With Democrats clinging to just an eight-seat majority in the House of Representatives, even a small number of defectors can hold up the party’s legislative agenda. That reality was on vivid display last week, when nine moderate Democrats threatened to vote no on moving forward with Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget resolution unless the House first voted to pass the Senate’s bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi eventually struck a deal with the bloc, and the budget resolution passed on a party-line vote, but this will probably not be the last we hear of the “Moderate Nine.” So let’s get to know these fairly anonymous members of Congress a little bit better by exploring three key questions. First, do they have a long track record of moderation, or did their objection to the budget come as a surprise? Second, are they tacking toward the center for electoral reasons, or are they acting out of principle? And finally, might any of them be vulnerable to progressive primary challenges in 2022?
First of all, these were the members of Congress you would by and large expect to balk at ambitious progressive legislation. Eight of the nine are members of the Blue Dog Coalition, a caucus of centrist Democrats. And they mostly have moderate voting records, too. According to the first dimension of DW-Nominate, which uses voting records to quantify the ideology of every member of Congress on a scale from 1 (most conservative) to -1 (most liberal), seven of the nine have ideology scores of -0.254 or closer to zero. That places them among the top 32 most conservative Democrats in the House. In fact, one of them — Rep. Jared Golden — is the single most conservative Democrat in the House according to DW-Nominate, with a score of -0.112. And Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Moderate Nine’s unofficial ringleader, is the third-most conservative, with a score of -0.147.
|Representative||District||Conservative Rank*||Biden Score||Blue Dog†||District Partisan Lean||2020 Primary Voteshare|
Perhaps surprisingly, though, most of the Moderate Nine vote in line with President Biden’s position all or almost all of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Biden Score. Five of them have voted with Biden 100 percent of the time, and three more have voted with him 97 percent of the time. Of course, this doesn’t reflect the headaches these members may cause behind the scenes for Biden and Pelosi — but it does reflect how they almost always vote with their party in the end, as they did on the budget resolution. (The fact that only eight House Democrats have Biden Scores below 97 percent also reflects how remarkably cohesive the Democratic caucus has been so far this Congress.)
Golden is once again the outlier here, voting with Biden only 81 percent of the time — the lowest score not only among the Moderate Nine, but also among all House Democrats. This may partially be because Golden has strong electoral incentives to be a centrist: His Maine 2nd District has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 of R+11, making it the most Republican-leaning district in the nation currently represented by a Democrat.
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But, of course, Golden is not the only Democrat representing inhospitable terrain. Several other members of the Moderate Nine also occupy competitive seats, including Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (R+4), Gottheimer (EVEN), Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D+2) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D+4). So it’s likely that their objection to the budget was at least partially an attempt to burnish their moderate credentials for swing voters as well.2 This may be especially true of Gonzalez, who stands apart from the rest of the Moderate Nine with his -0.382 DW-Nominate score — smack dab in the middle of the Democratic caucus. Prior to 2020, Gonzalez’s Texas 15th District had been safely Democratic turf, but Biden surprisingly carried it by just 2 percentage points, and Gonzalez himself eked out only a 3-point win. As a result, Gonzalez may have felt the need to adopt more moderate stances. Indeed, a Congress-by-Congress version of DW-Nominate finds that Gonzalez’s voting record has not been nearly as liberal here in 2021 as it was in 2019-20.
Electoral considerations don’t appear to be motivating the moderation of Reps. Ed Case, Jim Costa and Filemon Vela, however. Case and Costa both represent solidly Democratic districts, with partisan leans of D+32 and D+17, respectively; in other words, these two representatives could be much more progressive and still be in no danger of losing a general election. And while Vela’s Texas 34th District is, like Gonzalez’s, newly competitive (D+5), Vela announced back in March that he would not run for reelection. So it seems likely that these three representatives genuinely believe in more of a centrist approach to governing. You might put Rep. Henry Cuellar in the same category, too: Although he’s running for reelection in a swing seat (D+4), his district (like Vela’s and Gonzalez’s) also zoomed to the right in the 2020 election. And Cuellar was known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House even when his district was safely blue.
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But regardless of their motivations, the Moderate Nine have drawn plenty of flak from their fellow Democrats; a coalition of progressive groups has even spent six figures on an ad campaign attacking them over their holdup of the budget. And while it’s still rare for an incumbent to lose renomination, some data suggests that some members of the Moderate Nine may be vulnerable to primary challenges if progressives decide to press their case. As occupants of safe blue seats, Case and Costa would seem like natural targets. In addition, Sen. Bernie Sanders won 41 percent of the vote in Costa’s district in the 2020 presidential primary, and Costa himself won just 58 percent of the votes cast for Democratic candidates in the March 2020 top-two primary for his seat, suggesting his district has a not-insignificant appetite for more progressive politicians. For his part, Case was unopposed in his 2020 primary, but he won only a 40 percent plurality in the crowded 2018 primary, when his Hawaii 1st District was an open seat. And Case has raised less than $100,000 for his 2022 reelection campaign so far.
Cuellar is another prime candidate to lose his primary next year; in 2020, progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros held Cuellar to just a 52 percent to 48 percent primary win, and Cisneros has already announced she will run again in 2022. Bourdeaux might also be in for a tough fight: It’s a distinct possibility that the Republicans in charge of redistricting in her home state of Georgia will draw her and neighboring Rep. Lucy McBath together into a single safe blue district (in effort to reclaim a seat for themselves). Although Bourdeaux has already raised a hefty $1.2 million for 2022, McBath has raised even more. Bourdeaux is also a first-term representative who won her 2020 primary with only 53 percent of the vote, so she may not have had time yet to build up loyalty among local powerbrokers and voters.
There are fewer signs, though, that the other four non-retiring moderates might be vulnerable in a primary. For instance, Gottheimer defeated progressive Arati Kreibich 66 percent to 34 percent in his 2020 primary, and he won’t be easy to take down next year either: One of the most prodigious fundraisers in Congress, Gottheimer took in $1.9 million in the first six months of 2021 and currently has more than $10 million in his campaign war chest.
But the $3.5 trillion budget is hardly the last fight we can expect over the Democratic agenda in Congress this year, and with their success at getting Democratic leadership to negotiate with them, we can probably expect the Moderate Nine — and other representatives who fit these criteria — to continue to try to block (or at least influence) future legislation. Some may be acting with the intention of building credibility with swing voters, but their actions are not without risk as well: The more centrist notoriety they gain, the more likely they will be targeted in a Democratic primary. And of course, if Biden and the Democratic Congress are perceived as ineffective at governing, general-election voters might not distinguish between individual Democrats when they punish the party in November 2022.