House Democrats set a record in 2019 for party unity, a testament to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ability to manage a caucus marked by a large progressive wing alongside 31 Democrats in districts won by President Donald Trump in 2016.
The average Democratic representative voted with the party on 95 percent of the votes that split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans, higher than at any time since CQ Roll Call began studying partisan voting in 1956.
This was a testament to Pelosi’s skills as a manager. Marc Sandalow, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who’s written a Pelosi biography, explains: “Pelosi is among the most liberal members and represents a liberal district, but her leadership style is pragmatic.”
Democrats’ extraordinary unity in 2019 is also the continuation of a trend in which representatives willing to cross party lines are fewer, and the parties more clearly sorted.
In an era when congressional races reflect the national partisan divide, fewer lawmakers in competitive districts are even attempting to distinguish themselves as moderates. That’s a testament to their personal beliefs and the view that campaigns are won by energizing base voters, not by winning independent ones. It’s also a calculation that partisan voting will spur campaign contributions from activist partisans across the country. To some representatives in competitive seats, it’s more important to have a big campaign war chest that enables an election-year advertising blitz than a voting record that reflects a community’s views.
This takes nothing away from Pelosi. House Democrats’ record unity score exceeded their previous mark of 93 percent, set in 2017 at a time when the caucus was 40 members smaller and more ideologically progressive, made up mainly of liberal stalwarts in safe districts.
Braving the bumps
Pelosi lost one of her Trump-district Democrats in January: New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew opposed the impeachment of Trump and switched parties. But on average the remaining 30 Democrats in Trump districts voted with their fellow partisans on 92.6 percent of unity votes last year, just 2.4 points off the party average.
Take a narrower slice, the 23 Democrats in Trump districts considered endangered in this year’s election by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. On average, they voted with the party 92 percent of the time on unity votes.
And the 25 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, self-described moderates, voted with the party on average 92 percent of the time as well. Florida’s Stephanie Murphy, the coalition co-chairwoman who represents an Orlando-area district, said it’s because Pelosi took moderates’ views into account. She worked “with the Blue Dog Coalition to ensure that as legislation moves through committee and to the floor we have been able to make adjustments to make sure members can vote their conscience and their districts,” Murphy said.
Still, the high level of unity among moderate factions in the Democratic Caucus masked differing approaches to casting ballots on the part of some individuals. It makes intuitive sense for a Democrat in a district that favored Trump in 2016 by 31 points — Collin C. Peterson in rural western Minnesota — to buck his party. Peterson, a Blue Dog, had his caucus’s lowest unity score at 79 percent.
But then there was Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright, in a Scranton-based district that went for Trump by 10 points. Cartwright nonetheless voted with his fellow Democrats 99 percent of the time.
Gonzales makes the case that Democrats like Cartwright are thinking about their fundraising, which theoretically grows when they stand with the party because wealthy Democrats from inside and outside their districts come to their defense. Voting with fellow Democrats also keeps the party base motivated to turn out, crucial to vulnerable representatives’ prospects.
Moderates also face pressure from Pelosi to stick with the party. In February 2019, after 26 in the caucus (not including Cartwright) voted with Republicans on an amendment requiring that immigration authorities be notified if an unauthorized immigrant tries to buy a gun, Pelosi called a meeting and told them to get on board.
There is a pattern to the way endangered Democrats are voting, with those in greater peril voting more often with Republicans than those in less danger. Looking at the 30 Trump-district Democrats based on the president’s margin of victory in 2016 indicates that those in the most Trump-friendly districts, which favored him by 10 points or more over Hillary Clinton, are among the most independent-minded Democrats in the House. The six in those districts — Peterson; Anthony Brindisi in upstate New York; Kendra Horn in Oklahoma City; Joe Cunningham in Charleston, South Carolina; Jared Golden in rural Maine; and Xochitl Torres Small in rural southern New Mexico — voted with the party, on average, 86 percent of the time.
Peterson had the lowest score in the group, while freshman Torres Small, whose district has had a Republican representative for all but three of the past 39 years, had the highest at 92 percent.
On the other side, those seven Democrats in districts Trump won narrowly were about as loyal to the party as the average Democrat, posting an average unity score of 95 percent.
However, there does not seem to be a connection between party loyalty and fundraising. Perhaps the sample size and other factors that lead to strong fundraising, primarily the effort put in by the representative, overwhelm the importance of voting decisions.
A review of all the incumbents whose reelections Inside Elections considers competitive finds no connection between party loyalty and fundraising. Those with unity scores of 95 percent or higher and those with scores below 85 percent had both raised more than $1 million on average as of January.
If the February 2019 chastising over gun control sent a message to party moderates, there were spats between Pelosi and her party’s left flank too. In June, for example, the four progressives who call themselves “the squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — voted “no” on a bill to help pay for housing and food for the flood of migrants at the southern border. They were protesting Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families and his decision to use defense funding to build border fencing in defiance of Congress.
The bill passed at Pelosi’s urging and she let loose to The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd: “They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
But it did not forebode any larger split between Pelosi and the progressives. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on average, stuck with the party on almost every partisan vote, 99 percent, and members of the squad were nearly as loyal, at 97.5 percent.
“We have, across the caucus, a lot more in common than we don’t,” said Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus.
All this translated into a remarkably successful year for Pelosi, if success is winning passage of the bills considered on the House floor. Of 476 votes that split the parties, Democrats got their way on 458 of them, the highest victory rate for either party since CQ Roll Call started tracking it in 1960.
Her success, though, was more in messaging than in getting bills signed into law. The Democrats passed bills to raise the minimum wage, to overhaul campaign finance rules and to expand gun control regulations, but all foundered in the Senate. Pelosi’s intent was not to pass laws, but to send a message to voters.