Their 2018 win was historic. What have these Democrats accomplished?

The historic midterm election of 2018 brought the biggest blue wave to the House of Representatives in over 40 years. And it ushered in the youngest and most diverse group of lawmakers ever.

So what does this freshman class have to show for its first year in office? There are 57 Democrats now (one quit, one left the team). They’ve become prolific fundraisers; tried to check executive power, but passed few laws; and wielded outsized influence on social media and cable news, though not always for the best.

Raised the (money) bar

The freshman class is hauling in the campaign money, a strong indicator of voter enthusiasm. Twelve of the top 20 House Democratic fundraisers are first-termers, and women dominate the group.

1. Adam B. Schiff

(Calif.)

$4.4 million

2. Nancy Pelosi

(Calif.)

$3.7M

First-timers

3. Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez

(N.Y.)

$3.4M

4. Ben Ray

Luján

(N.M.)

$2.7M

5. Raja Krishna-

moorthi (Ill.)

$2.6M

6. Ilhan Omar

(Minn.)

$2.6M

7. Josh

Gottheimer

(N.J.)

$2.5M

8. Katie Porter

(Calif.)

$2.5M

9. Josh Harder

(Calif.)

$2.4M

10. Max Rose

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

11. Elissa

Slotkin

(Mich.)

$2.1M

12. Richard E.

Neal

(Mass.)

$2.1M

14. Hakeem

Jeffries

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

13. Antonio

Delgado

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

15. Steny H.

Hoyer

(Md.)

$2.1M

16. Haley

Stevens

(Mich.)

$2M

17. Katie Hill

(Calif.)

$2M

18. Mikie

Sherrill

(N.J.)

$1.9M

19. Harley

Rouda

(Calif.)

$1.8M

20. Joe

Cunningham

(S.C.)

$1.8M

First-timers

1. Adam B. Schiff

(Calif.)

$4.4 million

2. Nancy Pelosi

(Calif.)

$3.7M

3. Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)

$3.4M

4. Ben Ray Luján

(N.M.)

$2.7M

5. Raja Krishna-

moorthi (Ill.)

$2.6M

7. Josh

Gottheimer

(N.J.)

$2.5M

6. Ilhan Omar

(Minn.)

$2.6M

8. Katie Porter

(Calif.)

$2.5M

9. Josh Harder

(Calif.)

$2.4M

10. Max Rose

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

11. Elissa

Slotkin

(Mich.)

$2.1M

12. Richard E.

Neal

(Mass.)

$2.1M

14. Hakeem

Jeffries

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

13. Antonio

Delgado

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

15. Steny H.

Hoyer

(Md.)

$2.1M

16. Haley

Stevens

(Mich.)

$2M

17. Katie Hill

(Calif.)

$2M

18. Mikie

Sherrill

(N.J.)

$1.9M

19. Harley

Rouda

(Calif.)

$1.8M

20. Joe

Cunningham

(S.C.)

$1.8M

First-timers

1. Adam B. Schiff

(Calif.)

$4.4 million

2. Nancy Pelosi

(Calif.)

$3.7M

3. Alexandria

Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)

$3.4M

5. Raja Krishna-

moorthi (Ill.)

$2.6M

4. Ben Ray Luján

(N.M.)

$2.7M

6. Ilhan Omar

(Minn.)

$2.6M

7. Josh

Gottheimer

(N.J.)

$2.5M

8. Katie Porter

(Calif.)

$2.5M

9. Josh Harder

(Calif.)

$2.4M

10. Max Rose

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

11. Elissa

Slotkin

(Mich.)

$2.1M

12. Richard E.

Neal

(Mass.)

$2.1M

14. Hakeem

Jeffries

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

13. Antonio

Delgado

(N.Y.)

$2.1M

15. Steny H.

Hoyer

(Md.)

$2.1M

17. Katie Hill

(Calif.)

$2M

16. Haley

Stevens

(Mich.)

$2M

18. Mikie

Sherrill

(N.J.)

$1.9M

19. Harley

Rouda

(Calif.)

$1.8M

20. Joe

Cunningham

(S.C.)

$1.8M

This level of fundraising prowess is not typical for newcomers. The last time a wave this large flipped party control in the House was 2010, the year of the tea party wave.

Eighty-five Republican congresspeople were newly sworn in 2011. The class made up over a third of the Republican caucus and raised about a third of that caucus’s total money. The current class of Democratic freshmen is much smaller, but it has raised a larger slice of the caucus’s money.

Freshmen face-off: The tea party vs. the blue wave

112th Congress

(Republican freshmen)

116th Congress

(Current Democratic freshmen)

Share of party’s

representatives

Share of

money raised

112th Congress (Republican freshmen)

116th Congress (Current Democratic freshmen)

Share of party’s

representatives

Share of

money raised

Note: Fundraising for the 112th Congress covers the entire congressional term. Fundraising for the current class covers Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, 2019.

And they have shown their strength in attracting small-dollar donors, which is reshaping how Democrats finance congressional races.

First-term members relied less on corporate donors to fund their races than Democrat incumbents did, and in the first nine months of 2019, they raised half of the money the caucus got from contributions under $200. “There’s been an exponential jump” in smaller donations made online that was significant for occurring “in the off-year of 2018,” said Tim Lim, a political strategist focused on emerging Democratic candidates.

Dozens of Democratic challengers across the ideological spectrum, from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) to Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), made refusing corporate political action committee money a part of their campaigns.

Biggest battleground fundraiser

Elissa Slotkin (Mich.)

Rejecting corporate money is not new for Democrats. But it was “nowhere near the critical mass that there is today,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. “Clearly this has gained a lot of momentum and become a really successful messaging platform for the Democrats.”

To date, 34 freshmen Democrats have pledged to refuse corporate PAC donations, according to End Citizens United, an advocacy group for campaign finance reform. The pledge is not airtight: Corporate PACs do donate to the party and its committees, which distribute the funds to candidates.

The real test will be whether freshmen can stick to their guns now that they are running as incumbents, especially for competitive seats. “Rejecting PAC money is not much of a sacrifice for candidates, for challengers and open-seat races,” said Krumholz, “but [it’s] most definitely a significant sacrifice for sitting members of Congress.”

So far, however, Slotkin has been the largest fundraiser from the 18 Democratic districts currently rated as “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report.

Passed few laws

Many Democratic freshmen came to Congress with big goals. Reps. Veronica Escobar (Tex.) and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (Fla.) ran in part on supporting comprehensive immigration changes. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) ran on economic equity issues, including a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all and tuition-free college.

These policy initiatives have not yet made it into law.

Up against one of the most polarized Congresses ever and a Republican-controlled Senate, this term has generally seen few laws passed by either party. According to GovTrack, this Congress has enacted just 113 laws to date, and is on pace for around 300. The 99th Congress, where Republicans controlled the Senate under President Ronald Reagan but Democrats held the House, enacted 687 laws.

Biggest bill passed

Lucy McBath (Ga.)

And first-term members aren’t the most legislatively successful, even when their party is in the majority, says University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn L. Pearson. “They don’t have the most experience. They haven’t been on committees for a long time. And so it’s not surprising.”

A few newcomers, from districts that President Trump won in 2016, sponsored significant new bills that now are law.

Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), whose son was shot and killed in 2012, campaigned on enacting gun control legislation, which remains elusive. But she was successful in finding bipartisan and White House support for the HAVEN Act, which provides protections to veterans in bankruptcy.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) sponsored the new law that raises benefits for disabled veterans. And Trump also signed into law Upstate New York Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado’s bill to help family farmers restructure their debt.

Some moderate freshmen focused their campaigns more on what they would stop Republicans from doing. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who won a district held by the GOP since 1971, decided to run the day district incumbent and other House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Other first-term representatives have helped set their party’s agenda with House moves that have no chance of passing. In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced a nonbinding resolution calling for a Green New Deal that would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions while tackling economic inequality.

The resolution never made it out of committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) forced a procedural vote to kill it, a move Democrats called a “stunt.” The Green New Deal lives on, however, in the platform of all major Democratic presidential candidates.

Garnered media attention

It used to be that those newbies in the worst Capitol offices were widely ignored by television cameras. The tea party’s upstarts received but 3 percent of the mentions of House Republicans on cable news networks. Then came saturation coverage of political polarization — and AOC.

Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted in a primary the longtime center-left Democrat representing Queens, was the most talked-about freshman, according to a Washington Post analysis of Internet Archive TV News clips from Fox News, CNN and MSNBC from Jan. 4, 2019, through Jan 3., 2020. (Only Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow California Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the Democratic Party’s face of impeachment, were talked about more, coming in first and second, respectively.) Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) also made the top 10. Taken together, these three accounted for over three-quarters of the cable-news mentions freshmen received.

Share of cable news clips that appeared on each channel

Ocasio−Cortez (N.Y.)

5,287 clips

Omar (Minn.)

3,075 clips

Tlaib (Mich.)

1,365 clips

Ocasio−Cortez (N.Y.)

5,287 clips

Omar (Minn.)

3,075 clips

Tlaib (Mich.)

1,365 clips

Ocasio−Cortez (N.Y.)

5,287 clips

Omar (Minn.)

3,075 clips

Tlaib (Mich.)

1,365 clips

An upside: Such widespread national exposure has expanded the trio’s donor base. More than 85 percent of the women’s small-dollar donations came from outside their states.

A downside: Repeated cable coverage rose when they came under attack, from Trump and his allies, the Post analysis found, including a sharp rise on Fox News.

But no freshman has had as charged a relationship with national media as Omar.

The widespread coverage that she received in March illustrates this double-edged sword.

Largest news cycle

Ilhan Omar (Minn.)

The congresswoman, who was born in Somalia, suggested Israel’s supporters have an “allegiance to a foreign country.” Trump and other conservatives labeled her an “anti-Semite,” it also caused a fissure among House Democrats, who passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

The president’s repeated attacks on Omar also illustrate the ways cable coverage and social media amplify each other. In July, Trump’s racist tweet that Omar and three of her colleagues should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” prompted days of wall-to-wall coverage. The president then dedicated several minutes at a widely covered rally attacking Omar, which the crowd followed up with chants of “Send her back!” That led to renewed threats on Omar’s life, and U.S. Capitol Police increased her security details.

“The national attention that she has received has in many ways been helpful to her,” Pearson said. “She’s raised an incredible amount of money. But it’s also been problematic.”

Connected with a national audience

Four upstart Democrats in particular have held an outsize presence on social media, helping them capture the imagination of voters, particularly younger ones, and build a base of support and funding across the country.

Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and Pressley instantly became known — as the “Squad” when Ocasio-Cortez posted a photo of the four on Instagram with that caption less than a week after the election. They have dominated social media ever since.

“They have a much better ability than many of the members they replaced to build direct connections with national audiences,” said Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on money in politics.

Part of the Squad’s social appeal is who they are: four young women of color. “One reason why it resonates with people, is that they are seeing representation that we wouldn’t have seen before,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University. “Each of them have stories we don’t normally see [in Congress], from being a refugee to having to pay student loans.”

Largest social media presence

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)

Ocasio-Cortez has by far the largest social media audience and engagement of any representative. For an average day on Twitter since joining office, each of her tweets are interacted with — liked or retweeted — nearly 55,000 times, according to a Post analysis of Twitter/CrowdTangle data from Jan. 4, 2019, through Sept. 29, 2019. Schiff, who has been the caucus’s leading face of impeachment, is the only House member to come close, averaging about 41,500 interactions per tweet.

She has expanded her reach to other platforms as well, using Instagram Live, for instance, to broadcast more ordinary and intimate moments of her life, like cooking soup.

All of these mediums, says An Xiao Mina, author of “From Memes to Movements,” are just new ways to answer the tried-and-true question of American politics: “Do you feel like you could have a beer with this candidate?”

Kept local ties

Building a national network only gets you so far, of course. Congresspeople represent — and need to earn the votes of — the people at home.

Many of the first-timers have prioritized face-to-face dialogues with their constituents. Of the 10 House Democrats who held the most town halls, seven were freshmen.

First-timers

1. Cindy Axne (Iowa)

57 town halls

2. Antonio

Delgado (N.Y.)

33

3. Sean Maloney (N.Y.)

29

4. Sean Casten

(Ill.)

27

5. Tom

O’Halleran

(Ariz.)

26

5. Kim Schrier

(Wash.)

26

7. Joe Neguse

(Colo.)

24

7. Xochitl

Torres Small

(N.M.)

24

9. Brad

Schneider

(Ill.)

23

10. Rashida

Tlaib

(Mich.)

22

First-timers

1. Cindy Axne (Iowa)

57 town halls

2. Antonio

Delgado (N.Y.)

33

3. Sean Maloney (N.Y.)

29

4. Sean Casten

(Ill.)

27

5. Tom

O’Halleran

(Ariz.)

26

5. Kim Schrier

(Wash.)

26

7. Joe Neguse

(Colo.)

24

7. Xochitl

Torres Small

(N.M.)

24

9. Brad

Schneider

(Ill.)

23

10. Rashida

Tlaib

(Mich.)

22

First-timers

1. Cindy Axne (Iowa)

57 town halls

2. Antonio

Delgado (N.Y.)

33

3. Sean Maloney (N.Y.)

29

4. Sean Casten

(Ill.)

27

5. Tom

O’Halleran

(Ariz.)

26

5. Kim Schrier

(Wash.)

26

7. Joe Neguse

(Colo.)

24

7. Xochitl

Torres Small

(N.M.)

24

9. Brad

Schneider

(Ill.)

23

10. Rashida

Tlaib

(Mich.)

22

Each one — with the exception of New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who is now a Republican anyway — held at least one town hall in 2019, according to the Town Hall Project.

Most town halls

Cindy Axne (Iowa)

Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), also representing a district Trump won in 2016, ran on a seven-point plan for campaign finance changes that included a proposal to “hold regular town halls and publicize open meetings.” She has held 57, the most in her caucus.

One of the most contentious town halls came following Axne’s decision to support the impeachment inquiry. Republicans encouraged constituents to come out and voice their disapproval. While the audience was raucous at times — mostly with each other — impeachment was only discussed for six minutes and, like many other moderate Democrats have argued, Axne emphasized her ability to work on other issues alongside the inquiry.

Checked executive and banking power

Jockeying for committee assignments begins with each new Congress. Committees give congresspeople unique power over the legislation and oversight of specific issues, and some assignments carry much more prestige than others.

This new class received some uniquely powerful positions — and some have not been shy in using them.

Committee on
Oversight and Reform

  • Harley Rouda (Calif.)
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)
  • Ayanna Pressley (Mass.)
  • Rashida Tlaib (Mich.)
  • Katie Porter (Calif.)
  • Deb Haaland (N.M.)

Committee on
Financial Services

  • Rashida Tlaib (Mich.)
  • Katie Porter (Calif.)
  • Cindy Axne (Iowa)
  • Sean Casten (Ill.)
  • Ayanna Pressley (Mass.)
  • Ben McAdams (Utah)
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)
  • Jennifer Wexton (Va.)
  • Madeleine Dean (Pa.)
  • Jesús “Chuy” García (Ill.)
  • Sylvia Garcia (Tex.)
  • Dean Phillips (Minn.)

The Appropriations Committee and Ways and Means Committee are two of the most influential in Congress. Neither has had a freshman Democratic member since 2007. Six first-termers got seats on the Oversight and Reform, the main investigative body of the House and thus a popular placement in the Trump era. Twelve landed on Financial Services, responsible for tech oversight. Their refusal to accept campaign donations from corporate PACs has liberated them from the deference sometimes shown to banking interests.

Toughest questioner

Katie Porter (Calif.)

One of those thirteen, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), has commanded national attention for her methodical takedowns during committee hearings. A former consumer protection attorney, Porter stumped JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon by questioning him about how his lowest-paid employees managed to cover bills. She went after Trump officials as well, asking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Kathy Kraninger to calculate an “APR.” (She refused.)

“Those run of business moments that she has had have been cut and sliced so that they get massive viral attention,” said political strategist Lim, which Porter’s team has turned into donations and robust email lists.

Porter’s most popular tweet — with over 38,000 retweets and a video that was viewed more than 4.7 million times — is her exchange with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, where he mistook the foreclosure term “REO” for the chocolate sandwich cookie.

For some of the newcomers, the political moment found them — and thrust them forward.

Pelosi resisted impeachment calls from her members for months, in part to shield moderate Democratic freshmen who won districts Trump won in 2016. The crucial tipping point for Pelosi came in September, when seven of these Democrats, all with a background in national security, penned an op-ed in The Post in support of an impeachment inquiry.

Pelosi announced the inquiry the next day. Three months later, she chose seven impeachment managers to present the case against Trump. Two of them are freshmen, Rep. Sylvia Garcia of Texas, a longtime Houston politician, and Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a lawyer and former Army Ranger who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Impeachment was also the moment the freshman class of Democrats lost its second member. Van Drew, who opposed both articles, changed his party affiliation to Republican after the vote. Rep. Katie Hill (Calif.) resigned in October after the House ethics committee opened an investigation into her.

Gave influencial endorsements

Another sign of unusual influence: Some of these brand-new House members have bona fides highly sought and prized by much older seasoned pols — who are running for president.

Several candidates are touting their freshman endorsements.

Team
Joe Biden

  • Abby Finkenauer (Iowa)
  • Elaine Luria (Va.)
  • Chrissy Houlahan (Pa.)
  • Colin Allred (Tex.)
  • Tom Malinowski (N.J.)
  • Cindy Axne (Iowa)

Team
Elizabeth Warren

  • Lori Trahan (Mass.)
  • Deb A. Haaland (N.M.)
  • Andy Levin (Mich.)
  • Katie Porter (Calif.)
  • Ayanna Pressley (Mass.)

Team
Bernie Sanders

  • Ilhan Omar (Minn.)
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.)
  • Rashida Tlaib (Mich.)

Team
Mike Bloomberg

  • Max Rose (N.Y.)
  • Harley Rouda (Calif.)

Team
Amy Klobuchar

  • Dean Phillips (Minn.)
  • Angie Craig (Minn.)

Team
John Delaney

  • David Trone (Md.)

High-profile endorsement

Abby Finkenauer (Iowa)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) chose the October debate stage to crow about his endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib. He had just returned to the trail after a heart attack, and his Queens rally with Ocasio-Cortez brought out one of the largest crowds of the cycle — and revitalized his campaign.

Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), who flipped her district blue in 2018 and is the second-youngest congressperson at 31, delivered a high-profile endorsement in early January to former vice president Joe Biden.

She showed off her political sway months earlier when she co-sponsored a candidate forum alongside labor groups in her district that was attended by nine presidential hopefuls.

Diversified the House

Led by this new class, Congress has never more closely matched the demographics of the American public.

House Democrats elected 89 congresswomen, 35 of which were freshmen. Over a third of freshmen House Democrats identify as a person of color, including the first two Muslim women and Native American women to ever serve in Congress.

In 1945, nonwhites in the 79th Congress represented only 1 percent of the House and Senate. In the current Congress, nonwhites now account for 22 percent. And female representation in Congress rose sharply with the 2018 election.

Share of women in the House

30 percent of House members

30 percent of House members

Note: Nonvoting delegates and commissioners excluded. Figures represent makeup of Congress on the first day of each session. Only first year of each Congress is labeled.

Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) is an example of someone who was “not the candidate within the Democratic Party to be the nominee,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “She’s young. She’s a woman. She is African American running in a majority-white district.” But she won the Democratic primary and ousted Republican Randy Hultgren, who came to Congress in the tea party wave.

The increased diversity of the 116th Congress has “really changed people’s understanding of the possibility of running for office and what a viable candidate looks like,” said Monica Klein, whose political consulting firm focuses on progressive, diverse and female candidates.

2019 House Class Photo (Brittany Mayes/Washington, D.C.)

This trend is no longer limited to Democrats. In 2018, just 120 Republican women ran in primaries for the House, compared to 356 Democrats. Eighty-six Republicans have already filed for 2020, and the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics has identified another 118 who are likely to file, with deadlines months away in most states.

And many women who narrowly lost in 2018 are challenging again, according to Stephanie Schriock, executive director of Emily’s List, a PAC that backs the candidacies of Democratic women who support abortion rights. “We’ve never seen this volume before. In the past, we’d have to convince them, sit down with the women and say you really need to do this. But this go-around, they’re coming to us.”

About this story

Brittany Renee Mayes joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter, focusing on sports and politics, in June 2018. She previously worked at NPR on the visuals team as a news applications developer.

Kate Rabinowitz is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. She previously worked at Propublica. She joined The Post in 2018.

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