On the night House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., finally won the gavel, new Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., gave a rousing partisan speech on the House floor. He touched on themes that had his caucus on their feet, like abortion and voting rights, health care and housing. 

If the numbers are to be believed, Jeffries is presiding over one of the most progressive Democratic caucuses in history. Of the 212 Democratic members of the House, over 100 are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the highest number ever. 

On the flip side, the Blue Dog Coalition, the home of moderate Democrats, is down to seven members, the smallest it’s ever been. 

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Part of the reason for the shrinking Blue Dog membership is because of an internal disagreement over the coalition’s name. Politico reported that of the 15 members who were expected to join the group, only seven did. 

Even though the Democratic moderates are a small group, they still hold influence in a House that is closely divided, especially given the advocacy of members of the GOP Freedom Caucus, who seem intent on making life difficult for McCarthy. 

But among the Democrats, the progressives hold sway. 

Under the leadership of Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the Progressive Caucus has grown in power and influence over the past few years. By tightening membership rules, Jayapal has led the coalition to vote more as a bloc, making them more formidable. And with such a large group of lawmakers behind her, Jeffries and other party leaders have no choice but to listen to what she has to say. 

The factors affecting the disappearance of moderates among Democrats and Republicans include partisan redistricting, a primary process that rewards ideological conformity and a more activist electorate, according to DeWayne Lucas, a political science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

“On both sides of the aisle, there are simply fewer opportunities for moderate candidates to successfully run for office or to work with members of the party once elected,” he said. 

Typically, when a party loses the majority, many of the unsuccessful candidates are in swing districts and can be more moderate. Given Democrats are now in the minority, it would make sense that the party would get more liberal. But the shift may also reflect growing progressivism among Democratic voters. 

According to a recent Gallup poll, 54% of Democrats identify as liberal, the highest number ever. That’s up from 29% in 2002. Young, white college-educated voters are more likely to call themselves liberal compared to older, Black or Hispanic Democratic voters, according to Gallup

In reliably blue districts, progressive candidates — often backed by groups like the Working Families Party, a party representing the interests of labor unions — have primaried more moderate Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is one of the more famous examples of this phenomenon, after she knocked out a longtime congressman in the 2018 Democratic primary, with the backing of the Working Families Party.   

In 2022, the only progressive to defeat a moderate Democrat in a primary was Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who beat Rep. Kurt Shrader in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District — but she lost in the general election to her Republican opponent. However, an analysis in The Washington Post found that even when progressives don’t win their primary battles, they still manage to shift incumbents to the left. 

Another obstacle for moderate candidates in both parties is the cost of running, said Lucas. 

“There has been increasing evidence over the last decade that congressional races for moderate Democrats and Republicans are drastically more expensive than those of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans,” he said. “Their races tend to be in swing districts and to cost more to persuade their partisans, independents, and members of the other party to vote for them.”

As the number of moderates in the House dwindles, and with both parties shifting to the left or right, members of Congress will “struggle” to find common ground on public policy, Lucas said. He pointed to the ill will engendered when the GOP removed several Democrats, including Progressive Caucus Deputy Chair Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from key committee assignments.

Republicans say they were just following Democrats’ lead, pointing to a 2021 decision to strip committee assignments from Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Green, R-Ga., and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar.

Now that Democrats are in the minority in the House, the Progressive Caucus has pivoted to putting pressure on President Joe Biden to pursue policy priorities through executive action. They have asked him to declare a climate emergency, and to attack health care costs and expand the power of unions.  

Meanwhile, the smaller Blue Dog Coalition is stepping into the fray over the debt ceiling. They recently sent a letter to Biden and McCarthy offering to “work with you and our colleagues to reach a timely agreement that is good for the country.”

In a caucus where they’re overwhelmingly outnumbered, reaching across the aisle may be their only option.