What do moderates want? Davids steps into second term with divided Democratic caucus

November 25, 2020
In The News

In May and October, Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids was one of a handful of swing district Democrats to vote against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s multi-trillion dollar COVID-19 relief bills.

The defection of Davids, who criticized the bills as too partisan, made no difference in passage of the measures. With her party’s 35-seat margin over the Republicans, she did not have to take votes that might be unpopular in the Kansas 3rd District.

But Davids will enter a significantly changed House when her second term begins in January. Should a similar proposal come to the floor 2021, her ‘no’ vote could be far more consequential because Democrats will be working with a slender majority.

“We have a lot of work to do. Looking at the need for another coronavirus relief package. That’s a huge priority that I’m going to continue to push for regardless of the size majority,” Davids said last week about her desire for a bipartisan package.

Democrats are projected to win at least 222 seats, only slightly above the threshold of 218 needed for control in the House. Republicans are projected to win at least 205, a net gain of eight seats.

 

It’s a situation that will give a small group of Democrats the ability to block any legislation unless Republicans cross the aisle.

The likely thin margins for passing legislation will put more pressure on Davids ahead of key votes, but it will also give her an opportunity to exert more influence in her second term if she chooses to. With her vote now likely more valuable than it was as a freshman, she could use it as leverage to advance policy goals of her own.

The national conversation about the House has focused on the role progressives will play in the new Congress. The narrow margins will give increased clout to New York Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and left-leaning lawmakers, including freshman Missouri Democratic Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush who ousted 10-term Democratic incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay in St. Louis.

Assuming Pelosi’s leadership team remains intact, they’ll need to find a way to accommodate these progressive members who have been advocating for aggressive policy changes on climate, health care and policing. These issues strongly resonate with voters in their Democratic-leaning districts but are more politically perilous in swing districts.

However, in pleasing progressives, Pelosi won’t be able to risk alienating an even bigger coalition in the fractious Democratic caucus: Moderates.

INTERNAL TENSION

During a heated House Democratic conference call two days after the election, moderates tore into the party’s progressive wing, blaming losses in swing districts on the caucus’ leftward lurch, which gifted Republicans with a wealth of material for attack ads.

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again… We lost good members because of that,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and former CIA officer, according to audio obtained and published by The Washington Post.

While most progressive Democrats don’t use the socialist label, Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most visible members, self-identifies as a democratic socialist, similar to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I’ve heard from colleagues who have said, oh, it’s the language of the streets, we should respect that. We’re in Congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in the way that we mean what we’re talking about. If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that,” Spanberger said.

Bush, the incoming St. Louis Democrat who has championed the defunding movement, defended the use of the slogan on MSNBC this month.

“They don’t get to just continue to just kill Black folks in my community and I (will) not say anything, so yes, defund your butts… I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s district, anybody from keeping their seats. I’m not looking at feelings though. I’m looking at life,” Bush said.

Missouri Republicans have pointed to Bush’s use of the slogan as something that hurt Democrat Jill Schupp in her unsuccessful race against GOP Rep. Ann Wagner in the St. Louis suburbs.

But while the number of progressives will increase after primary wins by Bush and others, the moderate wing of the party remains bigger in numbers and crucial to any hope of maintaining the Democratic majority in 2022.

“I’ve always felt like the broad Democratic tent that we have and the various policy ideas that we have is part of what makes the Democratic Party strong,” Davids said when asked about Democrats’ potentially contentious internal battles on the horizon.

‘BALANCE THE NEEDS OF DIFFERENT GROUPS’

Spanberger and Davids are both members of the New Democrat Coalition, the largest ideological group in the House, with a stated commitment to “pro-economic growth, pro-innovation, and fiscally responsible policies.”

Davids is running to serve as one of the group’s four vice chairs. The vote will take place December 1.

“I think one of the strengths of the New Dem Coalition is frankly our ability to come together and support policy that is bipartisan and pragmatic. It’s one of the reasons that I joined the coalition for sure,” Davids said.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who is running unopposed to chair the New Democrat Coalition in the next Congress, said it’s important for Democrats to have a conversation about why they fell short in many districts they flipped in 2018.

“I think everybody’s district is different and everybody knows their district well. We need to understand the dynamics in everybody’s district, including in districts where we lost members,” DelBene said, pointing to South Florida where the socialist label was unpopular with voters whose families fled Cuba or Venezuela.

“I love these types of districts because I think they’re really representative of the entire country and it causes you to balance the needs of different groups,” DelBene said. “I have the opportunity to talk to my rural communities as well my urban communities and understand what might be the best solution in one place may not be in another place.”

Davids’ 3rd Congressional District similarly includes a diverse mix of urban Wyandotte County, suburban Johnson County and a more rural community in Miami County.

“My perspective is always going to be what’s going to be most important to the district that I have the opportunity to represent while I’m out here. That’s my home base. It’s what keeps me grounded,” Davids said.

But the makeup of Davids’ district could change dramatically in 2022 as the Republican supermajorities in the Kansas Legislature will control the redistricting process.

And while national Republicans avoided spending significant money on the district this election, their gains this cycle will likely elevate Davids’ district toward the top of the priorities list for the 2022 midterms. That’s when the GOP hopes to capitalize on traditional voter discontent with the presidential incumbent and take back the House.

C.J. Grover, spokesman for the Kansas Republican Party, said Davids “won’t be getting any more free passes from leadership on controversial bills” because of the narrow majority.

“The massive GOP gains this cycle trimming the Democrat House majority to the smallest in decades means leadership will be depending on Ms. Davids to pass their liberal wish list agenda, and she will deliver. She is likely to take numerous votes that put her outside the mainstream of this district,” said Grover, a longtime aide to Davids’ GOP predecessor and 2018 opponent, former Rep. Kevin Yoder.

BIDEN IN THE WHITE HOUSE

DelBene pointed to protecting and expanding the Affordable Care Act, action on climate change and passing an infrastructure package as priorities for the New Democrat Coalition.

The group has been coordinating closely with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team since the election, holding a conference call this month with Biden campaign manager and incoming deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon.

This centrist wing of the party is likely to champion Biden’s legislative agenda, including potentially a major infrastructure bill— something that was long promised by President Donald Trump’s administration, which never came to fruition.

“It’s no secret that I’m an infrastructure nerd,” said Davids, who worked in the Department of Transportation as a White House fellow and now serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.