Washington state neighbors underscore internal Democratic tensions

Washington state neighbors underscore internal Democratic tensions
© Greg Nash

As House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe House Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' MORE (D-Calif.) counts the votes she will need to craft a Democratic agenda this year, she will keep Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Liberal House Democrats urge Schumer to stick to infrastructure ultimatum MORE and Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneBiden administration stokes frustration over Canada Reducing compliance burdens for the beauty industry Tech industry pushes for delay in antitrust legislation MORE on speed dial.

The two Washington state Democrats hold adjoining districts based in and around Seattle, and they routinely find themselves on the same flights to and from the other Washington. They also hold the keys to important factions within the House Democratic Caucus: Jayapal chairs the House Progressive Caucus, while DelBene heads the New Democrat Coalition.

Their positions — geographically proximate, ideologically distanced — illustrate the fundamental tensions within a Democratic Party that is riven by angst and plagued by finger-pointing over an election in which they won the White House but lost seats in the House of Representatives.


“Our caucus is definitely not a monolith. We’re very diverse, and the districts we represent too is very diverse,” DelBene said in a recent interview.

Both Jayapal and DelBene said they were still digesting election results. While they each said they work well together, they acknowledged the angst within the broader party for losses in districts in which Republicans attacked Democratic incumbents over defunding police or democratic socialism.

“It’s important, when we come together collectively throughout the Democratic caucus, that folks understand that what they might be hearing in their district may not be indicative of what’s happening every place across the country,” DelBene said. “People want to see governance work again. And governance working is not saying my way or no way, it’s figuring out how, in the House for example, you get to 218 votes to actually move legislation forward.”

In a conference call the day after polls closed, some Democrats who lost their seats or survived only narrowly complained progressives had given Republicans ammunition.

Jayapal said the notion that progressive slogans cost Democrats seats in the House missed the broader value of an agenda that turned out voters — especially younger voters and people of color — in record numbers.


“The reality is, to blame progressives was just so out of touch with the reality of what happened. Job No. 1 was to get Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE out of the White House, and we did that not only with the Electoral College but with the popular vote, which was something that has been elusive for us in previous elections,” Jayapal said in an interview. “We won in the presidential because of progressives. We really won this election because of young people and the incredible turnout of young people in swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

While their districts are geographically conjoined, their constituents are as different as the members who represent them. 

Jayapal, a civil rights activist before running for office, holds a district based in Seattle, arguably the most liberal city in America; Biden won 85 percent of the vote there. DelBene, a former Microsoft executive, represents a seat that stretches from the company’s Redmond headquarters east to the Cascade mountains and north to the Canadian border, taking in the rural Skagit Valley and pockets of deeply conservative farmland.

Their different districts represent a microcosm of the path ahead for Democrats, who reclaimed control of Congress in 2018 on the strength of their support among suburban voters — and who lost some of those same seats two years later, as Republicans accused every Democrat in the country of plotting to defund the police, pack the courts and drive the nation toward socialism.

“The Republicans in our state are running against Seattle and the problems they perceive in Seattle in terms of the policing issue [and] homelessness. That, I think, really resonated outside of the Seattle core and I expect the same thing to continue nationally,” said David Frockt (D), a state senator whose district is divided between DelBene’s and Jayapal’s. “It served a purpose politically, and I think it actually hurt some of our candidates around the state.”

The two Democrats also represent the poles of a debate that played out in the presidential primaries between progressives like Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Overnight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia US launches second Somalia strike in week MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenKavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Biden signals tough stance on tech with antitrust picks Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary MORE (D-Mass.), who call for structural change, and relative moderates like Biden, who favor a more collaborative approach.

Jayapal backed Sanders during the Democratic primary.

“We have to get rid of these ideas that somehow people don’t want us to take bold steps. They do. They want us to talk about how we’re going to get there, they want to be sure that it’s going to be better than it was before, but they want us to take on the wealthy, to fight corporations and special interests. They want a fair tax system. They want us to tax the rich,” Jayapal said. “We have to now deliver. There are young people and folks of color who either had never voted before or had voted a long time ago and given up on us, and they came out. And if we don’t deliver real results very quickly, we are potentially going to lose them for a generation.”

DelBene did not choose a candidate in the primaries.

“In the House, the important number is 218,” she said. “Making sure we understand that and build the coalition to get there is important, and also understanding that means that we have to figure out ways to make tradeoffs to build those coalitions.”

Both caucuses will use their influence to pull the Biden administration in different directions.

Jayapal said progressives were pleased with several nominations Biden intends to make, including Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandSecretary Haaland, Colorado's epic drought highlights the need to end fossil fuel extraction Why Biden's Interior Department isn't shutting down oil and gas We have a moral obligation to learn Native American history MORE (D-N.M.), who is Biden’s choice to lead the Interior Department, and Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenOn The Money: Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' | Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Africa doesn't deserve last place in the vaccine race MORE, his nominee to head the Treasury Department. DelBene’s New Democrats may be more aligned with Biden, who has never been a part of his party’s liberal vanguard.

“We share a lot of priorities. We’re very much aligned and want to be great partners, because we know how important it is to get things done and how critical that is going to be right out of the gate,” DelBene said.