WASHINGTON — Democratic Reps. Ben McAdams of Utah and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York sit next to each other on the House Financial Services Committee, but they are ideologically a room apart.
The two symbolize a divide among the freshman class of Democrats that played out last week in the House Democratic Caucus — and that political observers say must be bridged if Democrats hope to take back the White House or keep their majority in the House in 2020.
"At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on (Feb. 28), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said some of her colleagues could find themselves 'on a list' of primary election targets, after they voted for a Republican amendment requiring that undocumented immigrants who try to buy guns be reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to people in the room who were not authorized to comment publicly," The Washington Post reported.
But moderate Democrats are pushing back, saying if they hadn't won Republican-leaning districts in November, such as Utah's 4th District that McAdams narrowly captured by defeating GOP incumbent Rep. Mia Love, the Democrats would not control that chamber.
“It’s this class of members that got elected that are the reason we have the majority,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Florida, a co-chairman of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, in another Post article on the flare-up. “Many of them come from these (moderate) districts, and their promise to their constituents was that they were going to put people over politics.”
The moderates are not only getting heat from their own party, but since the day after their election they have been targeted by conservative groups enlisting candidates to take back the districts in 2020, the Deseret News reported in January.
“For these incoming freshmen House Democrats representing Republican leaning districts, one bad vote on an important policy issue could be the difference between winning and losing in 2020,” warned J.T. Mastranadi, political director for Citizens United, which lends campaign support to conservatives who support President Donald Trump’s agenda.
The New York Times followed some of those centrist Democrats as they held town meetings in their conservative leaning districts last month, assuring their constituents that their first allegiance is to them and not the party.
The story mentions McAdams fielding "pointed questions about whether he supports the Green New Deal and socialism. More broadly, constituents worried how their moderate congressman might fare in the same caucus as the liberal bomb-throwers. Richard Hansen, a Republican county commissioner and one of the two dozen constituents who attended the town hall in Nephi, a mountain town of 6,000, shared a wish with the Utah Democrat: 'I hope they don’t corrupt you.'"
McAdams said they won't and if the party veers left, he'll stay firmly in the center. "People are going to have to take it or leave it," he said.
To be effective, the candidates ... must discern whether the entire party is shifting, or if the rise of progressives poses a risk to party unity. – Gallup
In an op-ed in USA Today last week, McAdams argued that a moderate stance is also smart politics.
"My fellow New Democrat and Blue Dog Coalition leaders believe that Republicans have ceded huge territory in the center by abandoning opportunity, innovation and fiscal responsibility on debt and deficits," he wrote. "Moderates in Congress have an opportunity to be a strong, reasonable voice, in contrast with some of the reckless policies that, in truth, both parties have often pursued. As a voting bloc, there’s a lot of strength in the middle."
A Gallup analysis of 18 years of survey data showed that the percentage of Democrats who identify as liberal has been increasing over the past two decades and what that means for the future of the party and the candidates lining up for the nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
For the first time, a majority of Democrats (51 percent) identified with the liberal label in 2018, according to Gallup, while the percentage who identified as moderate or conservative was at 47 percent.
"To be effective, the candidates — as well as Democrats' top-ranking leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — must discern whether the entire party is shifting, or if the rise of progressives poses a risk to party unity," Gallup reported.
In its analysis, Gallup found the biggest jump to the liberal camp was among whites and those with a college education. Meanwhile, growth in the party has been most dramatic among non-whites, those with a college degree and those who don't identify with a religion.
But John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster, reads the data as a glass nearly half-full of moderates and conservatives who should be welcomed and respected by Democrats with more liberal views.
“There is, without a doubt, a myth that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez somehow represents the narrative of Democratic primary voters in the country,” Anzalone said in The Washington Post. “Almost half of them identify themselves as moderates or conservative.”
Indeed, a recent CNBC reporton where the candidates vying for the Democratic Party's nomination to run for president stand on health care found a broad range of ideas.
"And while many of the 2020 challengers say they want to implement some form of 'Medicare for all' or 'universal health care,' worlds of difference emerge in the details of what exactly those phrases mean in practice," CNBC reported.
CNN concluded in its analysis of a House bill that would establish a single-payer, government-run health care system that the support was more "intense" (all but one of the 104 cosponsors represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump) than broad.
"None of the people that were able to win in tough districts in 2018 ran on Medicare for all, and the reason is that they can't," says Matt Bennett, Third Way's executive vice president for public affairs. "People in those districts don't support it."
So, the question for the Democratic Party is whether those moderate politicians and their supporters should be respected or shunned, wrote CNN’s Chris Cillizza.
"Will they be driven out as insufficiently loyal to the cause — as tea party (and Trump) Republicans have done to their own centrist wing over the last decade? Or will liberals find a way to incorporate the views of their more moderate party members as they try to find a candidate who can oust President Donald Trump in 2020?"