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Early last year, as Democrats were preparing to control the White House and Congress for the first time in a decade, Josh Gottheimer met with Nancy Pelosi to discuss their party’s message. Sitting in the House speaker’s office in the U.S. Capitol, he opened up the YouTube app on his iPhone. There was something he wanted to show her.
Gottheimer, who represents a wealthy suburban and exurban House district in northern New Jersey, was first elected to Congress in 2016; his victory over a seven-term Republican incumbent, in a district in which Donald Trump narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton, was one of the Democrats’ few bright spots that year. Since his arrival in Washington, however, Gottheimer has been the cause of more headaches than celebrations for Pelosi and her leadership team.
As co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans that quixotically aspires to the goal of bipartisan compromise — he has frequently found himself at odds with his fellow Democrats on everything from foreign policy to President Biden’s domestic agenda to Pelosi’s leadership. In 2018, Gottheimer and eight other Problem Solver Democrats threatened to reject Pelosi’s bid for speaker if she didn’t concede to their demands for rules changes that would make it easier for bipartisan ideas to be considered, angering colleagues who viewed it as yet another instance of Gottheimer and his group’s engaging in pointless grandstanding rather than constructive behind-the-scenes work. “Tell me a problem they’ve solved,” Representative Susan Wild, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, says.
Pelosi, however, had agreed to their demands and secured their support. Now she was willing to hear Gottheimer out about how the new Democratic majority should position itself. He pressed play and his iPhone screen filled with waving American flags as an old but familiar voice emerged, proclaiming, “I am honored to have been given the opportunity to stand up for the values and the interests of ordinary Americans.” The video was a television advertisement from Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Over images of construction workers and children and police officers, a series of bold captions touted Clinton’s first-term accomplishments: “WELFARE REFORM, WOREK REQUIREMENTS”; “TAXES CUT FOR 15,000,000 FAMILIES”; “DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG KINGPINS.” His promises for a second term followed: “BAN ‘COP-KILLER’ BULLETS”; “CAPITAL GAINS TAX CUT FOR HOME OWNERS”; “BALANCE THE BUDGET FOR A GROWING ECONOMY” “We are safer, we are more secure, we are more prosperous,” Clinton said. When the ad was over, Gottheimer says, he looked at Pelosi. “This is how we won,” he told her, “and this is how we win again.”
In April, almost a year and a half later, Gottheimer screened the ad again, this time for me. He provided his own color commentary as it played. “Fiscal responsibility … jobs … tax cuts … he put cops in the ad!” Gottheimer, who served as a White House speechwriter during Clinton’s second term, exclaimed. When it was over, he sighed. “Think about how different that message is,” he said. I asked him what Pelosi’s reaction was when he played it for her. Gottheimer demurred. But the answer seemed obvious. The message that Pelosi and the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic leadership had chosen for their party, the message that Democrats would be carrying into the 2022 midterm elections, was not the one that Gottheimer, and the disembodied voice of Bill Clinton, had counseled.
Gottheimer and I were eating breakfast at a diner on Route 17 in Paramus, N.J. In a month, he told me, the busy state highway outside would be lined with campaign signs that read “Josh Gottheimer for Congress: Lower Taxes, Jersey Values.” “I’m the only Democrat in the country who puts ‘lower taxes’ on his signs,” he said. “ ‘Jersey values’ are about cops, firefighters, vets — I’ll get your back.” Although the old Clinton ad wasn’t his party’s current message, it was certainly his. “These are the issues that I continue to stress back home in my district,” he said. It would not be hyperbole to say that Gottheimer runs his political life there according to Clinton’s tenets.
The most immediate question for Gottheimer and other moderate Democrats is whether that will be enough come November. Midterm elections have been historically brutal for the party that controls the White House. In 2006, Republicans took a “thumping,” as George W. Bush described it at the time, losing 30 seats in the House, six seats in the Senate and control of both chambers. Four years later, it was the Democrats’ turn to suffer a “shellacking,” as Barack Obama put it, with Republicans gaining 63 seats and a new majority in the House. In 2018, Democrats capitalized on resistance to Donald Trump and gained 41 seats on their way to taking back the House.
This year, with Democrats clinging to a 10-seat majority in the House (almost guaranteed to drop to nine with a special election in Nebraska on June 28), most political handicappers expect Republicans to reclaim control of the chamber easily; the only real uncertainty is just how big the Red Wave will be, with predictions about the number of seats Republicans will gain ranging from less than 20 to more than 60. (Despite the public hearings of the House committee investigating Jan. 6, most Democrats running for election are not attempting to make the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election a referendum on Republicans.)
The bigger, more consequential question — not just for the moderates but for all Democrats — is whether this projected midterm wipeout is merely a cyclical occurrence or the manifestation of a much deeper and more intractable problem. Over the last decade, the Democratic Party has moved significantly to the left on almost every salient political issue. Some of these shifts in a more ambitiously progressive direction, especially as they pertain to economic issues, have largely tracked with public opinion: While socialism might not poll well with voters, Democratic proposals to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and lower the age of Medicare eligibility do.
But on social, cultural and religious issues, particularly those related to criminal justice, race, abortion and gender identity, the Democrats have taken up ideological stances that many of the college-educated voters who now make up a sizable portion of the party’s base cheer but the rest of the electorate does not. “The Democratic Party moved left,” says Will Marshall, the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic think tank, “but the country as a whole hasn’t.”
Republicans have sought to exploit this gap by waging an aggressive culture war against Democrats. Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist and frequent Fox News guest who has turned critical race theory into a right-wing cudgel, wrote on Twitter last year that he intended to “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” More recently, he has attacked Democrats for, he charged, attempting to indoctrinate school children with “trans ideology.” Rick Scott, the Florida senator who heads the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, told reporters in June, “The election is going to be about inflation, critical race theory, funding the police — that’s what it’s going to be about.” The result, fair or not, is that the Democratic Party is now perceived by a growing segment of American voters as espousing the furthest left position possible on many of the country’s most fraught and most divisive issues.
“There’s a sense among voters that Democrats are too focused on social issues,” says Brian Stryker, a Democratic pollster, “and those are more left-wing social issues that people think they’re too focused on.” In May, CNN asked 1,007 American voters for their opinions on the country’s two major political parties. After four years of Trump in the White House, an insurrection and unsuccessful attempt to overturn a presidential election and now a Republican Party that can be fairly described as a cult of personality and is moving further right on many of the same social issues, 46 percent of those surveyed considered the G.O.P. to be “too extreme.” But 48 percent of them viewed the Democratic Party the same way.
All of which has occasioned not just the normal midterm agita but something closer to an existential crisis among moderate Democrats. While some of them remain reluctant to publicly concede the reality that the Democratic Party has indeed shifted left — either out of fear of angering their fellow Democrats or validating Republican attacks — they will readily acknowledge that voters perceive the party as having drifted out of the mainstream. And they are convinced that this is threatening their political survival. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Democratic Party has a problem as a toxic brand,” says Max Rose, a moderate New York Democrat who lost re-election to his House seat in Staten Island in 2020 — his Republican opponent characterized Rose’s attendance at a George Floyd protest march as anti-police — and is running to reclaim the seat this year. “There’s a perception that the party is not on the side of working people, that it’s not on the side of the middle class.”
That perception has penetrated even the immediate families of Democratic politicians. “My own mother-in-law, a Republican, believes I’m some sort of unicorn because I can put sentences together and I’m not rabid and left-leaning,” says Chrissy Houlahan, a moderate Democratic congresswoman who represents a swing district in the swing state of Pennsylvania. “I believe the national Democratic Party is where I am. I don’t believe that the way people perceive the national Democratic Party is where I am.”
But the Democrats’ leftward trend, whether real or perceived, is resoundingly popular with, and often reinforced by, the party’s staff members and activists and especially its donors, who fund a slew of nonprofits and super PACs that relentlessly push the progressive line. In America’s very blue and very online precincts, performative positioning is often accepted as a substitute for the compromises that can be necessary to secure legislation — whether it’s Schumer and Pelosi donning kente cloth and kneeling in the Capitol to demonstrate solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters in lieu of actual police reform or Biden traveling to Atlanta to attack Republicans as supporters of “Jim Crow 2.0” in a speech on behalf of voting rights legislation that had no chance of passage.
The problem, says Lis Smith, a Democratic communications strategist who most recently worked for Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, is that “in today’s world, what happens on Twitter or in a D-plus-40 district doesn’t stay there. It travels to every race across the country.” And it inherently limits the appeal of Democrats in those races. “If we become a party of the elite-elites, there death awaits,” says Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (D.C.C.C.), the House Democrats’ campaign arm, pointing to the influence of college activists. “We’ll all agree with each other right into extinction.”
The Democrats most at risk of extinction this November are Gottheimer and his fellow House moderates, who typically represent the sorts of swing districts where being painted as an identitarian socialist is the political kiss of death. “We are, almost by definition, the low-hanging fruit in every election,” says Representative Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat and member of the Problem Solvers. Although Biden won Gottheimer’s district by more than five points in 2020, and the district got even bluer under New Jersey’s newly drawn congressional maps so that Democrats now have a seven-point edge there, the D.C.C.C. has put him on its “Frontline” list of vulnerable incumbents. Of the 37 Frontliners, the overwhelming majority belong to the Problem Solvers or one of the other two groups for moderate House Democrats: the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dog Coalition. And then there are the two dozen or so moderate House Democrats who have decided not to run at all in 2022, quitting before they could be fired.
It’s enough to drive Gottheimer, 47, to frustration — and to send him searching nearly three decades back in time for answers. In Congress, he has gone out of his way to differentiate himself from his more liberal Democratic colleagues, whom he has privately derided as “the herbal tea party.” The enmity has been mutual. After The Intercept reported the “herbal tea party” insult in 2019, the progressive New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retweeted a link to the article and wrote, “What’s funny is that there *are* Dems that do act like the Tea Party — but they’re conservative.” It was not the first or last time Gottheimer found himself at the bottom of an online pile-on. Two years ago, his clashes with liberals earned him a left-wing primary challenger who branded him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” Gottheimer won by 33 points. “The social media Democrats are not the Democrats back home,” he told me during another conversation in his congressional office. “Those aren’t my constituents.”
But now, he complained, “the far right is trying to do everything they can to equate many of us to the socialist left,” and he’s worried his constituents will start to believe it. The challenge for Gottheimer and his fellow moderates, however, is not just to define what they are not, but what they actually are. While there is a growing group of Democrats who believe that their party needs to become more moderate, it’s not clear that any of them agree on — or, in some cases, even know — what it means to be a moderate Democrat anymore.
In January 1989, Al From invited Bill Galston to breakfast at La Colline, a French restaurant on Capitol Hill. From was a former congressional staff member who, four years earlier, co-founded the Democratic Leadership Council (D.L.C.), a group of mostly Southern and Western Democrats who were trying to remake the party in their moderate image. They called themselves the New Democrats.
Galston was a University of Maryland public-policy professor who moonlighted as an adviser to Democratic presidential campaigns — in 1988, working for Al Gore’s ill-fated campaign. The previous November, Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush by 8 percentage points and 315 electoral votes, the Democrats’ third straight landslide presidential defeat. At La Colline, From asked Galston what was wrong with their party. Democrats, Galston answered, were in denial — focusing on the chimeras of higher turnout and better fund-raising when, in fact, it was their “unacceptably liberal” positions that was the problem. By not grappling with that fact, Galston told From, Democrats were engaging in “the politics of evasion.”
From commissioned Galston and the political scientist Elaine Kamarck to write up the argument for the D.L.C.’s new think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, which published “The Politics of Evasion” that September. Galston and Kamarck did not mince words. “Too many Americans have come to see the party as inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security,” they wrote. The Democratic Party was “increasingly dominated by minority groups and white elites — a coalition viewed by the middle class as unsympathetic to its interests and its values.” Unless Democrats convinced those middle-class voters (who at that time were predominantly white) that they were tough on crime, trustworthy on foreign policy and disciplined about government spending, they would continue to wander the political wilderness.
In the past, the New Democrats shied away from outright conflict with the party’s liberal wing — refusing to return fire, for instance, when Jesse Jackson dubbed the D.L.C. “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” But “The Politics of Evasion” counseled that internecine fighting was good: “Only conflict and controversy over basic economic, social and defense issues are likely to attract the attention needed to convince the public that the party still has something to offer the great middle of the American electorate.” Bill Clinton, who as Arkansas governor became the D.L.C. chairman in 1990, took that message to heart in his 1992 presidential campaign.
That summer, shortly after he cinched the Democratic nomination, Clinton gave a speech to Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition group — in which he attacked the group for also hosting a relatively obscure rapper named Sister Souljah, who in the wake of that year’s Los Angeles riots said in an interview, “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton told the Rainbow Coalition that “if you took the words ‘white’ and ‘Black’ and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” Jackson was furious and called on Clinton to apologize — exactly the response Clinton was hoping for. The Black syndicated columnist Clarence Page later wrote that by picking the fight, Clinton “impressed swing voters, particularly white suburbanites, with a confident independence from Jackson that other Democratic presidential candidates had not shown.” A loudly performed repudiation of a putative far-left extremist would come to be known as a “Sister Souljah moment.”
Clinton ran for president as a factional candidate, against the Republicans but also against his party’s liberal wing, so that when he won, he remade the Democratic Party in his own — and the D.L.C.’s — image. In 1995, midway through Clinton’s first term, 23 moderate House Democrats formed the Blue Dog Caucus to, in their words, “represent the middle of the partisan spectrum.” By 2010, halfway through Barack Obama’s first term, the Blue Dogs had grown to 54 members. “To my surprise, ‘The Politics of Evasion’ had some impact,” Galston recently told me. “With the election of Bill Clinton, this little insurgency within the Democratic Party succeeded.” He paused. “Temporarily.”
This February, more than three decades after their original salvo, Galston and Kamarck, now both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, published “The New Politics of Evasion.” Once again, they argued Democrats have swerved too far to the left: “A substantial portion of the Democratic Party has convinced itself that Americans are ready for a political revolution that transforms every aspect of their lives. This assumption has crashed into a stubborn reality: Most Americans want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change.” Once again, they argued that Democrats have ignored the political salience of cultural issues to their detriment: “For Americans across the political spectrum, social, cultural and religious issues are real and — in many cases — more important to them than economic considerations. These issues reflect their deepest convictions and shape their identity.”
But unlike three decades ago, Galston and Kamarck were actually a little late to the fight. In the past few years, a growing and increasingly vocal cohort of strategists, policy wonks and intellectuals has been arguing that Democrats have overreached on social and cultural issues and that, as a result, the party has become unable to appeal to voters without college degrees — and, increasingly, not just white voters in that group but Hispanic, Asian American and Black voters too. From 2012 to 2020, the support of nonwhite voters without college degrees for the Democratic presidential candidate decreased by 10 percentage points. Much as in the early 1990s, the most vibrant and urgent discussion in Democratic circles currently revolves around why and how the party needs to steer itself back to the center.
“For Democrats to win, we have to cater a lot more to moderates,” Sean McElwee told me recently at an Australian coffee shop in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood. Just 29 years old, with a baby face that makes him appear even younger, McElwee runs Data for Progress, a left-leaning polling firm and think tank that in only four years has come to occupy a central place in the Democratic Party firmament. Its ascent is especially remarkable considering where the firm — and McElwee — started.
He burst onto the political scene early in Donald Trump’s presidency as a Resistance Twitter personality who popularized the slogan “Abolish ICE” and hosted a weekly East Village happy hour for New York’s left-wing activists and writers. He started Data for Progress in 2018 with the express intent of driving the Democratic Party to the left. As a self-proclaimed socialist, McElwee’s early activism revolved around helping far-left candidates win Democratic primaries in safe blue districts. He was an adviser to the left-wing political group Justice Democrats, which fueled the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a.k.a. the Squad. He liked to call himself an “Overton window mover.” (The term refers to a reframing of what is politically possible.)
But during the 2020 presidential primaries, just when practically every Democratic candidate except Joe Biden was jumping through that window by promising to abolish ICE and provide Medicare for all and eliminate student debt, McElwee himself started favoring what he calls “a more pragmatic approach.” The reason? While he personally still supported many of these left-wing policy proposals, Data for Progress’s polling showed that they weren’t actually popular with voters — or at least not with the working-class, non-college-educated voters Democrats need to win outside those safe blue districts.
McElwee concluded that if Democrats ever want to accomplish their progressive goals, they need to get elected first — and the way to do that is to do a lot of polling to determine the popularity of various policy proposals. Then, when talking to voters, Democratic candidates should emphasize the popular ideas and de-emphasize the unpopular ones, even if that means emphasizing smaller, more incremental, more moderate policies. “I’m now just interested in a fundamentally different set of tactics and tools than I was six or seven years ago,” McElwee told me.
The electoral theory to which McElwee now subscribes has come to be known as “popularism.” Its most prominent proponent is David Shor, one of McElwee’s best friends. A 30-year-old data analyst, Shor crunched numbers for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and later went to work for the progressive data firm Civis Analytics. In 2020, during the widespread protests after the murder of George Floyd, he tweeted, “Post-MLK-assassination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon,” citing a study by the Black political scientist Omar Wasow, and noted that nonviolence was more politically effective. Online activists were furious, with some branding his tweet racist, and after a pressure campaign from outside and inside the firm, Civis fired him — making Shor a political martyr for those who believed the Democratic Party and progressive institutions had become too beholden to far-left activists and liberal political staff members.
Now free to speak his mind, Shor co-founded the data-analytics firm Blue Rose Research and began tweeting more and giving lengthy interviews that expanded on his theory. “I think the core problem with the Democratic Party is that the people who run and staff the Democratic Party are much more educated and ideologically liberal and they live in cities, and ultimately our candidate pool reflects that,” he told The Times’s Ezra Klein last October. “If you look inside the Democratic Party, there are three times more moderate or conservative nonwhite people than very liberal white people, but very liberal white people are infinitely more represented. That’s morally bad, but it also means eventually they’ll leave.”
Joining Shor and McElwee in the effort to propagate popularism are a host of other liberal-but-tacking-to-the-center writers and thinkers. Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist and co-author of the influential 2002 book “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” writes for a Substack newsletter called “The Liberal Patriot,” publishing missives on “The Democrats’ Common Sense Problem,” “The Democrats’ Working Class Voter Problem” and “The Bankruptcy of the Democratic Party Left.” Matthew Yglesias, a prodigious pundit who co-founded Vox in 2014 before leaving in 2020 because he felt hemmed in by the “young-college-graduate bubble” at the website, now writes his own Substack newsletter, “Slow Boring.” “Part of what we’re doing here is rediscovering old ideas,” Yglesias told me. “I sometimes use the phrase ‘the wisdom of the ancients.’ None of these popularism ideas are particularly original or say anything that people haven’t said for a long time. They just became unfashionable briefly.”
Writing in The Nation last October, Elie Mystal accused Shor and his comrades of counseling Democrats to “figure out what the racists want and give it to them.” The popularists, Mystal continued, “would have us believe that by not addressing Black concerns, by refusing to deliver on promises to fix the election system, the immigration system and the police system, Democrats are actually helping themselves attract white voters and counterintuitively, shoring up support from non-college-educated Black people.”
Other popularism critics question the wisdom of relying on polls to develop a “popular” agenda at a time when political polling has never been more unreliable. They also point out that popularism’s most prominent preachers are New York- and Washington-based college-educated white guys themselves, whose evidence for what working-class voters want is, the Johns Hopkins University political scientist Daniel Schlozman says, “either survey data or the limited interactions that fancy people have with not-fancy people.” Instead of trying to win over voters who most likely aren’t winnable, the liberal critique of popularism holds, Democrats should instead redouble their efforts to bring Black and Hispanic voters, as well as college-educated white voters, to the polls. “Overpowering Republicans with enthusiasm and turnout is the only way to beat them,” Mystal wrote, “because trying to appease them is both morally intolerable and strategically foolish.”
Popularists argue that Democrats have already tried and failed to win elections with the enthusiasm-and-turnout model. “The other side gets to vote too,” Teixeira wrote in January, “and the very stark choices favored by those on the left may mobilize the other side just as much — maybe more! — than the left’s side.” (A recent review of 400 million voting records by the political scientist Michael Barber and the public-policy scholar John B. Holbein found that “minority citizens, young people and those who support the Democratic Party are much less likely to vote than whites, older citizens and Republican Party supporters.”) Over a recent lunch at a Chinese-Korean restaurant near Dupont Circle in Washington, Teixeira held out hope that after November, the wisdom of the popularists’ case will be even more apparent. “We’re probably going to have a very rough midterms, and the appetite for change among Democrats will grow,” he said. “Defeat tends to concentrate a party’s mind.”
No matter how likely the prospect of humiliating defeat, it’s a job requirement of the D.C.C.C. chairman to exude pugnacious confidence. As even his harshest critics would concede, Sean Patrick Maloney, the first openly gay person to hold the post, has a knack for that part of the job. “Sean makes me think of the old adage about Irishmen,” says Representative Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, the only Democrat to win in a Trump district in 2016, 2018 and 2020 and one of three Frontliners from the Keystone State. “They see two people fighting, and they ask, ‘Is this a private fight or can anybody get in?’”
Now in his sixth term representing a congressional district in the Hudson Valley, Maloney, 55, angled to run the House Democratic campaign arm for years: In 2017, he conducted an autopsy of the group’s poor performance in the previous year’s election; in 2018, he ran for its chairmanship before abandoning the race because of a medical emergency. That Maloney, a close ally of Pelosi’s, was finally elected D.C.C.C. chairman in late 2020, just in time to preside over the Democratic debacle that’s shaping up to be the 2022 midterms, can make him seem like the dog that caught the car — an analogy that he naturally rejected. “You’re not the first person who’s suggested that,” he said. “But I like that people are underestimating us.”
Maloney was enjoying himself — sipping the remnants of a soda from Shake Shack, gesturing to the three aides monitoring our conversation — when we talked in the middle of March in the D.C.C.C.’s new Washington headquarters, where cubicle name plates provide both the job title and preferred pronouns of the mostly Gen Z employees.
There was no denying the political headwinds Democrats were facing, but Maloney’s exuberance at the time didn’t seem entirely irrational: The D.C.C.C. was finishing up a record-breaking fund-raising quarter that would ultimately bring in north of $50 million — $11.5 million more than its Republican counterpart raised during the same stretch. Maloney pointed to the State of the Union address Biden gave earlier that month — “the first time in a long time the American people got to see, without a filter, the guy they actually voted for” — and the job Biden was doing marshaling international support for Ukraine — “the most impressive presidential performance since the first Gulf War.” He believed both would improve Biden’s languishing support, which in turn would redound to the Democrats’ benefit in November. (Since then, Biden’s approval rating has dipped below 40 percent and the number of House seats Democrats are predicted to lose has increased.)
More than money and polls, what was fueling Maloney’s swagger that afternoon was maps. At the start of the redistricting process that followed the 2020 census, Republicans appeared to hold the upper hand, with total control of the process in 19 states. Indeed, some election experts predicted that the G.O.P. would be able to retake the House in 2022 based solely on gains from newly redrawn congressional maps. But working closely with Democratic officials in the handful of states where they controlled redistricting — including Illinois, Maryland and New Mexico — Maloney and the D.C.C.C. were able to engineer Democratic gains through aggressive gerrymandering of their own. Maloney’s most audacious move was in his home state of New York. There, Democratic legislators went around an independent redistricting commission and approved a heavily gerrymandered map. Their party gained an advantage in 22 out of 26 House districts, halving the number of safe Republican seats from eight to four.
When I met with Maloney at the D.C.C.C., it looked as if Democrats had not just fought Republicans to a draw in the redistricting battle but had actually gained a few seats. “We beat ’em,” Maloney crowed. Of course, one driver of the political polarization that Maloney and other moderate Democrats denounce is the sort of aggressive gerrymandering that creates so many safe seats and so few competitive ones: In 2022, fewer than 40 seats out of 435 are considered competitive — in other words, seats in districts that Biden or Trump won by 5 percent or less in 2020.
“Competitive districts marginalize ideological extremism and foster moderation in Congress,” Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor, has written. “Safe seats foster extremism.” Given that reality, I asked Maloney if he had any mixed feelings about the victory, considering the Democrats achieved it with such extreme gerrymanders — noting, of course, that Republicans would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. “They did have the opportunity and they [expletive] it up,” he shot back. “That’s what beating them means.”
But the beatdown would prove ephemeral. Later that month, a Maryland judge threw out the state’s congressional map, calling it an “extreme partisan gerrymander.” A week after that, a judge in New York ruled that state’s new map unconstitutional. In May, the New York judge approved a new congressional map, drawn by a Carnegie Mellon political scientist, that undid all of the Democratic gains by creating what experts deemed 15 safely Democratic seats, five safely Republican seats and six tossups. Adding to New York Democrats’ misery, the new map either eliminated or drastically altered the districts of at least six Democratic incumbents.
One of them was Maloney. An hour after the new, court-ordered maps were released, he announced on Twitter that he was switching from the Hudson Valley district he has represented since 2013 to a neighboring, now bluer district rooted in Westchester County but extending north to Putnam County, where he lives. (Members of Congress are not required to live in the district they represent.) The only problem? Much of the district he was moving to is currently represented by his Democratic colleague Mondaire Jones. The prospect of the Democrats’ midterms chief forcing a member-on-member primary — much less a member-on-member primary involving a Black freshman incumbent like Jones — did not go over well with many House Democrats. Suddenly, all the internecine Democratic tensions that were Maloney’s job to resolve, or at the very least elide, were focused squarely on him.
“Sean Patrick Maloney did not even give me a heads up before he went on Twitter to make that announcement,” Jones told Politico. “And I think that tells you everything you need to know about Sean Patrick Maloney.” Representative Ritchie Torres of New York, a Black freshman member like Jones, complained about the “thinly veiled racism” of Maloney’s maneuverings. Others noted the presumption of Maloney, the man tasked with protecting the Democrats’ House majority, creating an open seat and giving Republicans a better opportunity to win his current district this fall. Ocasio-Cortez called on Maloney to step down as D.C.C.C. chairman if he wound up in a primary versus Jones.
In the end, Jones switched from his Westchester district to a new one miles away in New York City. But that didn’t completely defuse the situation. Alessandra Biaggi, a progressive New York state senator from Westchester, decided to challenge Maloney in the August primary, securing the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez. Biaggi attacked Maloney not just as “an establishment, corporatist” Democrat but for putting his own political fortunes above those of the Democratic Party’s. “What hurt the party was having the head of the campaign arm not stay in his district,” she told reporters, “not maximize the number of seats New York can have to hold the majority.”
“This is so counterproductive,” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, wrote on Twitter about Ocasio-Cortez’s support of Biaggi’s primary challenge to Maloney. “The Supreme Court is about to outlaw abortion. We could lose both houses. So we are going to focus our time running against each other. Now we’re primarying committed progressives because … why? If we lose the House it’s because of dumb [expletive] like this.”
With their majority or their own re-elections in doubt, many House Democrats are already heading for the exits in a pre-midterm exodus. So far, 33 House Democrats have announced that they will not compete for their seats in November. Some are leaving to run for other offices, but most are retiring. And while some Democratic retirees represent solidly blue districts and will almost certainly be replaced by other Democrats, many of them hold the sort of purple — or even red — seats that Democrats have little chance of keeping unless they have an incumbent running.
In the middle of March, the mood was funereal in the office of Stephanie Murphy, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who announced last December that she would not be running again for her purple Orlando-area seat. She had just watched the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky give a video address to a joint session of Congress, during which he shared footage of Ukrainian women and children packing bags and weeping as they said goodbye to their husbands and fathers who were staying to fight the Russians. Murphy, whose family escaped Vietnam by boat when she was an infant, wiped away tears. “I’m a little emotional about it,” she explained. “Those images have been hard for me to watch.”
As Murphy reflected on her time in Congress, her emotions seemed no less raw. She was first elected to the House in 2016, defeating a 12-term Republican incumbent whose district had become more Democratic after the state Supreme Court made lawmakers redraw Florida’s congressional lines. But it was hardly blue and Murphy won by hewing to the center on fiscal issues and foreign policy.
Once in Washington, she joined the Blue Dogs. In the group’s early years, most of its members were older white men from the South who were not just fiscal conservatives but cultural ones as well — firm in their opposition to gun control, abortion and gay people serving in the military. In 2018, when Murphy, an Asian American woman who just turned 40, became the group’s co-chairwoman, it was a sign of how even the Blue Dogs had changed amid the Democratic Party’s leftward march. “I’d love for the world to stop using ‘conservative Democrat’ to define Blue Dogs,” Murphy told The Washington Post. “Because I am pro-choice, I am unabashedly pro-L.G.B.T.Q., I am pro-gun-safety.” (In addition to Murphy, the Blue Dogs also now have two Black and four Hispanic members.)
Murphy preferred to describe herself as a moderate; her main areas of disagreement with her fellow House Democrats were about national security and pocketbook issues (she supported a law that toughened penalties for deported immigrants who try to re-enter the United States and another that allows new businesses to deduct more of their start-up expenses). For her first two years in Congress, with Trump as president and Democrats in the minority, she was able to stake out moderate positions with little pushback from members of her caucus. But after 2018, when Democrats took back the House, her moderation became a sore point.
Things came to a head last August. After the Senate passed a bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the House Progressive Caucus, led by Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, announced that a majority of its 96 members would not vote for the bill until the Senate passed Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better social spending package, which hinged on the support of two moderate Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Pelosi agreed not to hold a House vote on the infrastructure bill until the Senate passed Build Back Better.
Murphy was one of about a dozen or so moderate Democrats in the House who urged Pelosi to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill right away. The most aggressive was Gottheimer. He led a group — dubbed the Gottheimer Nine by Capitol Hill reporters — who threatened not to vote for a budget resolution intended to pave the way for Build Back Better and eventually extracted from Pelosi a promise to schedule a House vote on the infrastructure bill in late September, regardless of whether Build Back Better had passed the Senate at that point. When the deadline that Pelosi agreed to came and went without a vote, Gottheimer attacked her in a statement for breaching “her firm, public commitment.”
Murphy was less public in her agitation but no less passionate. “Parts of the Biden agenda have been delivered in a bipartisan way,” she says she recalled thinking, “and when it hits the House, it’s like: ‘Oh, no, let’s not take the win here. Let’s make sure that we try to shove as many progressive pipe dreams’” — she was referring to Build Back Better — “ ‘as we can into this pragmatic piece of legislation to basically sink it.’” She became the target of intensive lobbying from Pelosi and her leadership team and even from Biden himself. In an August phone call, the president — who had moved in a steadily more progressive direction after winning his party’s nomination as a moderate — told her that if she opposed the budget resolution paving the way for Build Back Better, on the grounds that the House should vote for the infrastructure bill first, then she was opposing his entire agenda. Murphy says the call ended abruptly. “The White House’s approach has been to do things on a partisan basis and try to bludgeon their own members into submission,” she told me. (“They had a good conversation in which the president made his case, and Representative Murphy voted in favor of the resolution in August,” Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, says.)
In mid-November, after months of negotiations and public dithering, the House finally passed the infrastructure bill. A couple of weeks later, Gottheimer, Murphy and other moderate Democrats helped the House pass a $1.8 trillion version of Build Back Better, only to watch Manchin torpedo the bill in the Senate the following month. Pelosi’s allies insisted that the delay on infrastructure was irrelevant. “I don’t think there’s one voter in a swing district who gives a [expletive] whether infrastructure got passed on a Tuesday or a Thursday,” Maloney told me. “They’re not reading Punchbowl” — the Capitol Hill-focused newsletter by and for people who think Politico is too broad in its coverage — “every day and following the ins and outs of Gottheimer this and Pramila that.”
But many other moderate Democrats viewed its passage, coming as late as it did, as a Pyrrhic victory at best. “Not pushing the infrastructure bill in the House immediately was the biggest mistake of Biden’s term because it essentially said a couple things,” Al From argues. “One, it said progressives still drive the Democratic Party even though he beat them in the primaries. Second, it said he really doesn’t mean this bipartisan thing, because when push comes to shove, he’s going to let the most partisan people in his party lead his course.”
Almost as disconcerting from Murphy’s perspective was a flood of negative ads that not just conservative groups but also outside liberal groups began running against her in her Florida district. “You would have thought it was October of the ‘on’ year,” Murphy told me, referring to election years. “For all that Democrats rail about the super PACs, I would say that there are parts of our party that have very effectively used super PACs as a tool against their own Democratic members to ensure party unity. And so a moderate member these days takes incoming in equal proportion from the left and from the right.”
Murphy told me that the negative advertising against her and other moderates, including New York’s Kathleen Rice, who is retiring, and Maine’s Jared Golden, who is a Frontliner, “takes money to repair,” and she maintained that in a world where online small-dollar donations are the coin of the realm, money can be difficult for moderates to raise. “I’m a member who has been repeatedly named as one of the most effective and bipartisan members on the Hill,” Murphy, who serves on the House Jan. 6 committee, said. “Nobody knows who I am.” Colleagues she deemed far less effective legislators, meanwhile, had Twitter and Facebook followings in the millions while hers were stuck in the mid-five figures. “Social media platforms provide folks the ability to focus more on making statements than making law,” she said. “The crazier things you say, the more money you raise. The more antagonistic you are to the other party, the more money you raise.”
This has put Murphy and her fellow moderates in a bind. They tend to represent or run in competitive districts, which require a lot of campaign money but also punish extremism. This year, Henry Cuellar, a Blue Dog from South Texas who is the only remaining anti-abortion Democrat in the House, faced a progressive challenger in his district’s Democratic primary who outraised him by more than $1 million; in the end, Cuellar won the primary in May by fewer than 300 votes. The South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, had traveled to Texas to campaign for Cuellar, angering liberal Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked senior Democrats who supported Cuellar for “an utter failure of leadership.” Clyburn backed Cuellar, he explained, because he believes Cuellar provides the Democrats their best chance to win in November in a district that, like many in South Texas, has been moving toward the G.O.P. “Cuellar could not get elected in my district, but I could not get elected in his district,” Clyburn told me. “Our job is to try to reconcile those differences.” He added: “It doesn’t mean you occupy the same space. You are under the same umbrella.”
But the Blue Dogs’ share of the space under that umbrella is shrinking. In 2010, the Blue Dogs had 54 members. Today that number stands at 19. Of that group, Murphy is one of three who are leaving Congress on their own volition; two more lost their primaries. Six of the Blue Dogs who will be on the ballot in November are Frontliners. All of which means that come January, there could be fewer than a dozen Blue Dogs left in the House.
Making matters worse, Murphy and some of her fellow moderates believe that the Democrats’ own House campaign arm is working against them. Last summer, during the height of the impasse over the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better, Maloney or members of his D.C.C.C. staff reached out to several centrist representatives to warn that the Democrats’ majority would be in jeopardy if they thwarted Biden’s legislative priorities. Some of these centrists, who face tough re-election campaigns, interpreted the outreach as a not-so-veiled threat that their own fund-raising help from the party would be at risk if they didn’t get in line. “You want your political arm to be focused on politics, not policy,” Murphy told me. “My belief is that the D.C.C.C. has one job and one job alone: to protect incumbents and expand the majority. And becoming an extension of leadership, and working against members that you’re supposed to protect, runs crosswise with your sole mission.”
Until 2016, the D.C.C.C. chair was appointed by the House Democratic leader every two years. But after their party’s poor performance that November, House Democrats made the D.C.C.C. an elected position, throwing open the selection process to the entire caucus. Murphy argues that changed both the nature of the job and the type of politician who seeks it. “It usually means that person has aspirations to continue in Democratic leadership,” she said, “and in order to secure a position in Democratic leadership, you have to be able to secure the progressive left support. I think that is in conflict with your objective as D.C.C.C. chair, which is to protect incumbents and the majority and the center-left members who deliver you the majority.” (Other moderate Democrats defend Maloney. “Part of what the D.C.C.C. has done, under Chairman Maloney’s leadership, is to really focus on empowering those of us who know our districts best to do what we need to do,” the Nevada congressman Steven Horsford, a Problem Solver and a Frontliner, told me.)
When I put Murphy’s criticism to Maloney, he bristled. Being elected rather than appointed “means you’re responsive to the caucus,” he argued. “I have to earn it every day with members of the Democratic caucus, all of whom have concerns about their own elections, their new districts, their fund-raising, their dues.” As for Murphy’s claim that Maloney and the D.C.C.C. were not sufficiently attuned to the needs of moderate members, Maloney got personal. “Those of us who are going to stay in this fight and defend this majority appreciate the service and points of view of our colleagues who are walking out the door,” he said. “And just to put a finer point on it, my district is a lot tougher than that person’s you mentioned. When Hillary Clinton was winning Stephanie Murphy’s district by seven, she was losing mine by two. In other words, I inhabit the concerns that she’s expressing. So if there’s one person who I think would get that balance right, it would be a person whose own seat depends on it — and that’s me.”
Susan Wild was elected to her eastern Pennsylvania district in the Democratic wave of 2018, replacing the retiring moderate Republican Charlie Dent — who had represented the district for 13 years and whose departure from Congress was viewed as a sign of just how inhospitable the G.O.P. had become for moderates. Dent was known for crossing the aisle to work with Democrats, especially during Trump’s presidency, when he clashed with his fellow Republicans on their attempts to repeal Obamacare and impose a travel ban, and Wild, who sometimes voted for Dent, has tried to model her congressional career after his. “I think voters here are very, very motivated by people who they consider to be independent of their party,” Wild told me. “That was the case with Charlie, and that’s the way I think I’m perceived.”
Wild, a former lawyer, was eating a lunch of crab asparagus bisque and blackened tuna roll topped with lobster salad at an upscale bistro in Bethlehem’s intermittently gentrifying downtown during Congress’s Easter recess. She continued, “People look at me as a 64-year-old woman who was a lawyer and represented a lot of corporations and hospitals over the years, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s not a socialist.’” (She has since turned 65.) She is unequivocal in her support of abortion rights and gay rights and says concerns that critical race theory is being taught in schools are, in her estimation, “completely cooked up.” But she talks about these culture-war issues only when asked. Instead, she prefers to focus on her support of business.
“I’m the biggest cheerleader there is for the industries in our district,” she said, “including industries that sometimes come under attack from some quarters for reasons that aren’t necessarily legitimate.” She noted her support for local cement companies — which environmentalists criticize for their carbon emissions — as well as for an Allentown manufacturer that’s being sued by 35 people who accuse it of emitting a toxic gas that caused their cancers. “The fact of the matter is, the legal process will probably take care of it before any kind of regulatory process will,” she said of the case. “But the main thing, again, for me, is being willing to be pro-business.”
Wild is not unusual among moderate Democrats in promoting an economic agenda that champions the interests of industry, Wall Street and the affluent. Although Josh Gottheimer spends a lot of time jousting with the Squad, his signature issue is raising or eliminating the cap on the state and local tax deduction — not exactly a pressing concern of working-class voters. (Relatedly, Gottheimer doesn’t need to worry about appealing to small-dollar donors. A favorite of Wall Street donors, he currently has $13 million in his campaign war chest.)
And yet, for all their criticism that Democrats have gone too far to the left on social and cultural issues, moderate Democrats rarely confront that drift head-on. Instead, they do battle with a caricature. They say that they don’t want to defund the police — but at this point, not many liberals want to, either.
Moderate Democrats’ primary aim on culture-war issues is to try not to offend and to offer something to both sides of the fight. Chrissy Houlahan, the Pennsylvania congresswoman who represents Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, told me her own story from the summer of 2020, when she participated in a protest march following the murder of George Floyd. “The police were side by side with us on their bikes,” she recalled. “This is a community that’s very unified behind and supportive of our police.”
What most moderate Democrats refuse to do is pick the sorts of big fights the popularists are itching for. “It’s more small-ball stuff,” Sean McElwee complains. “We need better moderates.” He points to Joe Manchin as an example. “Manchin’s moderation, in my view, makes a lot of sense,” McElwee says. “People who vote for Republicans are not like, ‘I’m voting for Republicans because local companies in West Virginia just need the right tax breaks.’ No, they’re like: ‘I believe that government spending is too big. Too many people don’t work. And social change in this country is happening too quickly.’ And I don’t agree with those things, but that’s what those voters believe. And Manchin’s the only one who really speaks to those broad ideological concerns.” What’s more, Manchin doesn’t just speak to those concerns, he votes on them — witness his sinking of Build Back Better. “It’s not just values,” McElwee says. “To win these races, there’s going to have to be some policy as well.”
McElwee was born the same year Bill Clinton was elected president, but Ruy Teixeira, 70, was there when moderates remade the Democratic Party three decades ago. “The thing about moderates today is I don’t think they have a worldview,” Teixeira says. “They’re just reacting to what A.O.C. and the Democratic left are doing. But what’s their alternative? I don’t think they have an alternative. ‘Don’t do dumb stuff’ is not a worldview.” Perhaps one day in the future, maybe as soon as November, moderate Democrats will refashion their worldviews according to Teixeira’s and Yglesias’s Substacks and McElwee’s and Shor’s tweets the way Clinton and a previous generation of moderate Democrats once based theirs on “The Politics of Evasion.” But that day has yet to arrive.
In the meantime, for all their paeans to kitchen-table issues and support for first responders, the moderate Democrats running for re-election are finding a chillier reception in the communities that ushered them into office — and their party into the majority — four years ago. Susan Wild’s Lehigh Valley congressional seat, which was already considered a swing district when she won it in 2018 and 2020, became redder under the new congressional maps drawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and is now “about as competitive and centrist a district as you’re going to find in American politics,” says Chris Borick, a political analyst at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. The Cook Political Report recently moved it from “Tossup” to “Lean R” (for Republican). In Washington, Wild shares an apartment with another Frontliner, Cindy Axne of Iowa, who was also elected in the Democratic wave of 2018. “For the longest time before we had our new maps, I would listen to Cindy on the phone with people, saying, ‘I’m in the toughest district in the country, blah, blah, blah,’” Wild told me. “But now even she says, ‘Susan and I might be in just about the same situation.’” (The Cook Political Report also recently moved Axne’s district from “Tossup” to “Lean R.”)
But Wild insisted that they would both buck the national trend. “I think Cindy and I are still roommates next year,” she said. “Cindy can talk fertilizer with the best of them.” As for her own political prospects, Wild continued: “I will win this race based on the fact that my district knows me, the fact that we’ve been out there working our tails off and have gotten a lot of things done. We’ve actually gotten things accomplished for constituents that probably never would have voted for me in 2018, who are now pretty satisfied with some work we’ve done for them.”
One morning during the Easter recess, Wild put her theory to the test at an Allentown fire station. She held up a poster-size check bearing her congressional logo that was made out to the Allentown Fire Department for $129,593; the memo line explained it was for a new emergency-operations center. The money was part of nearly $10 million in earmarks — or, as they’re now called, “Community Project Funding” — that Wild had secured for her district in the $1.5 trillion federal spending bill the House passed the previous month. “Our community is going to be safer and more protected,” Wild said, presenting the check to Allentown’s mayor and fire chief, “thanks to this funding.”
Among the small crowd of reporters, firefighters and elected officials who had gathered to watch Wild’s presentation was Daryl Hendricks, a jut-jawed man with a thick mustache who is a member of Allentown’s City Council. Before going into politics, Hendricks spent 36 years as an Allentown police officer; now he chaired the City Council’s public-safety committee. “This is near and dear to my heart,” he told me, nodding to the rescue trucks and firefighters.
But Hendricks’s warm feelings did not extend toward Wild. “I think she’s having a tough time,” he said. “I think all Democrats are.” Hendricks was a Democrat himself. He’d been one since he was 18, he said, when he was told that the Democratic Party was “the working-class party” and the Republican Party was “the party of the rich.” “So there was no question what I was going to be,” he said. But he felt that, in recent years, the Democratic Party had lost its way.
“Look what’s going on in the country today,” he said. “It started with the border. I think it’s the most pressing problem we’re facing today.” He continued: “Let’s get an immigration policy in place. What other countries allow what we do? It’s crazy.” The economy wasn’t any better. “They’re all complaining that they didn’t pass the Build Back Better bill. How bad are we now with inflation?” He didn’t believe the Democrats had any solutions. “I think the policies are just bad.”
Standing in the fire station as the people around us talked excitedly about the new emergency-operations center to come, I asked Hendricks, whose anger had given way to resignation, if he thought Wild could do enough in the cities and towns of her district to offset these larger and more profound problems facing the country. “No,” he answered, shaking his head. “It’s a matter of the national atmosphere right now.” Did he think he was going to have a new congressperson next January? Hendricks didn’t hesitate. “I do.”
Jason Zengerle is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the rise of the Tucker Carlson politician. He is also working on a book about Tucker Carlson and conservative media.