This House Democratic Leadership Contest Could Shape The Next Election

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) is an unabashed member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) is an outspoken moderate.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) is an unabashed member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) is an outspoken moderate.

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) is an unabashed member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) is an outspoken moderate.

House Democrats in swing seats are set to elect a dedicated representative to party leadership for the first time on Tuesday ― and who they choose could have implications for the party’s electoral strategy in the coming years.

A group of 53 House Democrats, who either survived in GOP-targeted “Frontline” seats or flipped a GOP-held seat in November, will have the chance to pick either Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia or Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania as the new “Battleground Leadership Representative” charged with advocating for the concerns of the caucus’s most vulnerable members.

The contest has elements of an ideological proxy battle between the centrist Democrats and progressives, both of whom maintain that their approach is preferable in swing seats. 

Spanberger, a former CIA officer from the Richmond suburbs, is a member of the moderate Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions. The leadership of the New Democrat Coalition, which contains a disproportionate number of members in battleground seats, endorsed Spanberger on Monday. (Endorsements from the business-friendly bloc’s leadership team require the agreement of 70% of the leaders.) 

Spanberger won praise from moderates and criticism for progressives when she blamed the “defund the police” movement and other activist left causes for Democrats’ disappointing electoral showing in 2020. 

Eight of Spanberger’s colleagues alluded to those remarks in a Thursday letter in support of her leadership bid.

“In Congress, Abigail has never been shy about voicing concerns, sharing perspectives from on the ground, and suggesting strategy or messaging improvements to Caucus Leadership to ensure we are in the best position to help our constituents, advance effective policies, and compete in the most competitive districts across the country.” ― Reps. Susie Lee (Nev.), Jared Golden (Me.), Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Jennifer Wexton (Va.), Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Annie Kuster (N.H.), Kim Schrier (Wash.), and Josh Gottheimer (N.J.). 

By contrast, Cartwright, a personal injury lawyer from blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania, is an unabashed member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and supporter of Medicare for All. 

Unlike Spanberger, who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2018, Cartwright won his first race in a new seat in 2012. At the time though, Democrats still enjoyed an edge in the region and had represented it in Congress prior to Cartwright’s arrival.

But Cartwright’s backers note that he survived there long after the seat had drifted rightward following the rise of former President Donald Trump. Cartwright is one of just two House Democrats returning to Congress who have survived in a district that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. (Golden, first elected in 2018 ― a Democratic wave year ― is the other.)

Meanwhile, thanks to redistricting, Spanberger won her latest race in a seat that President Joe Biden carried by nearly seven percentage points in 2020.

“He’s been the only Democrat who has won a Trump district in 2016, 2018, 2020 and now 2022,” said a Democratic strategist supporting Cartwright, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The person he is running against is coming from a district that will likely not even be very competitive in 2024.”

Rep.-elect Chris Deluzio, who won a closely fought race to succeed retiring Rep. Conor Lamb in southwestern Pennsylvania, plans to vote for Cartwright. He cited Cartwright’s status as a Pennsylvanian, as well as Cartwright’s populist economic bent.

“Matt has done a heck of a job to hold a district Donald Trump has won twice,” Deluzio told HuffPost. “And he’s done it running pretty boldly on, frankly, economic issues that resonate here in Pennsylvania ― standing up for workers and unions, fighting to bring our supply chains back home, calling out corporate power.”

In previous Congresses, the entire caucus would vote on whom to elect to serve as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm. Under new rules, however, incoming House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) will select the DCCC chair on his own.

That could magnify the importance of the Battleground Leadership Representative as a campaign-oriented post with broader buy-in from rank-and-file House Democrats. 

And while Spanberger might be inclined to advise party leaders to exercise caution in the interest of inoculating vulnerable members from GOP attacks, Cartwright might have a more expansive view of the factors driving electability, according to the pro-Cartwright strategist.

“Matt Cartwright is someone who has shown that you can be authentic to yourself and still win tough districts, rather than falling into the normal tropes of what it takes to win a competitive district,” the Democratic strategist said.

In addition, Spanberger is rumored to be considering a run for governor of Virginia in 2025, which some observers believe might shape her approach to the House leadership role.

“If she’s running for somewhere else, she loses skin in the game,” said a Virginia Democratic strategist, who is neutral in the leadership battle and requested anonymity to protect professional relationships.

In an interview with HuffPost on Monday, Spanberger maintained that her experience flipping a long-held Republican seat and holding it in 2022, despite a barrage of Republican spending that made the race the most expensive general election contest in the House, qualified her to represent swing-seat Democrats.

“You’ve got a community that’s been voting for Republicans for 50 years. I come in talking about the things that matter to me and our Democratic colleagues,” Spanberger said. “That is an experience that is frankly shared by so many of our colleagues who have flipped seats and held on to them.”

Asked about Cartwright’s experience in a district that Trump won, Spanberger replied, “Every candidate is different. Every district is different … and it’s about so much more than Donald Trump, quite frankly.”

Spanberger did not say whether or not she is interested in running for governor of Virginia, but instead characterized the question as irrelevant.

“I don’t think that any position that anyone within the halls of Congress may ever run for ― whether it’s dog catcher or something at the state level or local level or federal level ― has any impact on what we’re doing in the here and now,” she said.

Not every vulnerable House Democrat has staked out a clear allegiance in the contest between Cartwright and Spanberger. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat reelected to a northwest Ohio district gerrymandered to favor Republicans, would not say for whom she plans to vote in the race.

“They both have assets because Abigail has a lot of farmers in her district. Matt has a lot of industry in Scranton and the little towns outside it,” she said. 

Kaptur laments that there are not more figures from struggling industrial or rural regions on the House Democratic leadership team.

“With the way our leadership looks, put ’em both in there!” she declared.