Midwest Democrats are warning that the party’s coastal image — encapsulated by its new leadership roster — could haunt them politically as they seek to make inroads in America’s heartland.
House Democrats this week elected a new team of leaders to guide them through the next Congress and into the 2024 presidential election, with the top five — and a presumed No. 6 — all hailing from either the East Coast or California.
Those optics are ringing alarms among the Democrats in the center of the country, who fear the party is only solidifying public perceptions that it’s run by urban “elites” out of touch with everyday Americans — perceptions that will hurt them in the same battleground districts that are crucial to winning back the majority.
“It’s always a current that we swim against every two years in middle America is the identity of our party,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a 26-year veteran who’s retiring at the end of this term.
“For so many folks back home it’s viewed as an East coast, West coast Democratic Party, and not enough middle-America representation, people that they can identify with,” he continued. “It’s something I think the caucus needs to work on.”
That debate flared brightly this week during the process to choose the Democrats’ leadership team in the next Congress. At its highest tiers, the new roster features a sweep of racial, gender and generational diversity in Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Katherine Clark (Mass.), Pete Aguilar (Calif.) and James Clyburn (S.C.).
Clyburn, the current No. 3 Democrat, is adding a geographic dimension, saying he’s sticking around to lend a voice to the South.
Yet the same power has not extended to the middle of the country, where you have to jump to the seventh-ranking spot — the newly created chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC) — before you find representation in the form of Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse.
“We do have a problem,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “We need to have people from fly-over country.”
Two heartland Democrats — Reps. Joyce Beatty (Ohio) and Debbie Dingell (Mich.) — had vied to become the vice chair of the caucus next year, along with Rep. Madeleine Dean (Pa.), who represents an area outside Philadelphia. They all lost to Rep. Ted Lieu (D), the highest ranking Asian American in Congress — who, like Aguilar, hails from California.
Dingell, who was the last contender facing Lieu in Wednesday’s ranked-choice vote, had made her pitch using a U.S. map highlighting the districts represented by the current party leaders and committee chairs, the dots largely congregated at the coasts.
When Dingell lost, she did not disguise the frustration that, in her eyes, the heartland was going ignored.
“I hope our caucus understands majorities and minorities are made in the Midwest, and that half this caucus is women,” she said. “But he won, and we’re all gonna pull together.”
Rep. Dan Kildee, another Michigan Democrat, said he expects the newly installed party leaders to take new steps to promote heartland lawmakers and lend them a greater voice in the next Congress. But Dingell’s criticism, he said, was spot on.
“She’s right. And if we’re going to win — especially in the areas that really determine our majorities — we’ve got to make sure that it’s not just about being at the table, but that what we experience on a regular basis is considered when we make our policy choices,” Kildee said. “I’m confident that that will be the case.”
On Thursday, heartland Democrats had more success when the party voted to fill out its messaging arm. Neguse, from Colorado, won the DPCC chair, and two of the three co-chairs serving beneath him — Reps. Dean Phillips (Minn.) and Lauren Underwood (Ill.) — both hail from the Midwest.
“It’s a beginning,” Phillips said Friday.
“I say regularly that we Democrats appropriately focus on racial equity [and] economic equity, but must now include geographic equity if our intention is to succeed electorally,” he continued. “And that means people have to look at our caucus and see themselves; they have to look at our leadership team and see themselves; and they have to look at the geography that we represent and see themselves, too. And I think we’ve been a little deficient in that respect.”
The debate over regional diversity is hardly new to the caucus.
For much of the last two decades, heartland Democrats have lamented that the top leaders — most notably Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Clyburn — all came from the coasts. The frustrations exploded after the 2016 elections, when Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan challenged Pelosi — a frequent target of the GOP’s attacks on “elitist” Democrats — citing the need for Democrats to promote figures who could attract more support in the rural heartland. Pelosi won easily, but Ryan’s 63 votes sent a signal throughout the caucus.
Jeffries, who will replace Pelosi next year, says he’s well aware of the regional tensions within the ranks, and that he, Clark and Aguilar will go to lengths to give every lawmaker a voice.
“Everybody matters — progressives, New Dems, Blue Dogs, whether you’re from the North, the South, the East, the West, the heartland of America, whether you’re in the center, the center left, more progressive parts of our caucus,” he said on Wednesday, shortly after he was elected to be leader. “Everybody matters.”
Complicating the Democrats’ regional diversity message, Jeffries’s ascension means that the top Democrats in both chambers next year will be Brooklyn natives, as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) is set to remain in that spot.
Phillips, who will soon have a hand in devising the Democrat’s messaging strategy, said the DPCC elections this week will help to rectify the party’s coastal image troubles. The Republicans will find a new foil to replace Pelosi, he acknowledged, but heartland Democrats can still win by carving out a local profile that insulates them from those broad-brush demonizations.
“There’s a massive disconnect from who the party is, what it represents and the perception of it,” Phillips said. “I think better introducing who we are as individuals first, and then the collective second, is the opportunity.”