If you have any familiarity with the Harry Potter series, you probably know that one of the first things that happens to you upon arriving at Hogwarts is that the Sorting Hat tells you what house you’re going to belong to. That’s a really important decision, because it tells you who your friends are going to be, what kind of adventures you’re going to go on, and basically whether you’re going to be one of the story’s heroes, villains, or anonymous supporting characters.
Well, there’s something similar afoot in the House of Representatives; the Democratic members tend to self-sort into three different ideological caucuses: the Congressional Progressive Caucus (who represent the left flank among House Democrats), the New Democrat Coalition (who represent the generic middle of the party, or the center-left on the broader political spectrum—they’re sort of the Hufflepuffs of the House Democrats), and the Blue Dog Coalition (the centrists who represent the party’s right flank, though their numbers are significantly reduced since their pre-2010 heyday). The Republicans, in fact, now have something of a mirror-image setup, with three caucuses—the Main Street Partnership, the Republican Study Committee, and the Freedom Caucus—representing their center-right, establishment-right, and hard-right.
Obviously the Harry Potter metaphor falls apart a bit here, because, for starters, there are only three caucuses instead of four (and one of the three has already had most of its hapless members struck down by Death Eaters). In addition, you can freely select which one you belong to, and you can also opt to belong to more than one of them. You also, of course, have the option of not belonging to any of them, and dozens of members take that approach.
And beyond that, caucus membership doesn’t compel you to vote a particular way on a particular issue; nobody gets kicked out for being heterodox, and there in fact are a handful of Progressive Caucus members whose overall voting records put them to the right of the House Democratic caucus’s midpoint (and even one Blue Dog—Mike Thompson—who’s to the left of the caucus’s midpoint). It’s really just more who your friends are and who has your back in intramural quidditch matches, even while it’s generally predictive of your overall voting record.
So, with a huge number of new Democratic arrivals in the House this year, we thought we’d take a closer look at how they all sort out, which can give us at least some clue about how the various new members will behave in the coming years. The above graphic shows where they land; the Venn diagram format is especially appropriate here, because many members are “double-dippers” who have joined two caucuses, and showing the tweeners adds some nuance to where they’re likely to fall in the Democratic spectrum. We’ve also created a Google doc showing the same information in a columnar format that may be easier to read.
It is worth noting that four members who were on the Progressive Caucus’s endorsement list — Jahana Hayes, Jared Golden, Antonio Delgado, and Susan Wild — did not, in the end, join the Progressive Caucus in 2019.
Keep in mind, also, that these lists are still subject to change. While the Blue Dogs and New Democrats have formally released the names of their new members, we’re still relying on the endorsement lists of who the Progressive Caucus backed in their elections, as that caucus hasn’t released their membership lists yet. It’s, of course, always possible that members who were elected with a caucus’s backing might, in the end, choose not to dance with them that brought them. That doesn’t seem likely, though, since the endorsements don’t just fall out of thin air; candidates choose which caucuses to apply to, for endorsement, and they’re likely to think ahead about where they feel they’d be the best fit.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the “best fit” tends to have a lot to do with the kind of district that elected the members. The Progressive Caucus members tend to be the ones from mostly urban districts that are Safe Democratic, where they replaced other retiring members (or, in a few cases, defeated incumbents in a primary).
There are some big exceptions, though: a few members newly elected from previously GOP-held suburban swing districts are in there too, like Katie Porter, Gil Cisneros, and Mike Levin from Orange County, California, Antonio Delgado in New York, and Andy Kim from suburban New Jersey. If you expand to the Progressive Caucus/New Democrat double-dippers, that also includes seat-flippers like Katie Hill in California, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida, Angie Craig in Minnesota, and Susan Wild in Pennsylvania.
Conventional wisdom might dictate that these new members are getting out on a bit of a limb with their Progressive Caucus membership, given their districts—though the good news is that most of them were pretty upfront about their leanings (especially Porter) in their campaigns. District-wise, the most noteworthy of all the new CPC members might be Jared Golden, an ex-Marine who’ll probably be the most-tattooed member of Congress; he was elected in rural Maine’s 2nd district, a district with a swingy past but that broke 51 to 41 for Donald Trump in 2016. (There are already a few long-time Progressive Caucus members in similarly white and similarly rural districts as Golden’s, but those tend to be districts, like Vermont’s at-large district and Oregon’s 4th, where there’s already a critical mass of progressive voters.)
Meanwhile, the members committing to the New Democrats are mostly from the nation’s suburban districts, most of which are closely divided politically and, with only a few exceptions, districts that Democrats picked up from Republicans this month. These are the members who are much likelier to have to play defense in 2020.
And finally, there’s the matter of the Blue Dog Coalition, the remainder of the party’s centrist rump who’ve tended to gum up the works during majorities past. The Blue Dogs only added seven members, and in fact only one member who isn’t also a double-dipper with the New Democrats: Jeff Van Drew, in New Jersey’s 2nd district, a retiree-heavy area on the Jersey Shore. Another prominent Blue Dog is Ben McAdams, who narrowly won in Utah’s 4th district, which is by far the reddest district that a Democrat picked up in 2018 (Hillary Clinton got only 32 percent here in 2018, though Trump also got only 39 percent, with Evan McMullin getting most of the balance). McAdams no doubt feels the need to differentiate himself from the rest of the Democratic caucus, given his difficult odds at being re-elected.
Those seven new members do, however, bolster the total number of Blue Dogs; their numbers were cut in half in the 2010 GOP wave, and they’d continued to dwindle to only 17, coming into the 2018 election. (Many of the Blue Dogs from previous decades were elected in rural districts from the South or the Midwest, districts where, after an additional decade of cultural and educational sorting between the parties, Democratic candidates simply aren’t likely to get elected today no matter what they promise.)
Though Xochitl Torres Small does indeed represent a very rural and dark-red district (New Mexico’s 2nd), most of the new Blue Dog recruits represent more suburban terrain—and in fact, one of them, Max Rose, represents the lone purely urban district that the GOP used to hold, New York’s 11th (though that district, mostly on Staten Island, is an unusual case in its cultural conservatism).
At any rate, the new Blue Dogs for the most part represent the reddest districts (at the presidential level) that Democrats picked up in 2018—and the few who don’t, like Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia, represent suburbs with an extremely long and robust Republican tradition that moved rapidly toward the center in 2016. (As a side note, Ed Case, who represented Hawaii in the House a decade ago, and who just returned to office, was a Blue Dog in his first go-round. He, however, isn’t one now, perhaps more mindful that a district as blue as his wouldn’t look favorably on Blue Dog membership anymore, and he remains in the “undeclared" pile.)
The good news, from a policy standpoint, is that that the new Democratic majority has a large-enough foundation of Progressives plus New Democrats that only a few Blue Dogs need to be won over to form a majority on any given vote (in other words, there are 235 current members, and only 24 Blue Dogs, so one only needs to pick off 7 of them to get to 218 total, assuming everybody else stays in line). That may actually give Nancy Pelosi an easier-to-manage caucus than her numerically larger one (with 257 total) that she had in 2009-2010, when there were 54 Blue Dogs!
(NOTE: Both the graphic and the body of the text have been updated slightly since publication, in order to reflect the release of the New Democrats’ formal membership list on Friday morning.)