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No caucus, no problem? Some freshman Democrats avoid ideological groups

Six new Democrats have not joined caucuses with an ideological focus

Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., center, is one of six freshman Democrats who is not in an ideological caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., center, is one of six freshman Democrats who is not in an ideological caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Joining a caucus with like-minded colleagues is a typical ritual for House freshmen, a chance to form alliances with lawmakers in similar wings of their respective parties. 

But it’s not for everyone. A handful of freshman Democrats have opted not to join any of the party’s ideological groups: the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

And for some, that’s a point of pride.

Asked at a Democratic women’s event last week how she decides when to side with President Donald Trump, Rep. Abby Finkenauer said her northeast Iowa district comes first. To prove her point, she noted that she hasn’t joined any of the three caucuses.

“I am an Iowa Democrat,” Finkenauer said.

Five other Democratic freshmen have taken similar stances, with most of them from competitive districts like Finkenauer. They include Jared Golden of Maine, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, TJ Cox of California, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Donna E. Shalala of Florida.

Avoiding these groups makes it more difficult to quickly gauge where the lawmakers land on the Democratic Party spectrum. And they could also be missing out on the camaraderie and campaign help the caucuses offer. 

But members like Finkenauer don’t see many benefits to joining, especially when they don’t align with all of the groups’ viewpoints.

“I don’t fit into a box,” the Iowa Democrat said in an interview Tuesday. “I wasn’t elected here to be put in one. … I listened to the folks in my district, and those are the interests that I represent.”

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The ‘no caucus’ caucus 

For some of these members, stressing their independence is critical for their re-elections. They have to balance energizing base Democrats with appealing to more moderate voters and Republicans. One way to showcase that is by steering clear of ideological groups.

That could also be a way to dodge questions about which faction of the party they belong to. But Finkenauer said voters don’t typically ask her about her political ideology.

“The reality is they’re not asking me, ‘Are you a one through 10, from liberal to conservative?’ They’re asking me about certain [other] topics,” she said.

Five of the six freshmen in question are National Republican Congressional Committee targets in 2020, having flipped GOP-held seats last fall. Hayes is not an NRCC target, but she is a part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents.  

Trump carried Finkenauer, Golden and Underwood’s districts in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Underwood’s re-election race a Toss-up, and Golden and Finkenauer’s as Tilt Democratic. Neither Golden nor Underwood’s offices responded to requests for comment on why they are not in any of these groups.

Hillary Clinton won Cox’s central California district by 16 points in 2016, but he unseated GOP Rep. David Valadao by just under a point. Inside Elections rates his race Likely Democratic.

“Congressman TJ Cox was not elected to serve any party or party faction,” his spokesman Drew Godinich said. “He’s pledged to work with anyone and everyone to deliver results for the Central Valley — and we are always evaluating our opportunities on how best to serve the people of the 21st District.”

Hayes and Shalala are both in blue districts — though Clinton carried Hayes’ Connecticut seat by just 4 points, while Shalala’s South Florida seat had previously long been in GOP hands. Inside Elections rates both races Solid Democratic.

Shalala’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Hayes’ spokesman Jason Newton said in an email that Hayes “wanted to first get settled in and understand the dynamics of the House prior to joining any of the caucuses mentioned.”

“She could ultimately end up joining one but wanted to understand first where she could have a positive impact,” Newton wrote.

Missing out? 

There are political benefits to being part of these caucuses. The Progressive Caucus, New Democrats and the Blue Dogs all have political arms to assist their members and endorsed candidates. 

Their political action committees often donate directly to campaigns, with a limit of $5,000 per election. In the 2018 cycle, the New Democrat Coalition Action Fund contributed nearly $1.3 million to other campaign committees.

Forty members of the Democratic freshman class joined the pro-business group. Its political arm connects members and candidates with potential supporters, helps build their campaign teams, and acts as an advocate with other potential allies.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which added 23 freshmen to its ranks this year, plans to ramp up its political operations for the 2020 cycle, and assist its members and candidates with fundraising, staffing and other campaign operations, according to David Keith, the group’s first-ever political director. Its PAC contributed $322,000 to other committees in the 2018 cycle.

“We’re going to absolutely help defend our members who need help,” Keith said.

The Blue Dog PAC contributed $771,000 to other campaign committees last cycle. The group did not respond to a request for comment. Ten freshmen joined the coalition this year. 

Finkenauer said she was not concerned about missing out on the political benefits these groups offer. She noted that her 1st District, which includes rural areas and the cities of Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, is a large one with diverse interests.

“My role is to represent Iowa. … The D.C. talking points aren’t what works in my state,” she said.

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