at least on some issues.

One potential fault line is health care. Members of the Progressive Caucus have been pushing for “Medicare-for-all,” while some New Democrats seem less inclined to support it. Take, for example, the current legislative plan before the House — 68 of the bill’s cosponsors are part of the Progressive Caucus while only 18 belong to the New Democrats.

And it doesn’t look as if incoming members of the New Democrats will be any more likely to support Medicare-for-all. National Nurses United, a union group that supports Medicare-for-all, kept a running list of candidates who expressed support for the policy during the 2018 election. Their list suggests that 81 members of the new Progressive Caucus — more than 80 percent of the members serving in the 116th Congress — have said they support Medicare-for-all whereas just 23 members, or 25 percent, of the new New Democrats did the same (with some crossover — nine members support the plan and will belong to both groups). If progressives intend to pressure their colleagues to back such a plan in the new Congress, the New Democrat Coalition might find itself as the main force countering that effort.

But this doesn’t mean that the two groups will constantly be at loggerheads. Over time, the two parties have sorted themselves ideologically to the point where there are only a few conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans in Congress. As a result, each party tends to agree on many core issues. Take, for instance, gun control. Democrats plan to pursue legislation on background checks early in 2019 — and seem quite confident that they’ll be able to pass it in the House, at least. But that might not have been the case when Democrats last controlled the House. During the 2010 election cycle, the National Rifle Association still donated to about one-fifth of Democratic House candidates, whereas in 2018 that figure was practically zero, likely because there are few pro-gun Democrats left. Democrats also now control fewer seats in rural areas, where constituents typically hold more conservative views on gun control.

Whether there is significant infighting within their caucus or not, House Democrats almost certainly won’t get many of their legislative priorities passed into law because Republicans control both the presidency and the Senate. Nevertheless, the priorities they do pursue could influence what issues come to the fore in 2020 and affect the Democrats’ ability to hold on to the House going forward. The New Democrats may play a significant role in determining the House’s agenda, and with the diminishment of the Blue Dogs, they could also be the principal moderating influence within the Democratic caucus.