If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are the vanguard of the Democratic Party’s militant left, then Rep. Derek Kilmer and the New Democrat Coalition are the rearguard — fighting to keep their party from tipping so far to the political margins that they leave mainstream voters behind.
“There’s a narrative within the media that somehow the Democratic Party has swung wildly to the left. I don’t really think the facts back that up,” Mr. Kilmer, the chair of the NDC, told The Washington Times.
The Washington Democrat has watched as the press has showered attention on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and the 2020 presidential field, which seems to have turned into a race to see which candidate can out-socialist the others.
But while policies such as “Medicare for All” and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal are heatedly debated, Mr. Kilmer points to the legislation Democrats have actually been passing on the House floor: bills to expand background checks for gun purchases, to overhaul campaign and election laws, to expand the Violence Against Women Act and to try to reel in President Trump.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, meanwhile, has been relegated to the maw of the committee system, where it’s likely to face death by a thousand cuts.
The NDC, which bills itself as the moderate wing of House Democrats, saw explosive growth after last year’s election wave, with 40 freshmen joining and sending the caucus’s ranks soaring to more than 100 members.
That includes several lawmakers who are also part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which boasts 98 members. The Blue Dog Coalition, which considers itself the most conservative Democrats, has fewer than 30.
Democratic leaders say keeping their majority in 2020 will depend on holding the districts won by NDC members.
Speaking in London earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a “glass of water could win with a D next to its name” in liberal-leaning districts like hers in San Francisco, and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s New York City district, where the freshman won with nearly 80% of the vote in the general election.
“The 40 districts — we won 43, net gain of 40 — were right down the middle, mainstream, hold-the-center victories,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “If we’re going to be helping the 1 in 5 children in America that goes to sleep hungry at night, who lives in poverty in our country, we have to win.”
Indeed, of the 31 seats Democrats hold in territory won by President Trump in 2016, 21 of those are held by members of the NDC.
That’s fueled some tensions.
Some NDC members were among those expressing reluctance last year at giving Mrs. Pelosi another turn as speaker.
In the end, she struck deals and wheedled support to handily reclaim the gavel.
More recently, some NDC members have joined with Republicans on last-minute amendments to Democrats’ bills, derailing their own party leaders’ preferred messaging. In one vote, enough Democrats sided with Republicans to attach to a gun control bill an amendment that would require the government to alert deportation officials to any immigrants living in the U.S. illegally who try to buy guns.
Mr. Kilmer said his coalition is having “ongoing conversations” about those last-minute amendments, which he called a GOP “political game.”
Mr. Kilmer said his members plan on focusing less on gaining national prominence but rather retaining their focus on local issues and communities.
“I think most of our constituents care more about hearing from us at town halls meetings,” Mr. Kilmer said.
The NDC chair was especially enthused over the task forces his caucus set up to offer ideas for incremental progress on issues with bipartisan support — like climate change and infrastructure.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a co-chair of the NDC’s climate change coalition, dismissed Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal as an “aspiration.” Instead, the NDC coalition favors smaller steps that the Senate, where Republicans are in control, can sign onto.
Mr. Kilmer said intraparty tension is overblown in the media, and the internal debates the Democrats are having are “healthy.”
“I don’t look at that and say, ‘Dear God, there’s some civil war brewing.’ I look at that as think, ‘Isn’t it great that there’s actually unanimity on the importance of healthcare and climate change,’” he said.
But he said the NDC’s careful approach is a winner.
“We can be innovative about pro-growth strategies even if that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker,” he said. “That can be a challenge from the standpoint of drawing press attention, but honestly I think it’s what the American people are clamoring for.”