The New Democrat Coalition on Thursday elected Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes as its chairman for the 115th Congress.
Himes, 50, beat Colorado Rep. Jared Polis, 41, for the top spot in the moderate caucus. Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, 66, dropped out of the race before the vote, saying he thought it would help diffuse some of the tension arising from a three-way race.
Himes, Polis and Connolly were all vice chairmen of the coalition for the 114th Congress. Himes is succeeding Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, who will now serve as chairman emeritus. The caucus had updated its bylaws last month to include term limits to encourage new leadership within the caucus.
“The New Dems are the ones who are likely to be the linchpin in anything that gets done around here,” Himes told Roll Call. “Republicans are going to lose their 30, 40, 50 people and they’re going to need some help. That gives us an opportunity to stand up and really say, ‘If you do some things that are important to Democrats, we’ll sit at the table.’”
The New Democrat Coalition has grown into one of the largest Democratic caucuses. With 10 incoming members joining their group, the group will have 50 members — slightly more than one-fourth of the Democratic Caucus — next year.
“The majority lies in electing two or three dozen people who look like New Dems, and I really look forward to sort of making that case to the caucus,” Himes said.
For Democrats to take back the majority, they need to win seats in states like Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, Himes said. “By definition those are seats that get won with a more kind of pragmatic, moderate Democratic message.”
Despite the widespread feeling that Democrats need to do a better job at reaching moderate and independent voters, Himes said, “I completely reject the idea that there is some natural fight between the progressives and the more moderate caucus. We agree on 90 percent of things, and the question is, how do we work best together?”
After losing the chairman’s race, Polis was re-elected as a vice chairman. He congratulated Himes afterward and said the caucus will unite around him.
Infrastructure tops the list of issues that New Democrats may find opportunities to collaborate with congressional Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump, Himes said.
“Trump has proposed an infrastructure plan that is pretty top heavy in terms of who benefits, but boy, that’s a great place to start,” he said. “Certainly for me. That’s the No. 1 local issue for me.”
Education could also be another area for compromise, despite Democrats’ discomfort with Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos to serve as secretary of that department, Himes said. “Innovation happens when you have education, so it’s really close to our hearts in the New Dems.”
New Democrats are also willing to work across the aisle to rewrite the tax code but on a health care overall, the plan is to “sit back and watch,” Himes said.
“The American people is rapidly catching on that what they’ve promised to do is to take health care away from 20 million and to take us back to a world where if you have diabetes or you have breast cancer, you don’t get insured,” he said. “So we’re going to kind of sit back and see if they fulfill that promise, because that’s the promise they’ve made.”
Although it’s a strong possibility that Republicans will need moderate Democrats to help them pass much of Trump’s agenda, Himes noted that cooperation may still be hard with Trump as president.
“I’m not naive,” he said. “Sadly, I think that all Democrats will be speaking in unison against most of what Donald Trump proposes.”