crystal ball

What Will the House Look and Act Like in 2021? Seven Things to Watch

Tuesday's Massachusetts primary pretty much marks the finale of 2020's primary season — and activists' last chance to shift House Democratic Caucus left. In the western 1st CD, Ways and Means Committee chair Rep. Richard Neal, 71, remains the slight favorite over his progressive-backed challenger, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, 31, who accuses him of accepting campaign cash from the fossil fuel industry over the years.

The race has turned ugly, with Morse alleging detractors have fabricated anti-gay smears against him. And GOP Gov. Charlie Baker's embrace of the 16-term incumbent doesn't necessarily help Neal, considering Baker likely lost 1st CD Democrats while winning by 34 points statewide in 2018. However, Neal is somewhat shielded by the fact that far-left enclaves such as Amherst and Northampton were drawn out of the 1st CD in 2011.

The unifying factor for House Democrats for these last few years has been President Trump. It has helped to keep everyone — including the left — from getting out of line. If Trump loses, governing is going to get more challenging for Democrats. There’s every reason to believe Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others are going to see their opportunity to finally push more progressive legislation and put moderates on the spot.

Moreover, the big story in primaries this year, much as in 2018, has been high-profile upsets of iconic Democrats: Marie Newman, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush are following in the footsteps of the "Squad" after defeating Reps. Dan Lipinski (IL-03), Eliot Engel (NY-16) and Lacy Clay (MO-01). Including GOP defeats, seven incumbents lost primaries, a 21st-century record for a non-redistricting cycle.

But despite those upsets stealing the spotlight, the ideological balance of Democrats' increasingly safe House majority is poised to shift surprisingly little. Here are seven things to keep in mind as the next Congress comes into focus: 

1. Nancy Pelosi is a very different leader now than she was in 2009. 

She is the rare Speaker who will get two bites at the apple and she’s a more experienced leader today. In other words, as long as she's in charge, it's less likely she'll be willing to make her vulnerable freshman from suburban districts walk the plank on things like Medicare For All, a ban on all fracking or abolishing ICE.

2. For every one of those progressive triumphs, two moderate Democrats survived challenges in blue districts. 

This list includes Reps. Jim Costa (CA-16), Al Lawson (FL-05), David Scott (GA-13), Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Joyce Beatty (OH-03), Mike Doyle (PA-18), Jim Cooper (TN-05), Henry Cuellar (TX-28) and others. And, most of the suburban moderates Democrats added in 2018 are in good shape for reelection.

3. Democrats are poised to add moderates in places, too. 

Of the 29 Democrats with at least an even chance of coming to Congress in January, 11 have been endorsed by either or both of the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC and Justice Democrats while 16 have been endorsed by either or both of the moderate NewDem Action Fund or Blue Dog PAC (two have been endorsed by neither wing).

In many solidly blue districts, progressives are on track to replace other progressives. For example, CPC-endorsed state Sen. Kai Kahele and NYC Councilman Ritchie Torres are poised to replace Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) and Jose Serrano (NY-15), respectively. And in two redrawn North Carolina districts, NewDem Action Fund-endorsed Deb Ross (NC-02) and Kathy Manning (NC-13) are headed to Congress.

Non-Incumbent Democrats in Solid/Likely/Lean Democrat and Toss Up Races

4. Democrats really do like governing and process. 

Today, there are fewer and fewer "process Republicans" in the House: many of them were sent to Washington with the express purpose to disrupt and deny more government. The progressive caucus doesn’t hold the same leverage of telling leadership that if they don’t get their way they’ll “shut down" the government; their constituents like and need government programs.

5. Biden could put together an early agenda that makes progressives happy by just rescinding Trump executive orders. 

Although we don't have a clear sense of what a 2021 Democratic agenda would look like in part because Democrats are mostly focused on winning and no one knows how bad the pandemic will be then or how it will shift priorities, it doesn't take legislation (or tough votes) to file lawsuits or withdraw others.

6. House Republicans continue to become more Trump-oriented, not less. 

Of the 241 House Republicans in office when Trump was inaugurated in 2017, only 126 (52 percent) are still running for reelection this fall. Incoming GOP members have run on a primary theme of fealty to Trump, with a few exceptions — such as Peter Meijer (MI-03), a self-funder who has run on his military service and barely mentions the president.

7. Republicans' silver lining is likely to be their successful drive to recruit and elect more women. 

If Republicans lose seats again this fall, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy could face a stiff leadership challenge. But he will be able to point to one resurgence: after the GOP's female ranks plummeted from 22 to 13 in 2018, the GOP's candidate recruitment took a 180-degree turn, thanks to work by Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY-21) and others.

Four GOP women are guaranteed to come to Congress, and 10 of the 20 GOP challengers in our Toss Up column are women. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14) sucks up most of the media oxygen for her embrace of conspiracy theories, but the list also includes more impressive candidates such as farmer/homeschooling leader Mary Miller (IL-15) and self-made financial advisory businesswoman Lisa McClain (MI-10).

Female Republicans in Solid/Likely/Lean Republican and Toss Up Races