© Greg Nash
Days after the 2006 elections that gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in a dozen years, freshman lawmakers gathered for a candlelight dinner at the Library of Congress. Midway through the dinner, an announcement was made: The new majority would be one seat larger, as final election results showed Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, edging the GOP incumbent by 91 votes.
Ten years later, the class of House Democrats who entered office in 2007 will gather this weekend at the invitation of Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) for a reunion to reminisce about the chaotic years of policymaking during their tenure and debate the future of a party that finds itself buried in the minority.
Today, fewer than half of the 41 Democrats first elected in 2006 remain in Congress. Their votes, and changing political tides, cost many their seats. Redistricting after the 2010 elections claimed a few more, while an assassination attempt forced one, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), to resign her seat as she recuperated.
The Democrats' time in office began when they elected Nancy Pelosi as the first woman Speaker of the House. The period was marred by the worst financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression, then energized by contentious debates over cap and trade legislation and the Affordable Care Act. At the end, voter anger at the Democratic agenda and a stagnant economic recovery cost many their seats. The difficult votes they had to take, several veterans of those years said, seemed to come in rapid-fire succession.
But those who remain, and those who have gone on to other pursuits, say their class should serve as a guidepost for the Democratic Party as it charts its path back to political success.
Democrats began their recruitment efforts for the 2006 elections at a time when President George W. Bush’s approval ratings sank to new lows, with voters growing angry over his administration’s handling of the Iraq War and the direction of the country.
Democrats, led by then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean, looked to recruit candidates even in heavily Republican districts, hoping to position themselves to ride a wave back to the majority.
That wave came: Democrats won over GOP-held seats in districts as diverse as libertarian New Hampshire, deeply conservative Kansas and western North Carolina. They won seats in rural Wisconsin, in suburban Philadelphia and exurban Houston. They even won seats in Appalachia, coal country where President Trump scored big in 2016.
Those freshmen represented the broadest range of the Democratic Party, from conservatives like Rep. Brad Ellsworth (Ind.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) to liberals like Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Steve Cohen (Tenn.). It is a model some of those who were freshman a decade ago think Democrats need to emulate once again.
They represented a broad swath of personal experience, too: Shuler was a former NFL quarterback. John Hall, elected to represent the Hudson Valley, had been a chart-topping musician. Nancy Boyda, who won a seat in Kansas, was a chemist. Shea-Porter, who last year won her seat back, was a social worker who wasn’t even supposed to win her primary. Ten were former state legislators, and one — Harry Mitchell — had been a popular mayor whose town erected a post-modern statue of him outside city hall.
“That class was very close personally, but not always close politically. In 2006, we expanded the map pretty significantly,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyUS to step up support for Saudis, says Pentagon chief Dem senator: Trump 'politicizing' position of Surgeon General Top financial services lobbyist departs for trade association MORE (D-Conn.), who beat a long-time incumbent to win his seat in the House in 2006. “That class was full of New Democrats and Blue Dogs, with a handful of progressives thrown in.”
“The legacy of the ’06 class is, for better and for worse, the legacy of what happens when the Democratic Party comes together, united and diverse, accepting candidates from conservative districts,” said Jason Altmire, who beat a Republican incumbent in western Pennsylvania.
Today, Democrats serving in the minority in Washington are a far more homogenous breed with a distinctly liberal flare. The Blue Dog Coalition of fiscal conservatives has just 18 members left, fewer than a third of their power at their peak. The New Democratic Coalition of business-friendly members stands at 54, well below their peak after the 2006 and 2008 elections.
As political currents shifted, the tide that ushered Democrats into the majority pushed many right back out, replaced by Republicans in wave elections in 2010 and 2014 that decimated the Democratic bench.
“I look back at what happened in 2010, and the biggest tragedy for the Democratic Party in my view was that it wiped out a lot of moderate Democrats,” said Ron Klein, one of the victims of that year’s tsunami.
“It put a much more left side of the Democratic Party as the dominant force in Congress. It’s not bad or good, you just didn’t have a diverse group of people that could appeal to different parts of the country.”
One member first elected in 2006 who subsequently lost, Betty Sutton, is mounting a bid to be Ohio’s next governor. Others who have left — Giffords, Klein, Shuler, Zack Space (D-Ohio), Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) — were seen as future statewide candidates. Ellsworth, Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyTen years later, House Dems reunite and look forward Trump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship MORE (D-Iowa), Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) lost bids for Senate seats in Republican waves.
Many of the Democrats who served in the 110th Congress say the party’s lurch left — in part caused by moderate losses, in part by liberal reactions to President Trump — will hurt Democrats in the long run.
“The party overreached and accomplished some great things. The downside of that was that we had the tidal wave of 2010, and a lot of people who are going to be at this reunion this weekend lost their seats,” said Altmire, one of the few Democratic votes against the Affordable Care Act.
Today, he added, Democrats “are going in exactly the wrong direction. The lesson of ’06 is you don’t move to the left, you don’t appeal only to the base Democrats on the fringe, you appeal to the independents.”
Members of that year’s class of Democratic freshmen said the 2006 results show the benefit, too, of competing in seats across the map. Many credited Emanuel’s recruiting and Dean’s 50-state strategy, despite the two Democratic leaders not always giving each other that credit, having engaged in some notorious shouting matches over spending priorities at DNC headquarters.
“That class springs forth from the 50-state strategy. That class was the first payoff for a national party that decided to build pieces of infrastructure everywhere,” Murphy said. “I think we’ve lost that. We’ve lost the ability to compete in parts of the country, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of [members from the 2006 class] aren’t there anymore.”
If the class of 2006 retains any kind of power, it is in the Senate. A quarter of the Senate Democratic Caucus won their seats — either in the House or the Senate — for the first time in 2006. Four, including Murphy and Sens. Mazie HironoMazie HironoDem lawmaker to Sessions: 'You are a racist and a liar' March for Science rallies draw huge crowds around US Dems knock Trump on Earth Day MORE (D-Hawaii), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGOP rep to potential Senate rival: Don't run Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Senate Dems target potential GOP candidates over ObamaCare repeal MORE (D-Ind.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Gillibrand Dems urge Trump to include Northeast Corridor tunnel project in infrastructure bill Dems petition FDA to ban potentially toxic chemical from shampoos, body wash Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight MORE (D-N.Y.), moved to the upper chamber after winning House seats in 2006.
Just 14 of the 41 Democrats first elected in 2006 remain in the House. They will gather this weekend – far removed from the candlelit dinner at the Library, their weekly breakfasts with then-Speaker Pelosi and their occasional “C-SPAN” sessions debating issues on the floor of the House – and some will consider how to get back to the majority.
But none regret their time in Washington.
“We were elected to do something. That was our pitch,” Klein said.