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The same state — and party — sent Rep. Collin Peterson and Rep-elect Ilhan Omar to Congress. What does that mean for Democrats’ agenda?

The candidates who populate the new Democratic majority are hardly all the same kind of Democrat.

Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar
Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar speaking to attendees of the DFL Election Night party in St. Paul last Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Here are a few of the people Minnesotans voted to send to Congress next year: a Muslim-American woman and Somali refugee who is a national left-wing icon, an arch-conservative rural Minnesotan who ran on being a “reinforcement” for President Donald Trump in D.C., and a millionaire entrepreneur who detests political labels and vowed to join a caucus of centrists if elected.

Voters across the country made at least one thing clear in this year’s midterm elections: that a majority of them are ready for Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives after two years of the Trump administration and eight years of Republican control of the chamber. But the candidates who Americans selected to populate the new Democratic majority — which will number at least 227 members to Republicans’ 198 — are hardly all the same kind of Democrat.

In the next Congress, Democratic leadership must work to reconcile an upstart, progressive vanguard of the party, embodied by candidates like Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s 5th District and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, with a big group of centrists, like Dean Phillips in Minnesota’s 3rd District, who won in suburban and Republican-leaning districts this year by adopting a compromise-oriented tone on hot-button issues.

The House Republican contingent these Democrats are eager to work with, meanwhile, saw close to 20 of its more moderate members go down in defeat on Tuesday. The new GOP minority — likely to be led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a staunch Trump loyalist — will be more conservative and even more aligned with the president than before. Two of its brand-new members, Jim Hagedorn of the 1st Congressional District and Pete Stauber of the 8th, embraced the president throughout the entire 2018 campaign.

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Minnesota’s new (and returning) congressional Democrats and Republicans expressed optimism after the election that they can work together on issues like infrastructure and helping the state’s substantial agriculture sector. But Democrats’ plans to tackle progressive priorities like expanding Medicare — not to mention a general eagerness to put their new oversight authority to work to investigate the president — combined with Republicans’ loyalty to Trump could make partisan warfare the order of the 116th Congress.

Meet the new Democratic majority

The five people who will make up the Democratic contingent of Minnesota’s House delegation next year illustrate the ideological, geographic, ethnic and gender diversity of the new Democratic majority. That diversity is a boon for the party, which argues it is more reflective of the American people as a whole than the GOP. But it will also present challenges for Democratic leaders as they transition into governing mode after spending eight years in the House minority.

With the moves of Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison to statewide office in Minnesota, and Rep. Rick Nolan’s retirement, Reps. Collin Peterson and Betty McCollum will be the only sitting Minnesota Democrats to return to D.C. next year. Both are poised to play important roles: Peterson, the most conservative Democrat in the House, is expected to return to the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee that he gave up in 2010; McCollum, a reliable liberal vote, will help to set federal spending levels for Department of Interior programs on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was elected to succeed Ellison in Minnesota’s most Democratic-leaning district, ran on an unabashedly progressive platform that favors single-payer health care or “Medicare-for-All,” abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and access to debt-free college education. She is poised to be one of the most left-wing members of the House next year, and will enter as one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress.

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Throughout the campaign, Dean Phillips, center, eschewed partisan labels and made a point of his outreach to Republicans.
Phillips, who defeated 10-year incumbent Rep. Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District, does not support Medicare-for-All and did not make progressive policy a centerpiece of his campaign. Instead, he focused on issues of campaign finance reform and ethical government, something that public polling indicates is a priority for both Democrats and Republicans nationwide — and something that helped him win over many voters in this affluent, suburban district that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, but preferred Paulsen and other Republican candidates in the past.

Throughout the campaign, Phillips eschewed partisan labels and made a point of his outreach to Republicans. In a pre-election interview with MinnPost, Phillips said if he were elected, he’d seek to join the so-called “Problem Solvers Caucus,” a bipartisan group of several dozen centrist House lawmakers. “I promise I will try to join the caucus and elevate its role as a meaningful voice of reason and thoughtful legislation that deserves to have its ideas brought to the fore,” he said. (Some have noted that the Problem Solvers Caucus has yet to solve any problems.)

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In the 2nd District, which includes suburbs and rural areas south of the Twin Cities, Democrat Angie Craig, a former medical device company executive, defeated freshman Rep. Jason Lewis by five points after losing to him in the 2016 election. That year, Craig ran a progressive-oriented campaign that sought to link Lewis to Trump — a strategy that backfired in a district that ultimately preferred both of them.

For her 2018 bid, Craig emphasized bread-and-butter issues, at times talking almost exclusively about health care. She has argued moving to a Medicare-for-All system would be impractical, instead emphasizing short-term relief by shoring up the individual insurance markets set up by Obamacare. After winning on Tuesday, Craig told MinnPost that “when someone gets their health care bill, it doesn’t have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ on it… So we ought to be open and willing to listen to any good idea, whether it comes from the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, and really work to look for that common ground.”

Laying out a ‘vision’ for America

Democratic leadership, in particular likely speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, must now manage a larger, more fractious flock where internal divisions can make the difference between a key bill’s passage or failure — something that Republicans demonstrated regularly over the last eight years in the majority.

Democrats must also navigate different priorities regarding the president: while nearly all members-to-be welcome increased oversight of his administration, a Washington Post poll showed that two-thirds of voters in key districts who cast ballots for Democrats want the party to begin impeachment of Trump. But new members of the new suburban segment of the Democratic conference, like Craig and Phillips, were very cautious on that subject in 2018 and are unlikely to arrive on Capitol Hill champing at the bit on impeachment.

Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, predicted that Democrats will overcome internal divisions on policy and political strategy.

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Pete Stauber
“While you have a pretty wide range of ideological views represented here, there’s a broader understanding of, having been in the wilderness for some time, that it’s really important to demonstrate as a party that you can govern,” Ornstein said. “I think, while you’re going to find some push to try and move in a more radical direction, whether it’s a push for impeachment early on, or for single-payer, the agenda is going to be a more pragmatic one.”

According to Neil Sroka, spokesman for the progressive group Democracy for America, the “moderates” joining Congress next year are generally supportive of progressive measures — and the party grassroots is expecting prompt movement on those items. “We’re looking at the most progressive ‘centrists’ that were elected, certainly within the last several decades,” he said, adding that 65 percent of Democratic candidates ran on Medicare-for-All or a Medicare buy-in option.

Sroka said activists are expecting the Democratic majority to hold Trump accountable — using the power of the Ways and Means Committee, for example, to compel the release of Trump’s tax returns — but to also to lay out a vision for America that would serve as reason to elect a Democrat for president in 2020.

“There should be a bill the House passes on Medicare-for-All, for a $15 minimum wage, that makes it clear that this is what we’re going to fight for once we take back the presidency,” he said. “We need to make it clear what Democrats do stand for, and expose to the American people what Republicans do not stand for.”

Diminished Republicans

An expanded Democratic group taking power on Capitol Hill means that diminished group of Republicans will return next year: the GOP lost at least 34 seats due to incumbent losses or failing to win open seats vacated by retiring Republicans. On election night, the party lost first-termers like Jason Lewis but also some of their most senior lawmakers, like Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee.

The new GOP minority will, in general, be more rural, conservative, white, and loyal to the president than this year’s GOP majority. Many of the incumbents who lost, like Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida and Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, were among the Republican lawmakers most willing to criticize Trump and work with Democrats on divisive issues like immigration. (Nearly all of the Republicans most supportive of legislation to mitigate climate change, reports the Atlantic, lost their seats.)

Beyond that, Democrats will be replacing retiring Republicans like Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent and Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both widely known on Capitol Hill for dealmaking with the other party.

The faces of the new GOP House minority are people like Hagedorn and Stauber, two out of three Republican candidates in the country who managed to flip a Democratic-held House seat. Hagedorn won a tight race over Democrat Dan Feehan by less than half a percentage point in his southern Minnesota district; Stauber defeated Democrat Joe Radinovich by five points in northeastern Minnesota’s CD8.

Jason Lewis
On election night, the Republican Party lost first-termers like Jason Lewis, above, but also some of their most senior lawmakers, like Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Both districts went for Trump in 2016 by about 15 points, and the president held rallies in each one during this campaign season to stump for Hagedorn and Stauber. Six of the seven House candidates that Trump personally rallied for ended up winning, according to NPR, as did 19 of the 36 Republicans he endorsed via Twitter.

The GOP minority will be a hotbed of support for the president, said Ornstein, reflecting Trump’s total takeover of the party from moderates like former Sen. David Durenberger and former Rep. Bill Frenzel — or even people like Paulsen, who backed up Trump on key votes but generally avoided him and occasionally pushed back against him.

“The Republican farm team makes the Freedom Caucus look like moderates,” he said, referencing the faction of the most hard-line House conservatives. “In the near term, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. There’s no opportunity for more mainstream, pragmatic conservatives to run in most of these districts.”

Hagedorn, who has often said he espoused Trumpian positions before the president did, said Democrats and Republicans may be able to work together on things like agriculture issues but didn’t predict much broad-scale cooperation. “On issue after issue, we have two different worldviews,” he told MinnPost. “The country is sharply split.”

He said Democrats “can’t just yell at the screen” anymore and have to attempt to govern. “If they want to come forward with open borders, socialized medicine, it’s not going anywhere.”

The likely congressman-to-be (his opponent Feehan has yet to concede, and may yet call for a recount) recalls working in a GOP minority in the 1980s, as an aide to former Rep. Arlan Stangeland of Minnesota’s 7th District. “It’s not as much fun, obviously. You have ideas and they don’t go anywhere, but it’s part of the process,” Hagedorn said. “You go up there and fight for what you believe in, and you hope that when you do get back in charge, you can push those things through.”