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Moderate Democrats Are the Future of the Party

They have the energy and the momentum, they know how to cut deals, and their “boring” messaging works.
January 3, 2023
Moderate Democrats Are the Future of the Party
U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Biden swore in the newly elected and returning members on the Senate floor. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Remember how “this is the moment Donald Trump became president” was a running joke during his administration, just like Infrastructure Week? Neither ever happened, but Democrats look like they’re poised for a true transition: the moment they recognized that aggressively mainstream is a winning brand, and embraced it.

Key victories for Senate and governor, new House leaders and the primary calendar shakeup advanced by President Joe Biden all reflect the reality that centrists in battleground states and districts are the party’s majority makers, as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls them. She needed them and didn’t care if they got elected by attacking her. “Just win, baby,” she would say.

As a strategic matter, it’s no secret why moderates are crucial. The Pew Research Center classifies only 6 percent of Americans and 12 percent of Democrats as “progressive left.” “Democratic mainstays,” the largest group in the party and the country, are older loyalists with “a moderate tilt on some issues,” in Pew’s phrase. The fact is that Democrats across the spectrum share many goals, among them equitable justice; police accountability; more immigration and a more humane, practical system; voting and abortion rights; and respect for people’s identities, whatever they may be.

For the record, I’m on the “mainstay” wavelength—someone who frets about deficits, believes in compromise, and respects negotiators (yes, even Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema). It’s infuriating that Republicans routinely portray the Democratic party as one big socialist mob that coddles criminals, hates the police, loves open borders and lectures nonstop on pronouns, and millions of voters believe them. My top political wish for 2023 is that Democrats stop handing ammo to Republicans.

Pelosi’s successor as the leader of House Democrats, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, has made clear he gets it. He named Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington, a former tech executive and former chair of the House’s moderate New Democrat Coalition, to lead the DCCC going into the 2024 campaign. Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger will look out for the interests of “frontliners” in swing districts like her own in a newly created Democratic leadership position called “battleground leadership representative.” And Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California centrist known for working across the aisle with Republicans, will move up to the No. 3 position of caucus chair.

Spanberger, a former CIA case officer, promises to be a watchdog with teeth. DelBene calls her “a fiercely independent voice” and several supportive colleagues noted last month that she has “never been shy about voicing concerns, sharing perspectives from on the ground, and suggesting strategy or messaging improvements to Caucus Leadership.” No kidding. After Democrats won their very narrow majority in 2020, she predicted House Democrats would “get f—king torn apart in 2022” over socialism, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and defunding the police. If anyone can head off calls to cut police budgets and “abolish ICE,” it’s Spanberger.

The most successful messages in tight races often are boring, as writer Matt Yglesias put it in a recent analysis. I’d add that they’re also basic. The progressive firm Data for Progress makes these points repeatedly in an extensive study of what worked in tight races last year. The top five persuasive messages out of 135 studied came from at-risk Democratic Senate candidates who won.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada was responsible for two of them, including what Data for Progress called “the single-most overperforming Democratic message out of the 135 we tested.” It was a template for how Democrats should handle the GOP crime offensive. “I worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to crack down on crimes and keep our communities safe,” she said, and described how. Cortez Masto also offered a simple but effective economic message: “My number one priority is improving our economy,” she said, and explained what she was doing for businesses and families.

Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona highlighted his work to ban surprise medical billing, lower prescription costs and protect Social Security. Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and then-Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania scored with China competition messages stressing jobs at home.

“Fighting inflation and lowering costs starts with making more stuff in America and bringing jobs home. We don’t need to be outsourcing any more jobs and production to China,” Fetterman said. The Hassan version: “I helped pass legislation to support manufacturing and strengthen our ability to outcompete China. I’m working to bring good-paying jobs home and to support the next generation of entrepreneurs right here in America. Reducing our reliance on other countries and bringing jobs back to America is a win, no matter what party you are in.”

As the Hassan message and others cited by Data for Progress suggest, bipartisanship is a winner in races requiring persuasion. GOP Rep. Liz Cheney’s endorsement helped reassure uncertain voters about Spanberger in Virginia and Rep. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock talked about working with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to get a highway from Texas to Georgia, and even made an ad about it.

The electoral success of centrists last year followed the 2020 win by Biden, a classic deal-cutter with mainstream instincts. The shifting dynamic is apparent in who is worried.

House progressives, for instance, sought (and received) assurances from Jeffries that they would be heard. And Faiz Shakir, who managed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, wrote a New York Times op-ed panning Biden’s plan to make South Carolina, with its many black Democrats and few union members, the first-in-the-nation primary. As Walter Shapiro wrote in the New Republic, it’s a 2024 anti-Bernie plan that will also “lessen the odds that future versions of Bernie Sanders will get liftoff in the early Democratic primaries.”

The Democratic National Committee will vote on the Biden proposal the first week in February. Also still to be settled is who will lead the Democrats’ Senate campaign committee in the difficult 2024 cycle.

But overall, the trend lines are clear: Moderate Democrats are killing it, and the stronger they grow, the better the outlook for the party.

Jill Lawrence

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: Twitter: @JillDLawrence.