That late June weekend in Columbia, S.C., might have represented a high-water mark for the class of 2012 — a collection of nearly 50 Democrats who, though they did not win back the House majority, represented a large group of talented and predominantly young members for whom ambition could have been their middle name.
Now, six weeks later, the class of 2012 has been coming to grips with what it means to jump onto the national stage and actually hold positions with power.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent in 2012, became the first to withdraw from the presidential campaign after a floundering set of performances. Former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.), a moderate who won a longtime GOP seat in 2012, found himself targeted at Tuesday’s debate by front-running liberals. O’Rourke, who also ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2012, has watched his once rising star lose much of its shine as he jumped from a losing U.S. Senate race in 2018 to a much-hyped 2020 presidential bid.
And Bustos, in charge of protecting the new House majority, came under fire from fellow Democrats for staff diversity issues and other personnel moves. She flew back to Washington on Monday for an emergency meeting that ended with a mass exodus of the DCCC’s senior staff, leaving swing-seat Democrats to wonder whether the committee had the right structure in place heading into 2020.
All these growing pains have started to make the old trio of House leaders — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — look a bit wiser than those 2012 Democrats first thought.
“Oh yeah, we were excited, we were excited. We didn’t win back the majority, but we were a large class and we made demands,” recalled Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who won a GOP-held House seat in 2012 before running for the Senate in 2016. “We were a very united class.”
Those freshmen received two seats, not the standard one, on the Democratic Steering Committee, the behind-the-scenes panel that doles out committee assignments. A few years later, after more disappointing elections left them still in the minority, those junior lawmakers tried to put term limits on the top Democratic spots on committees.
In a rare concession of power, Pelosi created a new leadership committee on messaging and a vice-chair slot on every committee that was reserved for those having served fewer than five terms.
Although they did not control the House, this group made history — House Democrats became the first caucus to have a majority of minority and female members.
“This caucus is a picture of America,” Pelosi declared at a news conference a week after the 2012 election, with dozens of the winners flanking her onstage.
Directly behind her stood Bustos, fresh off defeating a Republican. To Pelosi’s right stood Swalwell, about to turn 32, sporting a buzz cut, and to her left, standing in the back row because of his height, O’Rourke wore a floppy bowl cut, having just turned 40.
Pelosi made Democrat Patrick Murphy, then 29, the star for his victory over tea party favorite Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla.). “This new freshman class is problem-solvers, doing what’s best for all Americans,” said Murphy, who four years later lost a U.S. Senate bid.
The 2018 midterms swept Democrats into the majority and with it, the 2012 Democrats seemed all powerful. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) jumped from the House to join Duckworth in the Senate after one of the most expensive races in the nation.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) won the No. 4 leadership post, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), a de facto member of this class by winning a special election in 2013, grabbed the vice-chair slot.
To win the DCCC post, Bustos went up against three other members of her class.
O’Rourke left Congress, but his $80 million campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) inspired so many liberals that even Oprah Winfrey begged him to run for president.
Swalwell and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) jumped into the presidential race with their 2012 classmates, believing today’s Democratic Party wanted to turn the page to a younger, ambitious, more diverse generation.
Instead, a trio of white 70-somethings — former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have dominated the Democratic field so far.
In an open-ended poll about the presidential race in early July, the four contenders from the class of 2012 registered a grand total of 3 percent support — all of which went to O’Rourke, while the other three got no support.
“Our candidates are part of ‘The Avengers.’ We are here to save America. The Republicans, that’s the ‘Hunger Games,’ ” Swalwell said at the June 22 fish fry hosted by Clyburn in Columbia.
Meaning it as a compliment, the 79-year-old whip introduced Swalwell by noting that he announced his bid in “the most millennial way possible,” on a late-night TV show and on Twitter.
Swalwell dropped out less than three weeks later.
To be sure, the class of 2012 still has plenty of time to continue making history. Jeffries is mentioned as a potential successor to Pelosi. Gabbard’s debate performance Wednesday, in which she skewered Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) for her time as a prosecutor, won solid reviews.
And, despite the staff fallout, Bustos is raising record sums for the DCCC as Republicans witness a surge of retirements, providing fertile ground for an offensive that could increase the Democratic majority in the 2020 elections. Others are moving up the committee dais and leadership ladder, poised for bigger things down the road.
“It was just a class that was determined to make a difference and to try to change things,” Duckworth said.