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Centrists fear socialism tag will cost Democrats the House in 2020

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/15/2019 By Laura Barrón-López
a woman standing in front of a building: Two House freshmen, Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood (left) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), both dismissed concerns that their more vocal Democratic colleagues will complicated their reelection chances. © Andrew Harnik/AP Photo Two House freshmen, Illinois Rep. Lauren Underwood (left) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), both dismissed concerns that their more vocal Democratic colleagues will complicated their reelection chances.

The moderate Democrats who delivered the House majority want you to know they’re not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar.

They haven’t all blindly signed on to the "Green New Deal." They haven't been widely accused of anti-Semitism. They aren't hungry to impeach President Donald Trump.

They are the ones on the front lines of the battlefield, defending Democrats’ House majority. And many of the endangered Democrats already see their outspoken colleagues as a potential obstacle standing between them and reelection in 2020.

“As we run up to this presidential [election], we need to show that Democrats, as a whole, are not socialists," said Rep. Katie Hill, who last November flipped a Southern California district that Republicans held for the previous quarter-century. "We’re not pushing for impeachment without serious cause and serious evidence."

With the progressive squad of Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) capturing most of the headlines, the vulnerable Democrats are left to respond in stronger and stronger terms. The four liberals have forced majority-makers like Hill to distinguish themselves with voters and donors early and often.

“You have these four members frankly that were elected from seats that are going to be Democratic no matter what and represent a very small fraction of the party as a whole,” said Hill. “And it’s like they’re the only ones that exist.”

And as the presidential election nears, Hill and her fellow at-risk Democrats will need all the attention they can get. Republicans must win 18 seats to take back the House, and they have ample targets. Republicans are setting their sights on the 31 Democratically held districts that voted for Trump in 2016, followed by another two-dozen districts like Hill's that didn't back Trump but have Republican DNA.

To survive, vulnerable Democrats are shrugging off their more progressive colleagues. It's a strategy they employed last year when Republicans dropped millions on a steady stream of TV ads tying them to then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The Pelosi-themed ads ultimately didn’t work and Democrats netted 40 seats — their largest gain since Watergate. But the 'tweet first, explain later' strategy, utilized by Ocasio-Cortez and friends, who wield nearly 5 million Twitter followers between them, puts Democrats like Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) in a tough spot.

“We all won in districts when we were accused of being somebody else, or something else,” said Spanberger, before reprising the viral line from one of her 2018 debates: “I am Abigail Spanberger. I’m not anybody else.”

Spanberger is among more than a dozen Democrats who represent districts Trump won by more than 6 percentage points in 2016 — the front line of the 2020 battlefield. The list includes two entrenched incumbents who have seen their districts drift toward Republicans: Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.).

But the seats most coveted by Republicans belong to newcomers like Spanberger and New York Democrat Max Rose, an Army combat veteran who won a Staten Island-based district Trump carried by nearly 10 points. At least three Republicans are already eyeing a challenge to the 32-year-old Rose.

“This campaign will be a contact sport, and I have no problem with that,” Rose said.

Rose is focused on the promises he's made, including construction of a sea wall, improving commute times for constituents on Staten Island, which is not connected to the rest of New York's subway system, or lowering prescription-drug costs. With a Republican in the White House, it's often hard to deliver on these promises, but the party hopes to show voters that it will pass bills aimed at addressing health care costs and creating jobs.

And Democrats like Rose have to stay on message while fending off 30-second TV ads flashing images of Ocasio-Cortez, who is sure to join, if not replace, Speaker Nancy Pelosi as Republicans’ No. 1 villain.

Pressed on how he’d combat it, Rose quipped: “How’d that work out for them?”

Rose, who has tactically eschewed most of the national controversies, voted against Pelosi for speaker, as did a handful of the Democrats who won in red districts in 2018. Those who called for new leadership, or outright vowed to vote against Pelosi but ultimately didn’t, have already come under attack by Republican outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund.

“Wow, that’s innovative stuff,” said Rose, in his distinctive New York accent. “I’m shaking in my boots.”

“I’d like to think that the Republican Party is not run by a bunch of folks that subscribe to be nationalists, like Steve King does,” added Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who defeated then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in Orange County, the Reagan-era GOP stronghold. “So while Steve King’s views don’t represent the entire Republican Party, those on the far left of the Democratic Party do not represent the mainstream caucus.”

Another top GOP target, Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.), has broken with the party on a number of procedural votes used by Republicans to divide Democrats. To demonstrate a eagerness to work with Republicans, Cunningham has also made a point to get GOP cosponsors on legislation he introduces.

“I can’t control whatever anyone else says, but I can control what I do. And I was voted in this seat to be an independent check,” said Cunningham, whom GOP operatives have dubbed an "accidental congressman" after his victory in a coastal South Carolina seat Trump won by 13 points in 2016. “I think if you do that, and you have a clear record of that, and you’re honest and transparent about it — then people will send you back.”

But Republicans hope that hammering Cunningham and other Democrats in competitive seats by tying them to their better-known colleagues will prove fruitful. In addition to reprising their failed Pelosi attacks from 2018, National Republican Campaign Committee aides say they will add freshmen like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar to the mix. The thinking is: This time it will stick because Democrats are in control, and Republicans are no longer battling a “hypothetical” Democratic agenda.

Omar's recent comments about politician's support for Israel — seen by many as anti-Semitic — has put some Democrats on the defensive. Asked about the Democratic divisions on display last week, Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), who won a Chicagoland district Trump carried by 4 points, dismissed the controversy.

"I’m home every weekend and have the opportunity to talk to folks about health care and lower prescription drug costs. And so, quite candidly, this ends up as a Washington conversation," said Underwood, "and not a conversation we have in the Illinois 14th."

But the clearest path to winning back the suburban women the GOP lost in 2018, Republicans say, is constant messaging on socialism and late-term abortion bills passed by Democratic legislatures. “The more we’re talking about socialism, the better,” said one NRCC official, granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. Republicans lost women by 19 percentage points in 2018.

The fundraising deadline at the end of March will provide one of the first looks at the strength of the vulnerable freshman Democrats. Hill, who checks in regularly with the red-district Democrats as a freshman representative in leadership, admitted that she and her colleagues are working hard to post aggressive fundraising numbers. The flood of cash going to Democratic presidential contenders has a number of the freshman Democrats concerned, Hill said, noting that donors have told her they're contributing to multiple Democrats running for the White House.

“We’ve got these huge fundraising targets because we want to scare off potential challengers,” Hill said. “If we win the White House but lose the House, then we’re in the same boat that we’re in now.”

Part of that survival strategy is an ability for the frontline Democrats, many of whom have never served in government, to create their own distinct profiles — even if it makes them unpopular among their Democratic colleagues.

“Sometimes I may be necessarily offensive,” Rose said of his willingness to split with party leadership. “I sat alone at the cafeteria table when I was in the 5th grade. Maybe I’ll have another round.”

And frustration with the group of liberal rock stars isn't going away any time soon, particularly on hot-button proposals like the Green New Deal.

"We’re caught in a lose-lose because the activists are completely paying attention to Alexandria. And so if we aren’t supporting it, then we’re seen as bad Democrats," said Hill. "But if we do support it, then that’s going to be damaging to our campaigns."

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