President Donald Trump’s first term, and his pursuit of a second, has been forever altered through the presence of substantial opposition in the form of a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. In 2018, American voters gave the Speaker’s gavel to Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) amid a deluge of anti-Trump backlash and supercharged turnout from core Democratic constituencies: women, minorities, and young voters. Mirroring the 2010 Republican midterm wave, the political Overton window veered left with the election of scores of progressive Democratic congressmen and congresswomen, notably Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Once unthinkable, proposals such as Medicare-for-All and a restored Voting Rights Act went mainstream in the Democratic caucus. This strand of liberalism would not have been possible the last time the Democrats possessed a House majority; in 2010, there were 257 Democrats in the House, but over a quarter of them were conservative Blue Dogs from heavily Republican areas in the South and the West. The current House majority, to the contrary, is built on a much sturdier and more unified ideological footing. Thus, it becomes important to ask the question, what confluence of factors led to this new Democratic majority?
In answering, one must look to the looming 2020 presidential race and its trickle-down effects on down-ballot races. The campaign, described as a struggle between the “moderate” and “progressive” wings of the Democratic Party, has brought forth arguments for both principled pragmatism and transformative revolution. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks of a political revolution that will wash over the country in a wave of progressivism, yet one can see that in 2018, the oft-repeated notion that a wave of democratic socialists propelled Nancy Pelosi back to the speakership was simply untrue. It becomes clear that, of the 41 seats flipped from Republican to Democratic control in 2018, virtually all of them adhered to a philosophy of practical incrementalism in their approach to progressive politics.
The congressional freshmen won by sticking closely to important bread-and-butter issues, rather than tomes of nationwide ideological struggle. Representative Joe Cunningham (D-SC) became the first Democrat to represent the South Carolina Lowcountry since 1981, and won on his vow to ban offshore drilling. Representative Antonio Delgado (D-NY) won an Upstate New York seat amid racist attack ads by promising to fight for lower prescription drugs and better agricultural policies. Countless other Democratic freshmen representatives have similar stories, and most of their political philosophies match with that of former Vice President Joe Biden. Consequently, most have endorsed him for President.
Looking to 2020, the race for control of Congress is mirroring the ideological struggle at the top of the ticket. Given that empirical results show that Sanders-style candidates have not proved as successful at flipping Republican-held seats, Democratic primary races for the House are a good estimator of the voters’ pulse. Organizations such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress seek to push the Democratic Party to the left by primarying insufficiently left-wing incumbents. However, besides a few miraculous upsets like Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over moderate incumbent Joe Crowley, these organizations’ track record is not as successful as one would think.
The first congressional primary important to understanding the dynamics between the Democrats’ establishment and insurgent wings is the race for Texas’s 28th congressional district. This majority-Hispanic district spans a large swath of rural south Texas: from Laredo on the Rio Grande, all the way to the eastern suburbs of San Antonio. Represented by Democrats since its inception, its incumbent, Representative Henry Cuellar (D-TX), articulates South Texas’s heavily Democratic but culturally conservative roots. Cuellar is one of the few remaining Democrats with an A rating from the National Rifle Association; he is staunchly pro-life, and is vehemently opposed to socialism. In addition, he remains one of the most Trump-friendly Democrats in the House, voting with the president almost 70% of the time by some estimates.
His actions have long drawn the ire of progressives in South Texas and around the country. Enter, Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros, a 26-year old immigration attorney from Laredo who formerly interned for Cuellar, challenged him. Initially, Cuellar was asleep at the wheel, but after Cisneros racked up endorsements from Sanders,Ocasio-Cortez, and numerous other progressive individuals and advocacy groups, Cuellar worked to campaign in the district. In the end, Cuellar narrowly edged out Cisneros, 52 percent to 48 percent due to strong turnout in pro-Cuellar areas of the Rio Grande Valley. Cisneros performed extremely well for being a first-time candidate and for running far to the left of the district’s voters, performing best in and around cities; Cisneros’ strongest performance was in the San Antonio suburbs around Bexar County. However, Cuellar’s strong name-recognition in the rural portions of the district and conservative values proved too strong a match for a political neophyte like Cisneros to overcome.
The next race to examine is Illinois’ 3rd district. Another district which is heavily Democratic but with a strong streak of social conservatism, the current iteration encompasses portions of the south and southwest sides of Chicago. Currently represented by Representative Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and his father Bill Lipinski before him for nearly 40 years, this majority-white district holds a burgeoning Hispanic population. Much like Cuellar, Lipinski is out-of-step with the average Democrat. Speaking at the March for Life, being personally opposed to same-sex marriage, and having voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Lipinski’s political views were long aligned with the views of this gerrymandered district. But in 2018, entrepreneur Marie Newman challenged him in the primary, running on an Ocasio-Cortez-style platform of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, abortion rights, and a $15/hr minimum wage. Similarly to Cuellar in Texas, Lipinski had the backing of the Chicago Democratic machine that had carved out his seat and narrowly edged out Newman 51 percent to 49 percent.
However, Newman and the progressive organizations that backed her declared their fight unfinished business, and set to running again in 2020. This time, on a virtually identical platform, buoyed by progressive enthusiasm for and an endorsement from Bernie Sanders and his allies in Congress, Newman finally felled Lipinski 47 percent to 44 percent; she is now the favorite to win the general election in this heavily Democratic district. Newman won, first because of the aforementioned stronger enthusiasm, and second, because her successful 2020 run benefited from preexisting campaign infrastructure dating back to her 2018 race. Running closer toward Sanders’ left-wing movement in 2020 as supposed to simply being an anti-Lipinski candidate allowed her to tap into insurgent fervor roiling the Democratic Party and finally close the gap from 2018. Sanders-style democratic socialism has been shown to succeed electorally in urban districts much more than in rural ones, which can help explain the difference between Cisneros and Newman’s political fortunes.
The third and final bellwether race is the special election for California’s 25th district. Based in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles County, this seat was long a bastion of Republican conservatism before being carried by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. In 2018, the incumbent Republican congressman, Representative Steve Knight (R-CA), lost by almost nine points to first-time candidate, Democrat Katie Hill. However, Hill resigned in 2019 amid an ethics scandal involving her campaign staffers and her ex-husband, and thus Governor Gavin Newsom called a special election to replace Hill on March 3, 2020.
Knight ran again, alongside several other Republicans, but on the Democratic side there were two main candidates: State Assemblywoman Christy Smith, and progressive political talk show host Cenk Uygur. Smith had represented the area after flipping a Republican-held state assembly seat in 2018, while Uygur did not and still does not live within the district’s boundaries. Uygur campaigned on a Sanders-style political revolution, several degrees to the left of both Hill and Smith, who were more pragmatic in their progressive rhetoric. Smith drew attention to numerous controversial comments made by Uygur demonstrating misogyny, racism, and a denial of historically verifiable genocides. In the end, all Democratic support except that of the online left coalesced around Smith, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA). Come primary day, Smith trounced Uygur 36 percent to 7 percent, locking him out of the general election, where she will be the modest favorite against Republican Mike Garcia. This result is attributable to the trust and name recognition built up by Smith, compared to the blatant carpetbaggery of Uygur. Furthermore, in 2018, Hill beat out several Sanders-style candidates in a more competitive primary before beating Knight in the general, proving that this district is not amenable to fire-and-brimstone democratic socialism. And once again, having the backing of the establishment has proven to help candidates in most cases.
Ultimately, these three races are individual data points in what will be 435 House primaries. Depending on who wins the presidential nomination, the race for control of the House and Senate will change as well. No matter which of the establishment and insurgent wings one may prefer, the empirics do not lie: of the 41 seats flipped from red to blue, nearly all of them were flipped by progressives in the mold of Katie Hill and Christy Smith. There are merits to pushing the Democratic Party leftward by primarying more moderate incumbents, but they detract from efforts to flip more Republican-held seats. From a Democratic perspective, gaining as many seats as possible is necessary to stem a Republican wave election in 2022 against a President Biden or President Sanders. Or, in the scenario where President Trump is re-elected, the Democrats will need a decent floor to rebuild and further strengthen their position in the House. I do not wish to make an endorsement, but I believe that a presidential nominee who can pragmatically approach swing voters and talk to them on their own local terms would be most advantageous for Democratic legislative candidates to win on down-ballot coattails.