The story might not be the same for Republicans. While female and minority lawmakers prepare to expand their influence within the opposition party, the House GOP is projected to become more white, male and conservative after its female and minority members face strong challengers at the ballot box on Tuesday.
The result could be two parties whose image and ideology diverge in powerful ways ahead of the 2020 presidential race, when the increasingly white GOP could face an increasing demographic disadvantage even as the center and far left battle for control among far more multiethnic Democrats.
“My theory is that the diversity of the Democratic field in 2018 has to do with voters wanting to highlight the diversity they feel is under attack from the president,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political tipsheet.
“That desire could have some implications for the next batch of candidates and who the party chooses as its standard-bearer in 2020.”
While significant attention has been paid to likely victors such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old democratic socialist who is poised to represent parts of the Bronx and Queens, experts said such acolytes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) do not represent the average incoming Democrat in the House.
“The vast majority of Democrats who will constitute the majority-makers — that is, the people who will hand control to Democrats — are very mainstream,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder and senior vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington. “The story line that the party has moved left and all the energy is coming from the far left is just not true.”
Bennett pointed to messaging on Medicare-for-all, a major priority for Sanders and his ideological compatriots on the left. He said that in the 86 most competitive House races, no Democrats have been pushing the issue in general-election ads. Democrats have more often talked about the goal of health-care coverage for all, leaving the details for the next Congress — and the party’s voters have been similarly pragmatic.
“We shouldn’t confuse anti-Trump energy, which is real, deep and profound, with a demand for Democrats to stand for the things that Bernie Sanders talks about,” he said. “This year, the most pivotal voters are interested in holding Trump accountable for the horror of his presidency, not electing people who will offer pie-in-the-sky ideas.”
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chair of Heartland Engagement, has argued that Democratic victories in red areas will come from emphasizing more typical and nearly universal priorities such as protecting Medicare and Social Security.
“We are talking about this in every single one of these races,” Bustos said in late October on MSNBC. “Maybe it’s not coming from Washington, D.C. constantly, but it is here in Peoria, Illinois, it is in Dubuque, Iowa, it is in Kentucky, it is in southern Illinois. It’s all over the place. We are talking about it loudly and clearly.”
That would be in keeping with past Democratic majorities, such as the 2006 version made possible when moderates joined liberals to upend Republican control of the House in an election that centered on broad national opposition to the Iraq War.
Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats on Tuesday to win control of the House. Forecasters have been cautiously optimistic that Democrats will meet this mark, though it is unclear how big their new majority could be.
Kondik argued that while many Democrats likely to claim seats on Tuesday are to the right of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, they are still a “tick or two” to the left of the more socially conservative Blue Dog Democrats of decades past.
“It’s not a culturally conservative group of candidates, in part because the districts are not culturally conservative districts. These are affluent, highly educated suburban seats,” he said.
It is already clear that a number of women and people of color will join the Democratic caucus, given the profile of Democratic nominees in safe Democratic seats and those most likely to flip this year.
These candidates include the three mentioned earlier: State Sen. Sylvia Garcia of Texas is expected to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Gene Green; Joe Neguse of Colorado is expected to replace outgoing Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who is running for governor; and Chrissy Houlahan is expected to replace retiring Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican.
Pennsylvania, where three female Democrats have a good chance of winning Republican seats, has become a test case for women’s performance in an election cycle where their participation as candidates has broken records. The state has never had more than two women at a time in its congressional delegation.
The Raben Group, a public affairs and lobbying firm, analyzed the field of House candidates and found that if Democrats keep their current seats and win about 40 more, women will hold one in four seats and people of color will jump to 27 percent. Currently, one in five House seats is held by a woman and 23 percent are held by people of color, the analysis said.
Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, described this as the “ideal scenario” and predicted that women will take a record number of House seats. But she said the story will be “far less celebratory” for Republican women.
In Florida, where the retirement of longtime Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the first Latina elected to Congress, has opened the door to possible victory by former Clinton Cabinet secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat. Shalala’s Republican opponent is Maria Elvira Salazar, a broadcast journalist of Cuban heritage, but she is not favored to win.
And in Utah, Rep. Mia Love, the sole black Republican woman in Congress, is defending her Salt Lake County seat against Democrat Ben McAdams.
“There is a note of caution we’re raising even with the gains for women that we will see,” said Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics and the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “And that is that Republican women are likely to see a decline in their numbers in the House.”
House Republicans could gain one Asian American woman if Young Kim, a former state legislator, wins in Southern California’s open 39th Congressional District. Kim is running against Democrat Gil Cisneros, who is Latino.
Women and people of color will exert serious influence over policy if Democrats claim a majority in the House.
The Raben Group found that if Democrats take the House, women would be in line to lead four committees, people of color to lead eight and an openly LGBT lawmaker to lead one.
This would be a marked change from the current Republican-led House, where all but two committees are chaired by men and none is led by a person of color.
In several firsts, Democrats Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashia Tlaib of Michigan are poised to become the first Muslim women in Congress. And according to Dittmar, states that could elect their first women of color to Congress include Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Kansas.
She struck another note of caution.
“We want to celebrate these moments, but if that’s the first, we’re clearly not at the point of parity or full representation. . . . But we also want to make sure that people don’t check it off the list like we achieved full parity this year,” she said.