Moderate politicians are becoming an endangered species. The most liberal Republican in Congress nowadays is still ideologically to the right of the most conservative Democrat, reflecting the fact that the median voters in each party are drifting further and further apart as well. But if winning elections were the only consideration, the parties likely wouldn’t be so eager to purge themselves of centrist members. It’s not an ironclad rule, but there is a lot of evidence that moderate candidates tend to perform better at the ballot box. And though the relationship may be growing weaker with time, an examination of split-ticket voting in the 2020 election suggests it’s still there.
Using data on the results of the presidential election by congressional district from Daily Kos Elections, I calculated how much better — or worse — each candidate for U.S. House did than their party’s presidential nominee. Assuming that President Biden and former President Donald Trump’s vote share represent how a “typical” 2020 Democrat or Republican would have done in each district, this gap gives you a rough measure of candidate quality.
As it turns out, the vast majority of House candidates performed about as you’d expect based on presidential partisanship. But when you look at the exceptions — the districts where Democratic House candidates most outperformed Biden, and the districts where Republican candidates most outperformed Trump — the strongest candidates tended to be incumbents with moderate voting records and personal brands that differentiate them from the national reputation of their party.
Let’s start by looking at the 10 congressional districts where the Democratic House candidates outran Biden by the biggest margins (excluding House seats that Republicans did not contest).
|Kyle Van De Water
Ultimately, former Rep. Collin Peterson lost his seat to Republican Rep. Michelle Fischbach last year, but by our metric, his 14-point loss was still the most impressive Democratic performance in the country given that former President Donald Trump carried the Minnesota 7th District by 29 points. The 15-term incumbent managed to hold onto his reddening district for so long thanks to his leadership on agricultural issues (a big deal in the rural 7th) and centrist reputation: He was a founding member of the Blue Dog Coalition (a caucus of moderate Democrats) and was the only Democrat to vote against Trump’s 2019 impeachment on both counts.
Next on the list is Rep. Henry Cuellar. His anti-abortion, pro-gun views initially looked like they’d hurt him in 2020, as he faced a serious primary challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros. But it looks like Democrats were wise to renominate Cuellar, as his conservative streak probably helped him in the general election — he won reelection by 19 points in a district Biden carried by just 4. And there are at least three more moderates in the top 10: Rep. Ed Case, the third-strongest Democratic candidate of 2020, is the current co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition. Fifth-ranking Rep. Jared Golden is, by one common measure of ideology, the most conservative Democrat left in the House (he was recently the only House Democrat to vote against Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus bill and background checks for gun sales). And former Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s moderate voting record is also likely the reason he was so competitive for reelection last year in his Trump+11 district (after a protracted court battle over the razor-close election, he eventually conceded his 109-vote loss).
It wasn’t just Democratic moderates who punched above their weight. Middle-of-the-road incumbents also represent many of the districts where Republican House candidates most improved upon Trump’s margins (excluding House seats that Democrats did not contest):
|Cathy McMorris Rodgers*
Near the top of the list are Reps. John Katko and Brian Fitzpatrick, who after the 2018 blue wave were two of only three House Republicans representing districts carried by Hillary Clinton — indicative of significant crossover appeal. And indeed, both won reelection by double digits in 2020 even as Biden carried their districts by 6-9 points. Fitzpatrick likely benefits from his family’s long history of centrist leadership (his late brother Mike preceded him in Congress) in his correspondingly centrist district, and Katko has also set himself apart from the more extreme elements of the national GOP by voting to impeach Trump for his role in the Capitol siege and to strip Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments. Two other pro-impeachment Republicans, Reps. Dan Newhouse and Adam Kinzinger (who has been especially vocal about standing up to Trump), also make the top 10, and a few others (Reps. Anthony Gonzalez, David Valadao, Fred Upton) just missed the cut.
But there are two districts on the list that aren’t like the others: the Minnesota 5th and Maryland 7th. That’s because they actually have Democratic incumbents. It’s quite a feat for a challenger with no political experience to be a stronger candidate than several long-time incumbents with established brands, but Lacy Johnson and Kim Klacik achieved it — probably thanks in part to the massive amounts of money they raised and spent. Aided by national Republican antipathy toward his opponent, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Johnson raised a whopping $12.2 million and spent $2.9 million on direct mail, $1.5 million on digital ads and almost $1 million on TV ads after Sept. 1 (by contrast, Omar did not air any TV ads during that time frame). And Klacik outraised her opponent, Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume, $8.3 million to $1.0 million — arguably more impressive than Johnson because Mfume does not have the same national profile as Omar. Instead, Klacik made herself a national sensation with a series of viral videos about urban blight in the Maryland 7th that she parlayed into a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
But a lot of Klacik’s and Johnson’s apparent strength may be more about their opponents’ weakness. Before his current stint in Congress, Mfume faced allegations of sexual harassment for dating an employee and retaliating against another staffer who had rebuffed his advances. And while Johnson’s vote share was 8 points higher than Trump’s (26 percent of the total vote vs. 18 percent), Omar’s vote share was a whopping 16 points lower than Biden’s (64 percent vs. 80 percent), suggesting the gap in the Minnesota 5th is more about Omar losing votes than Johnson gaining them.
Once again, this could be ideology at play: One of the most progressive members of Congress, Omar is nationally famous — and notorious — as a member of “the Squad.” (According to a Jan. 31-Feb. 2 YouGov/The Economist poll, 40 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of her, while only 27 percent have a favorable opinion of her.) On the other hand, other notable progressives, such as Reps. Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, did not significantly underperform Biden in their districts, and a lot (although not all) of the votes Omar lost probably went to Legal Marijuana Now candidate Michael Moore, who was plenty progressive himself. But there are other factors that could explain some of her underperformance too. Perhaps scandal: In 2019, Omar was accused of having an affair with her campaign consultant, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars her campaign has paid the consultant’s — who is now her husband — company became the subject of a campaign-finance complaint. Perhaps xenophobia: Omar was born in Somalia and is one of only three Muslim members of Congress, and many of Johnson’s attacks on her had racist undertones.
Ideology, in other words, isn’t the only determinant of candidate quality — other factors, such as fundraising ability, scandal and opponent quality, matter too. And there were some more radical candidates who proved to be very strong candidates as well: Rep. Garret Graves, who won by 16 more percentage points than Trump did in the Louisiana 6th District, was one of the 147 Republicans who objected to certifying the results of the 2020 election. Democratic Rep. Sylvia Garcia, whose margin in the Texas 29th District exceeded Biden’s by 11 points, has, by one measure, the most progressive voting record in the House. But overall, the strongest House candidates of 2020 were disproportionately moderate.