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New Dems Chair Kuster seeks to bridge the congressional divide

New Hampshire Democrat says she was raised in a "liberal Republican" family

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., chair of the New Democrat Coalition,  speaks Thursday during the group's news conference at the House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference in Baltimore.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., chair of the New Democrat Coalition, speaks Thursday during the group's news conference at the House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference in Baltimore. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Ann McLane Kuster has been on the front lines of tight races, and over and over again she’s come out victorious.

The New Hampshire Democrat, now in her sixth term in the House, will use that experience in her new role this Congress as chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of nearly 100 moderate Democrats focused on finding bipartisan solutions. 

“I’m a Frontline chair of New Dems,” Kuster told Heard on the Hill during a recent sit-down in her Rayburn office, referring to a program that supports Democratic incumbents in competitive districts. “I understand what their lives are like — how hard you have to work campaigning and raising the resources and juggling everything in your life.”

The New Dems are the “majority makers,” she boasts, noting that the group’s members flipped five seats in November and had a strong showing in swing districts. Kuster says she’ll take a pragmatic, solutions-focused approach to try to guide the Democrats back to power in the House.

She spoke with CQ Roll Call about how she’s maintained lasting appeal in New Hampshire, the need for bipartisanship in Congress and her plans for the pivotal coalition.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’ve won six consecutive elections to Congress, by some accounts a record among New Hampshire Democrats seeking major offices. How do you maintain that in a swing state like New Hampshire?

A: My district is 30 percent registered Democrats, 30 percent registered Republicans and 40 percent undeclared independent. So, by definition, I need to appeal across the aisle. My district is pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-environment, pro-jobs. As long as I can navigate that, then I can always find common ground. I am very pro-choice and have been my entire adult life. And I come from this Republican background of less government interference with people’s personal lives. And that’s the way I always talk about my pro-choice position. And so, for example, this year after the Dobbs decision, I think that was a major factor in the election. I ended up winning by 12 points. That’s the biggest margin I’ve had.

Q: One of the New Democrat Coalition’s charges is to work across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions. Are you concerned that it might be harder to find compromise?

A: I think the Republican Party has been unduly influenced by an extreme right-wing agenda, but what I want to say is this term feels different. This term, Republicans that I used to work with in my first, second, third, fourth term, are back wanting to work, to get together. I think taking 15 ballots to just elect the speaker of the House and get this institution up on its feet to move forward was extremely frustrating for our colleagues. I’ve had a colleague who’s a friend of mine said that was the worst week of his life in Congress. And so now, people are coming to us to sponsor bipartisan legislation. This is kind of what a divided government does — if they want a bill to get through the Senate and get signed by the president, they have to have bipartisan co-sponsors. And so now they’re saying, let’s get together to socialize.

Q: Do you have a best friend across the aisle?

A: I did, and it’s sad. Jackie Walorski [who died in 2022] was a very, very close friend from my class from 2012. So my background is I grew up in a liberal Republican family — that doesn’t exist anymore. When I first came to Congress, I knew that the only way to really get something done is to be able to work across the aisle and, you know, particularly in divided government. So I started several bipartisan groups. I’m the founder and co-chair of what we now call the Bipartisan Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Task Force with Brian Fitzpatrick and my colleague David Trone; I’m the founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence with my colleague, [David] Joyce; and I am the founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Ski and Snowboard Caucus with my colleague John Curtis from Utah.

Q: Can the New Dems coalition be unwieldy at times, with 98 members? How will you keep the group united going forward?

A: I think what we have in common is that we believe in economic growth and opportunity. We want everyone to thrive. We got behind the child tax credit, at the same time that we’re getting behind growing our economy. So we’re very focused on jobs and the economy and moving the country forward. So as I say, I keep coming back to the “can-do” caucus. We get the job done. And so I think that’s what we have in common. We’re not so focused on whipping a bill and requiring people to vote a particular way. We’re about trying to figure out a way to influence decisions so that our position prevails.

Q: One thing you’d change about Congress?

A: I think members that have been around for a while realize that the last two years were very difficult in terms of the partisanship — January 6th, the Dobbs decision — there were just a lot of things that were driving us apart. And I have a number of friends and colleagues who share my view that we should be coming together and trying to work on the big challenges of the day. So that’s kind of my vow this term: to spend more time socializing with our colleagues across the aisle and differentiate between reasonable Republicans that want to work versus the ones that are just here for the headlines on cable TV.

Quick hits:

First concert you went to? That’s going to be a little embarrassing. I definitely went to the Grateful Dead. I am the youngest of five children, and I was tagging along as a teenager with my older brother.

Last book you read? “Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America” [by Dahlia Lithwick].

Most unpopular opinion? I don’t eat tomatoes. Never have. About every sandwich ever made on Capitol Hill has tomatoes in it.

In politics, do the ends justify the means? We have a wonderful mantra here in our office. We live by radical hospitality, and we try to be kind to all we meet. We should be able to have a rigorous debate, and we should be able to come together and move the country forward.

America’s best president? Barack Obama. I was in on it from the beginning. He used to tease me that I was on board before Michelle was on board.