Standoff by moderates highlights Democratic rift, but will it affect 2022?

A look at the 10 centrists whose budget threats fired up progressives

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer was among the Democratic moderates who battled with Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the timing of a vote on the bipartisan  infrastructure bill.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer was among the Democratic moderates who battled with Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the timing of a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 24, 2021 at 4:41pm

The group of moderate House Democrats demanding an immediate vote on the Senate-approved bipartisan infrastructure package backed down Tuesday without derailing the party’s effort to set the table for a $3.5 trillion package of President Joe Biden’s priorities next month.

The group, however, stirred activists within the party, who could fuel primary challenges in next year’s midterm elections.

Democratic leaders had hoped a quick late-August session would approve a budget resolution that would allow for filibuster-proof Senate consideration of a still-undrafted package that would make major changes to health care, social and climate policy.

But nine House moderates threatened last week to oppose the budget measure unless the House voted first on the bipartisan infrastructure package, and they were joined Monday by a tenth, Florida’s Stephanie Murphy. In the end, the moderates settled for language in a procedural rule that said the infrastructure vote would happen by late September. The rule, which had no Democratic opposition, also “deemed” the budget resolution passed. 

The showdown highlighted a split among Democrats, who currently hold only a three-vote majority in the House. While the centrist group No Labels ran ads in some districts backing the holdouts and sent out an email blast urging followers to take to Twitter and thank the “Unbreakable Nine,” a coalition of progressive groups, including the Working Families Party and the Justice Democrats-aligned Organize for Justice, announced a “six-figure” campaign to fund ads attacking them.

“Americans have a right to know whether their representatives are putting corporate profits ahead of childcare and preschool, climate defense, and creating good-paying jobs,” Natalia Salgado, director of federal affairs at the Working Families Party, said in a statement.

Justice Democrats also used the conflict to raise money, saying in one blast: “You know what makes corporate Democrats afraid? Justice Democrats. The stronger we get, the more likely we are to replace them in Congress.”

Whether the ill will they earned from the left does any harm to the moderate Democrats in 2022 remains to be seen, especially since no one knows exactly what kinds of districts they will be running in, with redistricting only just getting underway. 

Some have been targeted in primaries before and survived, while others are in districts where an attack from the party’s liberal wing might boost their credibility with swing voters. Here’s a breakdown of who the ten members are, how their districts voted in recent elections and how much they have in their campaign coffers so far.

Carolyn Bourdeaux, Georgia’s 7th District

Bordeaux lost a 2018 bid for the suburban Atlanta seat to Republican incumbent Rob Woodall by just 433 votes. Woodall announced his retirement the next cycle, and Bourdeaux ran again, finishing first in a six-way Democratic primary and avoiding a runoff with 53 percent of the vote. She defeated Republican Rich McCormick by 3 points in November to flip the district, which went from backing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 6 points to supporting Biden over Trump by 6 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Bourdeaux is in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents and is a National Republican Congressional Committee target. She had $1.1 million in the bank on June 30.

Ed Case, Hawaii’s 1st District

Case, a longtime moderate, was unopposed in last year’s primary for the Honolulu-anchored seat. He went on to defeat Republican Ron Curtis by 44 points, as Biden was carrying the deep-blue district by 29 points. Clinton won the district by 33 points in 2016. Case, who previously represented Hawaii’s 2nd District, had $188,000 in his campaign account on June 30.

Jim Costa, California’s 16th District

In California, candidates of all parties run on the same primary ballot and the two top vote-getters go on to the general election. In 2020, Costa finished first in the all-party primary, beating back a spirited challenge from the left from Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, who placed third. He then comfortably won a ninth term in November, defeating Republican Kevin Cookingham by 19 points while Biden was carrying the Central Valley district by 20 points. Four years earlier, the district’s voters backed Hillary Clinton by 22 points. Costa, who has had close races in previous midterm elections, is on the NRCC’s 2022 target list. He had $618,000 in his campaign account on June 30.

Henry Cuellar, Texas’ 28th District

As one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, Cuellar was a top target of progressive groups last cycle but bested challenger Jessica Cisneros by 3 points. (Cisneros is seeking a rematch in 2022, and again has the backing of Justice Democrats.) Cuellar easily won a ninth term to his South Texas seat in November, defeating Republican Sandra Whitten by 19 points. But Biden’s 4-point winning margin in the district was down from Clinton’s 20-point edge in 2016 as the GOP made gains across much of South Texas. Cuellar, an NRCC target, ended June with $1.7 million in the bank.

Jared Golden, Maine’s 2nd District

Golden narrowly ousted GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin in 2018, aided by Maine’s new ranked-choice voting process. He was unopposed in the Democratic primary the following cycle, and won a second term over Republican Dale Crafts, a former state legislator, by 6 points, even as Trump was carrying the district by nearly 8 points. The presidential result was still an improvement for Democrats over 2016, when district voters backed Trump over Clinton by more than 10 points. Golden is in the DCCC’s Frontline program and on the NRCC’s target list this cycle. Poliquin has announced he will run again for the seat. Golden had $784,000 in his campaign account on June 30.

Vicente Gonzalez, Texas’ 15th District

Gonzalez, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary last year, won a third term to his South Texas seat by a surprisingly narrow 3-point margin over Republican Monica De La Cruz-Hernandez, after winning his previous two races by 20 and 21 points. Biden carried the district by 2 points, a dramatic drop from Clinton’s 17-point edge four years earlier. Gonzalez is in the DCCC’s Frontline program this cycle and also an NRCC target. He had $1.5 million in his campaign account on June 30.

Josh Gottheimer, New Jersey’s 5th District

Gottheimer flipped what had been considered a safe GOP North Jersey seat in 2016. He was unopposed in the 2018 Democratic primary, but, two years later, he faced a challenger supported by liberal groups such as the Working Families Party. He won the primary by 33 points and then beat Republican Frank Pallotta by nearly 8 points, besting Biden’s 5-point winning margin in the district, which Trump had carried by 1 point in 2016. Gottheimer, an NRCC target, ended June with $10 million in the bank, the fifth-highest total of all House incumbents.

Stephanie Murphy, Florida’s 7th District

Murphy flipped the redrawn Orlando-area district in 2016, unseating GOP Rep. John L. Mica by 3 points while Clinton was carrying the seat by 7 points. In 2018, she defeated a progressive Democratic challenger by 72 points and ran unopposed in the 2020 primary. She won a third term by 12 points in November, with Biden also winning the district, by 10 points. She is on the NRCC target list and had just under $2 million in her campaign account on June 30.

Kurt Schrader, Oregon’s 5th District

Seeking a seventh term to his Willamette Valley seat last year, Schrader easily turned back a primary challenge from the left and then went on to defeat Republican Any Ryan Courser by 7 points. Biden won the district by nearly 10 points, improving on Clinton’s 4-point win here four years earlier. Schrader, an NRCC target, had $2.8 million banked as of June 30.

Filemon Vela, Texas’ 34th District

Vela decided in March against a sixth term next year. Last cycle, he won the Democratic primary with 75 percent of the vote and went on to defeat Republican Rey Gonzalez in November by nearly 14 points, the closest of his elections to Congress. Biden carried the South Texas seat by 4 points, another dramatic decline, from Clinton’s 22-point margin in 2016. The NRCC is targeting Vela’s seat, the boundaries of which could change in redistricting.