WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren gave a nod to the first two Native Americans elected to Congress. Sen. Jeff Merkley got a moment on-camera with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And virtually all of the Democrats who would be president have reached out to freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham in early-voting South Carolina.
Think of it as dancing with the freshman stars, 2020 edition.
Democrats hoping to defeat President Donald Trump are engaged in a furious courtship of congressional newcomers, a sign of the energy the freshmen bring to a party looking for a new generation of leaders, direction and know-how.
For the political suitors, there's credibility to be gained from the younger, more diverse and social media-savvy members of the biggest new class since Watergate. The freshmen, meanwhile, are finding mentors among the presidential dreamers, as well as aligned interests in their ranks on such issues as climate, health care and more.
But there is risk, too, for the belles of the early Democratic primary ball. Only weeks after their Washington debuts, the freshmen lawmakers are still developing from candidates into lawmakers and representatives, building voting records and raising money for their own re-election bids. And some have discovered the downside of their fame, having been embroiled in controversy due to their statements and proposals.
“If you are newly elected and you take your eye out the district and you're staring at the shiny bright object of a presidential campaign, you are making it harder to get re-elected,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, the House Democrats’ chief campaign strategist for four years. The attention may be flattering, Israel said, but his advice is to do the sometimes grueling constituent casework. “Keep your feet on the ground of your district, and not in the silver clouds of a presidential campaign.”
But the presidential candidates are calling. And name-dropping in public. Some, such as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his own $110 million contribution to the midterm Democrats, have raised and spent big money that helped elect the newcomers. But as of yet, the 2020 candidates are making few if any explicit requests for commitments of support.
New York's Ocasio-Cortez is a close ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders, but she hasn't announced which presidential candidate she's backing now. Still, her dance card is fast filling up. Every presidential candidate except Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has signed on to the so-called Green New Deal, a moonshot she is championing to combat climate change. Merkley of Oregon was there when Ocasio-Cortez headlined the GND unveiling in Washington at an unusually well-attended event for a statement-making resolution that won't become law. And a day after formally launching her presidential campaign, Warren gave Ocasio-Cortez a big nod in Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating caucus.
“It is terrific to see Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez come in and put a tremendous amount of energy behind this,” Warren said in Davenport.
The House freshmen also are playing a role in Warren's struggle to move past her claim of Native American ancestry early in her career. Last fall before the historic midterm elections, Warren released a DNA test showing “high confidence” in her distant Native American ancestry, a move intended to put the issue behind her. But that caused significant unhappiness among some supporters. Trump kept the issue alive by repeatedly mocking Warren as “Pocahontas.” Warren apologized twice over two weeks this year leading to her presidential announcement Feb. 9. Within days, she was back in Washington making an unannounced visit to a major Native American conference.
Freshman Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of two Native Americans elected to Congress, introduced her. Warren noted that she and Haaland are working on legislation together on Native American issues.
“That ‘Thank you’ is especially heart-felt for my friend and colleague, Congresswoman Deb Haaland,” Warren said in prepared remarks for the National Indian Women Honor Luncheon, where she introduced Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts. The campaign said Warren was there to support her friend. “I also want to acknowledge another friend who made history this past year, Congresswoman Sharice Davids,” a Kansan and Native American. Davids, she added, is “another barrier-breaking woman whose leadership is a deep inspiration to us all.”
Sanders, the 2016 phenomenon who has not yet said he is running again, this month reached out to soothe Rep. Ilhan Omar after she tweeted that members of Congress support Israel because they are paid to do so. Omar “unequivocally” apologized, but it wasn't the first time the Minnesota Democrat had sparked charges of anti-Semitism. The controversy continued simmering the rest of last week.
“I talked to Ilhan last night to give her my personal support. We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters,” Sanders said Thursday on a conference call hosted by Jim Zogby, co-chair of the DNC's Ethnic Council. The remark was first reported by Jewish Insider and confirmed with Sanders’ office by The Associated Press.
Virtually every candidate has paid a visit to freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham. His victory over Katie Arrington, a Trump-supported Republican, flipped a House seat in a district the president won by nearly 13 percentage points in 2016.
Even before the November elections, many potential Democratic White House hopefuls reached out, such as New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker. Former Vice President Joe Biden endorsed Cunningham and campaigned with him. So did Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
The parade of potentials has continued in the months since, though Cunningham has received no formal request for an endorsement, his spokeswoman said. Cunningham is widely viewed as aligned with former Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke, in part because a key aide who helped Cunningham pull off his upset has signed up as O'Rourke's state director.
Similarly, freshmen Rep. Chris Pappas in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire says he's played something that sounds like a tour guide exceptionally early in the cycle. It helps that he is co-owner of the Puritan Backroom, a restaurant famous for chicken tenders that's been in his family for more than a century and is a frequent stop for presidential candidates of both parties.
“I've seen a few candidates,” Pappas said in a phone call. “They want to get a sense of what's on people's minds.”
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