Being a moderate in Congress is expensive

Freshmen members of moderate coalitions spent twice as much on their campaigns as freshmen liberals, according to campaign finance data.

by Anne Kim, Vice President, Domestic Policy | Progressive Policy Institute

Few jobs in politics might be tougher than to be a moderate member of Congress. Moderates typically hail from competitive districts, which means they enter office with targets on their backs from an opposition eager to wrest away their seats. And unlike their colleagues in safely blue or red seats, they must juggle the concerns of a diverse constituency, meaning less room to embrace the kinds of ideas that appeal to an activist base.

Moderates’ vulnerability also inevitably means a greater burden when it comes to campaign fundraising. In 2018, for instance, moderate Democratic candidates who won their campaigns spent twice as much as winning candidates from more liberal, comfortably blue districts. Moderates, in other words, literally paid the price for Democrats’ majority — a fact the progressive left should keep in mind as the 2020 election approaches.

According to an analysis of data from OpenSecrets.org, the 64 Democratic freshmen elected in 2018 spent an average of about $4.4 million on their campaigns. Freshmen who joined the moderate New Democrat or Blue Dog Coalitions, however, spent an average of $5.16 million on their campaigns in 2018, while freshmen in the Progressive Caucus spent an average of $2.38 million per campaign. (Liberal superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spent even less — OpenSecrets reported total spending by her campaign to be $1.67 million.)

Not surprisingly, the biggest freshmen spenders in 2018 were the 41 Democrats who won their seats in districts that had voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. The average spending by candidates in these districts — three-fourths of whom are also now New Democrats or Blue Dogs — was $5.37 million.

This higher fundraising bar that moderates face also doesn’t diminish after they win office. In 2014, for instance, as a prior analysis shows, the average incumbent New Democrat or Blue Dog also spent roughly twice as much as the average Progressive Caucus member to keep his or her seat. If you count outside spending, that ratio increases to nearly 3 to 1.

Why is being a moderate in Congress so expensive?

First, in the highly competitive districts that are moderates’ usual terrain, it’s simply not enough to mobilize base voters to win. Rather, they also need to attract independents and other swing voters — an expensive proposition when the opposition is equally motivated to do the same.

Second, as gerrymandering shrinks the number of competitive seats, political money and firepower are becoming increasingly concentrated on an increasingly tiny battlefield. Already, the House Republicans’ campaign arm, the NRCC, has announced the 55 districts it will try to claim or reclaim in 2020.

These higher stakes also mean that moderate districts tend to attract more outside spending, which in turn demands that candidates build themselves bigger war chests to stave off attack. In 2018, outside groups spent a total of about $1.3 billion to influence Congressional races, much of it again focused on the handful of races that ultimately decided the majority. For instance, among the contests that drew the greatest outside interest were the districts ultimately won by freshmen New Democrats Rep. Katie Hill (CA-25), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and Debbie Murcasel-Powell (FL-26). These three races alone drew $35.6 million in outside spending from interest groups of all stripes.

The total cost of the 2018 campaigns was a whopping $5.7 billion, the highest ever for a mid-term election, and it’s safe to assume that the 2020 campaigns will be another record-breaking cycle. For Democrats, defending their fragile majority in the House will be at least as expensive, if not more so, than winning it in the first place.

Given the scope of this challenge, progressives should reconsider some of the moves they have made or are contemplating that could add to the burdens of vulnerable moderates — such as threatening primary challenges that could siphon away precious resources; pressuring candidates to turn away campaign dollars from certain sources; or forcing members to over-rely on small-dollar donations, for which competition will be intense.

Rather, Democrats and the progressive left should be doing what they can to shore up the precarious center. Despite the headline-grabbing profiles of freshmen liberals such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio and Rashida Tlaib, moderates are the true backbone of the Democratic majority — ideologically and financially.