ALLISON PARK, Pa. — Freshman moderate Rep. Conor Lamb won his Republican-held district last year by dodging his party’s leftward drift toward “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.”
But when the Pennsylvania Democrat returned home this month, he faced dozens of progressives begging him to sign onto some of the most liberal legislation the House has ever seen.
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Liberal suburban voters, including in swing districts like Lamb’s, are turning out in droves at town halls to complain about Congress’s inaction on their progressive wish list — even as their representatives remain firmly in the centrist column. It highlights the quandary the vulnerable Democrats find themselves in: Remain moderate enough to appeal to the middle but risk the ire of the invigorated progressives.
That mood of frustration is heightened as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to block even the more modest House-passed bills, dampening some of the energy that helped hoist Democrats into the majority last fall.
At public events this week, freshmen in battleground districts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and California heard from voters clamoring for Medicare for All, drastic climate action, gun control and the impeachment of President Donald Trump, among other priorities. And it’s not just sign-holding, T-shirt clad activists coming to the mics: It’s white-haired men in golf polos, and moms in work dresses and heels.
“Many of us who ran for office for the first time last year are as frustrated as you are,” Lamb told a group of more than 100 people in the affluent town of Allison Park said of the Senate’s inaction on gun control. “What I have heard from my constituents time and time again is, please, do something to address the fact that Washington can’t get anything done.”
But the freshman centrist also rejected calls to back Medicare for All from at least a half-dozen constituents — a move that’s been repeated by many other moderates, though it frustrates some in their own base who are growing restless on the bigger issues.
“We have a lot of work to do on health care, there’s no doubt about it,” Lamb told a middle-aged nurse this week who urged him to support the bill. “I happen to think the issue of prescription drug prices is the alligator closest to the boat, the one we absolutely have to deal with in this Congress.”
Lamb, instead, said most people in the district are “pretty happy” with their current insurance plans. Later in the night, he took another swipe at the ever-growing scope of the bill, and at 2020 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders: “It seems like each time Sen. Sanders introduces it, he adds another thing.”
Even swing-district Democrats who have embraced the progressive agenda, like Rep. Mike Levin of California, are coming home to voters who are irked by the stalled progress. Many are pivoting to McConnell, turning him into the boogeyman in 2020 for his so-called “legislative graveyard.”
The mood of the August recess in many districts this summer is one of exasperation. House Democrats have a majority for the first time in eight years — but not enough to show for it, according to some voters.
At a town hall in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar on Thursday night, a frustrated Levin mentioned McConnell more than two dozen times, often lamenting that so many House-passed bills — from gun control to election security — are “sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk,” and blasting the news media for “the narrative that we’re not getting stuff done.”
“We talk about the McConnell graveyard as if it’s a binary, take it up-or-down on a vote. But they can also mark bills up and amend them. That’s how it’s supposed to work,” Levin told voters. “It’s maddening … That’s why I think it would be good if Mitch McConnell found a new line of work.”
Republicans have used a similar line of attack to quell anger among their base — most notably during the rise of the tea party movement that took aim at Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But now the spotlight is on McConnell, who relishes the “grim reaper” moniker that Democrats have given him.
“I don’t know if it’s beneficial or not,” Levin told POLITICO when asked about his repeated criticisms of McConnell. “I bring it up because it’s true.”
“[Voters] say, why isn’t the House doing more? Well, we are. We are moving forward. It’s the Senate, and it’s Mitch McConnell specifically that’s unwilling to do his job,” he added. “They didn’t run for positions as a United States senator so that they could watch Mitch McConnell block all of the legislation that we send them.”
With control of just one chamber, Democrats have also struggled to make progress on even on the least contentious of their campaign promises, like drug pricing and infrastructure. That puts a strain on the dozens of freshmen like Levin and Lamb who clawed back their seats from the GOP last fall, largely campaigning on local and pocketbook issues.
But key parts of the base are also keen to show Democrats they’re more interested in fighting Trump than simply trying to fix potholes.
Democratic Party bosses, they say, are still playing it safe on the more divisive issues that are reenergizing voters on the left — an attempt to hold onto a “big tent” base in 2020 and protect vulnerable members like Lamb and Levin without alienating increasingly vocal progressives.
That’s a tough task, especially as trademark ideas, like Medicare for All, have gained prominence with help from a more-liberal-than-ever field of 2020 presidential candidates.
The tone of the town halls is far from the scathing public showdowns of the post-2010 Obamacare era. Still, the events this week drew standing room-only crowds in some cases, with dozens of people looking to take the mic and occasionally prompting outbursts of “impeach now!” or “Moscow Mitch.”
Levin has embraced many of the agenda items progressive voters are pushing. Still, the California freshman was confronted over his support for a Senate-passed humanitarian aid package for migrants at the southern border, which most Democrats opposed over concerns it didn’t go far enough.
He also took heat from a constituent who abandoned the Democratic Party over “repulsive” and “anti-Semitic” comments from some of Levin’s colleagues in the House — a reference to accusations that the House’s first two elected Muslim women, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), are anti-Semitic.
Levin, who is Jewish, noted that he has criticized members of both parties for anti-Semitic remarks, but that wasn’t enough for the voter — underscoring the extent to which vulnerable lawmakers like Levin are being forced to manage GOP-fueled blowback in their historically conservative districts.
Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, another freshman who won a longtime GOP stronghold, also faced calls from some constituents to help dampen the more extreme voices within the party — who often give Republicans an opportunity to paint the entire party as extremists.
At a town hall in the upscale suburb of Verona, N.J., on Monday, the Sherrill had to personally intervene in a dispute among her constituents after she was asked for her response to Israel’s denying entry to Tlaib and Omar.
One man, who called himself an independent, spoke up: “Israel has every right to ban them, they are anti-Semitic.” That prompted shouts from people in the back, some of whom were holding “Impeach Now” signs, who said, “That’s completely false!”
“I have spoken out against anti-Semitic comments, and others have as well,” Sherrill said, after quieting the crowd. “We’re not always the loudest voices, but we are the majority of voices.”
In the course of the 75-minute event, Sherrill also faced an intense push for Medicare for All, impeachment and robust climate action, with many people in the room applauding loudly each time a progressive issue was raised.
Sherrill, too, turned down multiple requests to co-sponsor the Medicare for All bill, to visible disappointment in the crowd.
“Right now, I think it’s critical that we bring down health care costs and get everybody covered. That is my goal,” Sherrill said, who made it clear she understood the pain of rising drug prices and insurance bills with stories about her own families’ costly treatments.
Undoubtedly, each Democratic battleground district is more than just a pocket of wealthy suburbs with massive town hall turnouts. Lamb’s district, for instance, includes shrinking Rust Belt cities like Beaver Falls.
In more rural districts, members like Rep. Antonio Delgado of New York are hearing more about local problems like a wind turbine project and shrinking populations than progressive priorities — though at a town hall last week, the New York freshman fielded questions about impeachment and climate change.
Separately, in the Dallas suburbs last week, freshman Rep. Colin Allred faced a barrage of questions on confronting Trump’s policies — related to immigration, white nationalism, Russian hacking and impeachment — in between questions about Social Security and infrastructure
Many of the freshman Democrats received a hero’s welcome at their town halls, several of which took place in bluer parts of their district, mobbed with supporters. Levin heard mostly positive comments from constituents in the beachside city of Del Mar; his district includes a sliver of Orange County, a historically conservative bastion that is trending blue.
Still, the issue of stalled promises kept returning.
Sherrill was pressed hard on House Democrats’ inability to make change on infrastructure, guns, and immigration.
“We have got to get the Senate to start taking up these bills,” Sherrill said on the background checks bill, appearing to speak directly to the dozen-plus women wearing bright red “Moms Demand Action” T-shirts who’d come to push for gun control. “I am talking about it nonstop. We can’t get derailed. We just have to be myopically focused.”