Sunday, January 14, 2018

Will the 2018 Elections Create Another "Outsider Class" in the House?

The Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 washed unusually large freshman classes into the House of Representatives; roughly a third of the Republican conference in both the 1995-96 and 2011-12 Congresses consisted of newly-elected members (31% and 35%, respectively). Many of these House freshmen lacked previous experience in elective politics. In 2011, for example, the nation's new federal representatives included people who came to Washington from careers as a roofing contractor, an airline pilot, a nurse, a pizzeria owner, a youth camp director, and a professional auctioneer.

In part because many members viewed themselves as "citizen legislators" sent by an angry electorate to shake up business as usual, the classes of 1994 and 2010 immediately earned reputations for rebelling against Republican party leaders and other senior members; especially in 1994, a number of freshmen had pledged to serve a limited number of terms in Congress—giving them little patience for following the traditional practice of deferring to veteran colleagues while methodically climbing the ladder of seniority. As my political science colleague Richard Skinner recently explained, there is a long-standing historical pattern of large freshman classes forcing a redistribution of power within the House—aside from the two already mentioned, the reformist "Watergate class" of 1974 is another well-known example—thus leaving an enduring residue on the operation of Congress for years after their arrival.

Given the growing evidence that 2018 is shaping up to be a good electoral year for the Democrats that may well result in a Democratic House majority 12 months from now, Richard considers the possibility that a large and boisterous "Class of 2018" might similarly provide the voting power for further rounds of institutional reform or leadership challenges. At the very least, he notes, it is likely that newly-elected Democrats will claim a mandate to constrain the power of the Trump administration, which may produce innovations in procedural antagonism between the legislative and executive branches.

A resurgence of activist energy in the Democratic Party since the 2016 election is evident in the unusually large numbers of Democratic candidates for Congress and the record-breaking fundraising totals they have collectively achieved so far. Surveying the field of candidates in many competitive seats, however, reveals a relative lack of conventionally experienced potential nominees for a year in which the conventional wisdom predicts a favorable environment for the party. In Colorado-6 and Pennsylvania-6, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—an arm of the Democratic House leadership—has officially endorsed military veterans Jason Crow and Chrissy Houlahan to oppose Republican incumbents Mike Coffman and Ryan Costello. In Texas-7, three lawyers, one doctor, one university administrator, and one journalist are competing in the Democratic primary to face nine-term incumbent Republican John Culberson. In Washington-8, an open seat vacated by retiring Republican Dave Reichert, an even larger assortment of candidates (all lacking previous tenure in elective office) are jockeying to advance to the general election against the likely Republican nominee, a long-serving state legislator. Hillary Clinton carried all four of these districts against Donald Trump in 2016; Democrats probably need to win all four in order to achieve a national House majority in 2018.

National party leaders and interest groups usually prefer experienced candidates as congressional nominees, especially on the Democratic side; political professionals tend to have better name recognition and fundraising ability, and are viewed as less likely to commit damaging mistakes or suffer embarrassing personal revelations over the course of the campaign. In most cases, the DCCC would have first attempted to recruit elected officeholders to run in its top targeted districts, and thus the current raft of less experienced potential nominees represents a kind of "Plan B" for national Democrats. It's possible that some of these candidates will stumble during the long election season ahead, complicating the party's ambitions to regain control of the House. On the other hand, candidates who are not "career politicians" may hold their own distinctive appeal among swing voters, and records of business success or military service are commonly recognized by the American public as more than adequate qualifications in themselves for election to public office.

Due to the larger stable differences between the two parties, it's likely that the next Democratic freshman class will be less rebellious than their Republican predecessors even if it contains a significant proportion of politically inexperienced representatives. But a party leadership that is growing decidedly long in the tooth is unlikely to attract as much collective loyalty from a generation of younger members who are newer to politics as it has received from the fellow congressional senior citizens who have served alongside those leaders for decades. On the first day of the 2019-20 congressional session, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will be 78 years old, her deputy Steny Hoyer will be 79, and third-in-command Jim Clyburn will also be 78. Regardless of what happens this November, the time is nearing for House Democrats to consider the question of succession—and a large and independent-minded class of 2018 would be in position to exert plenty of influence over the party's next direction.