The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Caught between extremes, vulnerable House Democrats defend the middle

Which is the pathway to maintaining congressional majorities -- embracing liberal policies to fire up the base, or moderating to win the middle?

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) speaks at a campaign event at McCurdy Park in Corunna, Mich. Slotkin, a moderate, is in a tight race to retain her seat in the conservative central part of the state. (Emily Elconin for The Washington Post)
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LANSING, Mich. — In between campaign stops, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) is taking calls from fellow House Democrats seeking her support for leadership races upon their return to Capitol Hill.

It’s a dumbfounding request for Slotkin, who may not even be serving in Congress next year.

“I’ve had some pretty tough conversations like, ‘Hey, I really like you as a person and I respect you as a lawmaker, but I’m trying to give you the privilege of running for chairman or chairwoman by keeping the majority,’ ” Slotkin said. “It’s by no means a sure thing.”

Slotkin and 38 of her colleagues belong to an exclusive group no House Democrat wants to join: vulnerable members who represent the most competitive swing districts in the country, as identified by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Most of them, including Slotkin, paved the way to Democrats’ regaining the House majority in 2018, when the party flipped 41 seats by promising to protect health-care access and restore faith that government could function after President Donald Trump took office.

As the handful of members in true swing districts, front-line Democrats represent a snapshot of America that often rebukes the extremes within either party. The makeup of these districts can prove volatile in midterm election years, when voters often reject the sitting president’s party. A recent CNN poll showed Democrats on the defensive, with 48 percent of likely voters living in competitive House districts supporting the Republican candidate and 43 percent backing the Democrat.

These vulnerable Democrats now find themselves grappling with what it means to be at the front lines guarding the House majority and, they argue, the direction of the country. Their fate will undoubtedly require post-Election Day reflection for their party: Is the pathway to maintaining congressional majorities embracing liberal policies that activate the base, or is it taking a page from these swing districts and moderating to win the middle?

“I stay in it because I think we’re still in the middle of this really tough moment in our history,” said Slotkin, who represents a district in the middle of Michigan that Trump won twice. “If we’re back to Democrats and Republicans treating each other decently and having a real exchange of ideas, I would happily go on my merry way and find something else that I want to do. But until things start to feel like they’re on a more even keel, I feel it’s mission-oriented work.”

In interviews with The Washington Post, similar sentiments were expressed by other vulnerable Democrats who helped win the majority in 2018.

In the final weeks ahead of the midterm elections, these front-line Democrats are working to convince voters that they are the last line of defense against extremism, arguing that they have a track record of working across the aisle and protecting personal freedoms, particularly in light of the Supreme Court’s decision this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade.

They also view their job as arbiters of democracy as far from over, as many Republicans continue to question the integrity of U.S. elections, even after surviving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s not just the substance of what we accomplished,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a member of the Class of 2018 who’s also in a tough race, “but the evidence our democratic institutions can still function in a way that helps people, which I hope is enough to convince more people out there that the democracy is worth fighting for.”

It’s the economy, stupid

Front-line Democrats have tried to appeal to moderate and libertarian voters by telling them that if the GOP regains the House majority, Republicans would codify federal laws that infringe on personal freedoms beyond abortion, such as rolling back same-sex marriage protections and access to contraception.

But with economic uncertainty top of mind in many of their districts, they acknowledge their final argument can’t simply center on defending freedoms and democracy from the extremes.

Upon her return to Washington last month, Slotkin warned her colleagues repeatedly against making abortion their party’s final midterm argument, bluntly telling them, “I don’t know what you’re smoking, but six weeks is a long time before an election.”

At a recent town hall in conservative Corunna, Slotkin tried to walk the walk. She told the roughly 50 people there that she had introduced a bill to suspend the federal gas tax, urged the Biden administration to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and was now calling for the United States to reexamine its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“In the face of this much inflation, do you use it as a political talking point or do you actually try to do something about it?” Slotkin asked the voters, accusing the GOP of not proposing concrete solutions other than promising to cut spending.

Given the makeup of their districts, front-liners consider themselves the forecasters of troubles ahead for their party. Many of them are active in group chats flagging what lines of attacks are percolating in their districts and what is no longer resonating with voters.

They pride themselves on seeing the stakes much earlier and clearer than their liberal counterparts and are unafraid to confront leadership or the Biden administration about how the average American, their constituent, is viewing the Democratic Party. So front-liners have been touting the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), arguing it will help make life more affordable by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug pricing, capping insulin costs, and extending Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidies. They also rely heavily on the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Chips and Science Act as examples of Democrats creating jobs.

But selling the benefits is difficult since voters have yet to feel their impact.

It’s a marked difference from 2018, when voters chose Democrats to protect their access to health care after the GOP threatened to repeal the ACA. Many of those same voters initially expressed deep skepticism about the program as government overreach just eight years earlier.

“It will be frustrating if we don’t, you know, hold the House in a couple years when people are really feeling this benefit,” said Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.), a member of the Class of 2018 in an unexpectedly tough race.

Can abortion still drive voters?

The concerns over the economy make it harder to find the same energy from voters that propelled Democrats to victory in 2018. But Slotkin has found similar levels of enthusiasm nestled in very conservative towns that are now within the boundaries of her district where Democrats, for the first time in decades, have a chance of voting in a competitive race. Trump won Slotkin’s previous district by nearly four percentage points in 2020. With the redrawn boundaries, President Biden’s margin of victory would have been less than one percentage point.

Slotkin’s motto in these rural communities is to “lose better” — exceeding turnout goals in areas where Democrats are destined to lose in hopes that it makes up potential votes lost elsewhere.

Both Republicans and Democrats are making a play to court suburban women this year, particularly those who strayed from Trump in both 2018 and 2020, helping propel Democrats to the House majority and sending Biden to the White House. Abortion could help drive Democratic voters to the polls in states where the issue is on the ballot, as in Michigan and California.

Polls had shown abortion becoming a top concern for voters after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer, especially motivating Democrats. But a recent New York Times-Siena College poll found that Republicans now have an edge over Democrats because voters believe they are best suited to deal with the economy and inflation.

Slotkin draws contrasts here with her opponent, state Sen. Tom Barrett, who introduced legislation that would charge providers who performed an abortion after the second trimester with a felony and exclude exceptions for rape and incest. He also says states should enact their own abortion laws rather than the country having a federal ban. Paula Alexander, 72, a Democrat from Owosso, believes that position is a “cop-out” by GOP candidates who “refuse to take a firm stand” on the issue ahead of the election.

“I’m over being frightened. I’m pissed,” she said at the Owosso farmers market.

But to win reelection, Slotkin needs to win over a sizable number of independents like Iyla Waters, 74, from Owosso. While she is leaning toward voting for Slotkin, she worries about skyrocketing prices under a president she thinks is not doing enough to help. Voting for Biden — or a Democrat for that matter — was “a lesser of two evils” in 2020.

“I didn’t really want to, but that was my choice,” she said.

Republicans have worked to link Slotkin and other front-liners to Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), painting Slotkin as an extremist who votes with her party on policies that have contributed to higher prices.

“The Democrat Party has got us to where we are now. They believe government can solve the problem, but government is the problem,” a Barrett supporter says in an ad while talking about inflation.

Vulnerable Democrats are betting that their personal interactions in the community have proved to constituents they are not the extremists Republicans make them out to be.

“Presumably, you could call me a lot of things, but if you’ve ever met me, you know ‘bombastic radical’ is hardly one that sticks,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who is in a competitive race in a district favorable to Republicans. “I think many of us won in 2018 because we reset expectations for what people should expect of their legislators.”

Martin Finucane, a farmer selling vegetables at the Owosso market, acknowledges that Slotkin appears to be more moderate than other House Democrats. But as a longtime Republican, he plans to vote for Barrett because he’s fed up with Democrats “handing out money that the government thinks is theirs, which is really mine and of other Americans.”

The long game

In these final weeks, Slotkin and her campaign also recognize they need to turn out Democrats in the Lansing area as well as college students who are registered to vote back home or are reluctant to support her because she doesn’t have the stamp of approval from “the Squad,” a group of liberal House Democrats who also first won in 2018.

Both liberals and moderates within that 2018 class believe they have been influential in shaping legislation that a Democratic Congress has been able to pass with slim margins. But the factions have clashed often over the past two years, as the former pushed to pass a $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” social spending package that moderates knew had no chance of passing in the Senate. Moderates also have spent this election year pushing leaders to prioritize passing bills that would alleviate economic concerns and measures funding the police to preempt attacks by Republicans.

Front-liners acknowledge they are often “pissing off everybody a little bit,” Slotkin said, because their moderate views often causes voters and colleagues alike to consider them too lax for the Democratic Party or too liberal for the GOP.

“I think we get up every single day and we tend to, you know, not be your media darlings or your Twitter darlings,” Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said. “We get up every day and we just say — I know I do — how can I fight for good policy or at least push the country forward and in the right direction?”

Whether the front-line perspective is favored by leadership remains a question. Several lawmakers privately said that their concerns are often overshadowed by progressives, who have much larger representation in the House Democratic caucus.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) reliably votes against most Democratic measures unless they are bipartisan. It has become so routine for him to do so that he said members of the leadership staff have told him, “We gave up trying to whip you a long time ago” for his votes.

“That’s just like not trying, man,” he said. “They didn’t even try to talk to me about the IRA, and I decided to vote for it because I thought it was really good policy.”

Golden said Democrats have been unable to hold the majority for longer than two terms because the party’s liberal wing scorns compromise in favor of a grander, oftentimes less achievable, goal.

“I wouldn’t say that [keeping the majority] means just focusing on individual districts like mine,” he said. “Rather, it’s just changing your mind-set outright. I think our party would be best serving America if we were holding majorities for longer periods of time.”

Slotkin said the inability to cater to both factions is a fault of a top-down power structure enabled by Democratic leaders. She voted against Pelosi as Democratic leader in 2020 and said that both front-liners and liberal members from the Class of 2018 are having an “active conversation” about rule changes they want to demand from those running for leadership.

Several members and Democratic aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said they want to add term limits for top Democrats on committees to allow younger members a chance to influence the legislative process. They also want to lower the threshold of support necessary to bring bills to the floor to prevent a handful of Democrats who have stalled the process. Front-liners want to make sure those running for top slots also paid their dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a major fundraiser for them, in exchange for their votes.

But front-liners often acknowledge that thinking beyond November is premature, given that they might not be elected to a third term. If voters choose to oust them, front-liners still hope to play an active role in defending democracy. They often compare themselves to the “Watergate babies,” members elected after the 1970s scandal who went on to become influential voices for decades.

“I believe that the 2018 class is the bench for the Democratic Party,” Slotkin said. “It’s the minor leagues before many of them will go on to be governors and senators and Cabinet-level officials. I think this kind of forged-by-fire process is what made you a tougher, smarter elected official and I think that will carry the party — if we can ever break through.”

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.