A blue wave in November could do more than knock out the House GOP’s majority — it could also cause turmoil within the Democratic caucus next year.
As a progressive wave grips the party — producing upset primary wins in places like Boston and the Bronx — Democrats are bracing for their own version of the Tea Party insurgency that swept House Republicans back to power in 2010.
The GOP conference eventually found itself consumed by infighting as the far-right continually clashed with leadership over the direction of their party, leading to the birth of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Democrats could be in for a similar reckoning if they win back the House.
“With House Democrats’ own conference chair being thrown out of office by their radical base in favor of a socialist, it’s clear that Democrats will be beholden to the far-left who will be behind their blue wave,” said one GOP aide, referring to the June primary victory of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).
Progressive candidates have vowed to unapologetically fight for a host of liberal causes, including abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and impeaching President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll We must do more to protect American Jews 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE — two ideas that have become rallying cries among the base, but that have split the party.
Progressives may feel especially emboldened if a blue wave crests across the country.
“If we win the majority, we want to make sure that we take those issues people talked about during the campaign and make them real,” said Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanDemocrats livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden With Build Back Better, Dems aim to correct messaging missteps Dems brace for score on massive Biden bill MORE (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
But Democratic leaders have kept impeachment and abolishing ICE at arm’s length. Instead, they are promising to lower prescription drug and health care costs, pass a jobs and infrastructure package, and clean up the “culture of corruption” in Washington. The party’s leadership says those proposals would give them their best shot at maintaining their majority if they win this fall.
“The pendulum doesn’t swing from the far-right position all the way to the other side,” said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosSwalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood MORE (D-Ill.), co-chairwoman of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and a member of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition.
“The way you hang on to the majority is, it stays swinging a little teeny bit back and forth, but real change, real meaningful change, sometimes happens incrementally.”
That approach could create fissures among House Democrats, especially if the far-left is itching for quick action and feels like the midterm elections were a referendum on the direction of the party. Liberal groups are expected to keep up pressure on progressive candidates to keep their promises to the electorate.
While Democrats acknowledge that there will likely be disagreements among the rank and file when it comes to certain policies, they say their members are more aligned than the conservatives who came to Washington on an anti-government platform eight years ago.
“The Tea Party is a group that came to Congress to stop government,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeMichigan Republicans sue over US House district lines Pandemic pushes teachers unions to center stage ahead of midterms Overnight Defense & National Security — Nation marks 1 year since Capitol riot MORE (D-Mich.), a senior whip in the Democratic caucus. “We have candidates across the ideological spectrum, but fundamentally we’re on the same page.”
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be some growing pains or difficulties,” he added.
Even though Democrats aren’t vowing to overhaul the federal government, a number of primary races where progressives pulled out big wins have been colored by a similar anti-establishment fervor. That includes Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Boston City Councilwoman Ayanna Pressley, who defeated longtime Rep. Michael CapuanoMichael (Mike) Everett CapuanoBottom line Hillicon Valley: Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle | 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy | GOP senators unveil bill to update tech liability protections 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy MORE (D-Mass.) earlier this month.
The wins delighted the liberal wing of the caucus, which has been clamoring for generational change, and underscored the growing divisions in the Democratic Party.
“This is a moment for progressives,” Pocan said. “It gives us more muscle.”
A similar scenario played out during the first midterm election after former President Obama was elected to the White House, when voters sent dozens of Tea Party candidates to Congress, with the expectation that they would shake up Washington with their anti-government platforms.
Then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE (R-Ohio) took immediate action to appease the right flank, most notably by banning congressional earmarks, something many Tea Party candidates campaigned on.
But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Some conservatives began to grow frustrated with BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE’s top-down leadership approach and strong-arm tactics, so they formed a unified voting bloc of roughly 30 members, dubbed the House Freedom Caucus, to advocate for more conservative principles.
The far-right group adopted a “burn the ships” mentality and has been willing to use their leverage to torpedo GOP legislation that doesn’t match their hard-line principles.
While it has been an effective tactic at times, it also has led to messy internal fights within the GOP and created massive headaches for Republican leadership.
Now, some liberals are cautioning fellow progressives not to follow the same route.
“Let’s not go down the road of being like the Tea Party, or being obstructionists, or being folks who are unwilling to engage or compromise,” said freshman Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaSmall ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed Sanders, 50 Democrats unveil bill to send N95 masks to all Americans Overnight Health Care — Insurance will soon cover COVID-19 tests MORE (D-Calif.), a Bay Area liberal and member of the Progressive Caucus.
But not everyone may agree. Ocasio-Cortez has floated the idea of forming a liberal version of the Freedom Caucus, an idea that could gain steam if some Democratic lawmakers feel like their voices aren’t being heard or if they don’t have a seat at the leadership table.
Khanna said changes don’t have to happen immediately after the November elections, while noting that it would be problematic if the status quo remains.
“If the leadership is not listening to our views, then I think there would be issues,” Khanna said. “But I don’t anticipate that will be the case.”
Some observers point out that the internal dynamics of House Republicans and Democrats are quite different, prompting many Democrats to dismiss the idea that progressives will use the same Freedom Caucus tactics to achieve their goals.
For one, Democrats point out that if House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse has the power to subpoena its members — but does it have the will? Man who threatened to kill Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi pleads guilty to federal charges The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems look to repackage BBB into salvageable bill MORE (D-Calif.) becomes Speaker, she will be more in step with the Democratic base than Boehner or even Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) was with conservatives.
Others say Democrats won’t let family fights spill out into public view the same way Republicans have.
“You’re going to have that tension, of course, but I think we’re going to have leadership that is highly incentivized to maintain what we have and to contain those fights,” said a senior aide associated with the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
There will also be a desire by Democrats to show a united front ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
But that same dynamic could also ramp up pressure on the party to appease the left base, especially if it helped power a blue wave in 2018.
“We’re not going to fight with each other and hurt our chances ahead of 2020,” said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDesperate Dems signal support for cutting Biden bill down in size Sanders, 50 Democrats unveil bill to send N95 masks to all Americans Centrist Democrats urge progressives to tamp down rhetoric MORE (D-Wash.), vice chair of the Progressive Caucus. “But at the same time, I think that it’s good to have a conversation about what the party’s platform really should be and recognize the energy across the country that’s helping us to win.”