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Vulnerable new Democrats savor first day as 2020 looms

Democrats now shift to defense after winning back the House

Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., said voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker was in the best interest of her district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., said voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker was in the best interest of her district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Standing a few strides away from the House floor on Thursday, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips put his arm around another new Democrat, Haley Stevens of Michigan.

“It’s for real!” Phillips exclaimed.

Phillips and Stevens are two of the 43 Democrats who flipped Republican-held House seats in November, giving their party control of the chamber for the first time since 2010.

The first day of the new Congress was particularly surreal for these incoming lawmakers who won hard-fought races last fall. And they’ll likely have to work hard to keep their jobs in two years.

Democrats now turn their attention to protecting their new House majority. Thirty-one of them hold seats President Donald Trump won in 2016, making them prime GOP targets. Several of those Democrats said Thursday they weren’t focused yet on re-election. They wanted to get to work on governing — or at least find the path to their offices.

Watch: Here are the 21 members who didn’t vote for Pelosi, McCarthy

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2020 begins now?

Republicans were quick to target Democrats in competitive seats following California Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s election as speaker Thursday.

The National Republican Congressional Committee sent text messages to voters in 15 districts whose new Democratic representatives supported Pelosi despite signaling during their campaigns that they wanted new leadership.

One of those Democrats was California Rep. Gil Cisneros, who initially signed on to a letter opposing Pelosi but voted for her Thursday.

“They were criticizing me before today happened,” the freshman lawmaker said of the GOP effort.

Cisneros said his goal in originally opposing Pelosi was to push for new leadership in the party, which he felt was achieved. (Many of the current Democratic leaders are not new to leadership, though Pelosi committed to a maximum of four more years as speaker to win over defectors.)

Asked which leaders satisfied his call for new leadership in the caucus, Cisneros said, “There’s a lot of good voices. The Democratic Caucus is made up of a lot of energetic leaders that are going to take us to the next generation.”

Republicans also targeted Kendra Horn, who pulled off an upset in November in Oklahoma’s 5th District, defeating GOP Rep. Steve Russell in a race that wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Trump carried her district by 14 points, but Horn did not appear concerned that her constituents would push back on her decision to support Pelosi.

“There were two people that were nominated to run for speaker, and it was a clear choice,” Horn said, referring to Pelosi and the new House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Horn said Pelosi was the better candidate to advance the issues central to her campaign — improving health care, protecting Medicare and Social Security and expanding access to education.

Pelosi defectors

Fifteen Democrats, several of whom represent Republican-leaning districts, did vote against Pelosi, following through on campaign promises to oppose her.

New York Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who holds an upstate seat Trump carried by 15 points, cast his vote for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. His fellow New Yorker Max Rose voted for Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran.

Trump carried Rose’s Staten Island-based district by 10 points in 2016, making the Democrat a top GOP target in 2020. But Rose wasn’t letting the impending re-election fight get to him.

“I’m going to beat my next opponent by such a wide margin that they never ever try to run after me again. Ever,” he said when asked about NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer naming his district as a target in an interview with National Journal. “Yeah, they’re being idiots,” he said of the committee.

Rose’s fellow Army veteran, Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, who unseated perennial Democratic target Mike Coffman, also backed Duckworth. Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, whose district Trump carried by 7 points, voted for Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy. Murphy is the new leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats.

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, who flipped a GOP-held seat in a contentious special election last year, voted for Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III.

Two Democrats who flipped GOP-held Trump districts voted “present.” New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew won the open seat for New Jersey’s 2nd District, succeeding GOP Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo. Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin unseated Republican Mike Bishop in the 8th District.

Four Democrats from Trump districts backed Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, the new chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They included South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, who pulled off a surprising upset in his Charleston-area district to succeed former Rep. Mark Sanford, who’d lost in the Republican primary.

Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who defeated Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat, also backed Bustos, as did Maine’s Jared Golden, who knocked off Republican Bruce Poliquin in the country’s first use of ranked-choice voting for a House race.

New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who flipped a longtime GOP seat that opened last year, also backed Bustos. She echoed the sentiment of many of these members who felt it was important to keep their pledge to support new leadership.

“She’s the future of leadership in the Democratic Party,” Sherrill said of the four-term Illinois congresswoman, praising her work to form coalitions and listen to her constituents.

For new and returning lawmakers, their most immediate task Thursday was navigating the halls of Congress with their families in tow.

Sherrill led her four kids into the Speaker’s Lobby, flashing the tickets that allowed them to join her on the floor, while telling her mother she had to stay behind. Coming off the the floor, Sherrill was eager to answer reporters’ questions about the Gateway Tunnel back home while still keeping an eye on her kids in a crowded hallway.

Meanwhile, Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton was rushing to catch up to her friends and family for her swearing-in. “That’s one of the things that happens when you live close to the Capitol,” she said of the many people from the 10th District in the D.C. suburbs who came to support her on her first day.

Walking the jam-packed halls of Congress on Tuesday, it was easy to forget that part of the government is still shut down. (The legislative branch is still funded.) But a number of freshmen from competitive districts said reopening the government was their top priority.

“There’s no time to celebrate, there’s no time to decorate,” New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski said.

Golden, the Maine Democrat whose victory was only recently certified after his predecessor dropped his challenge to the ranked-choice results, agreed.

“To me it just feels like time to get to work.”

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