The 2016 election was a dire moment for the Democratic Party. As if President Donald Trump‘s stunning win — facilitated by a margin of approximately 75,000 votes in three states — wasn’t bad enough, Democrats were also left with their lowest level of congressional representation in nearly a century.
And at the time of Trump’s inaugural, many of the party’s most prominent leaders were approaching, or already over, 70 years of age: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is 78, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is 68, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — who is independent but caucuses with Democrats — is 77, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is 69.
Experience counts for a lot in Congress, but political careers do not last forever. Even as she awaits the return of the Speaker’s gavel, Pelosi has agreed to step down as Speaker in 2022, should her party remain in power. So in many significant ways, the Democratic Party in Washington has to face decisions about the future of its party and building out a bench with a new generation of leaders.
But in the aftermath of Trump’s win, that bench-building effort got a considerable boost, beginning with a number of groups that sprung up with a similar guiding principle: Encouraging ambitious progressives to make their first run for office. Run For Something, perhaps the most notable example, launched with a focus on “down-ballot races in order to build a bench for the future.”
Well, if the new membership of the House’s new Democratic majority is any guide, these election year undertakings — which resulted in the most flips in an election by Democrats in nearly 50 years — have gone a long way to securing that future, bringing fresh blood to Capitol Hill. And approximately 70 percent of the freshmen class of House Democrats had never been elected to public office prior to last month — a huge boost to those grassroots organizations that encouraged political novices to take the plunge into electoral politics.
Of the 59 newly-elected Democrats who will be joining Congress for the first time next month, only 18 have previous experience holding some kind of elected office.
Again, experience counts for something. Many of the members of this cohort enjoyed a lot of press during the election year. Some of these notables — Reps.-elect Ilhan Omar (MN), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Jennifer Wexton (VA), Abby Finkenauer (IA), Jared Golden (ME), and Ben McAdams (UT) — served in their states’ legislatures, a perennially important yet underheralded stepping stone to higher office. Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley (MA) made a name for herself as a Boston city council member. And three of these 18 — Reps.-elect Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ), Ed Case (HI), and Steven Horsford (NV) — will be making a return to the House after a period of time out of office, making them unusually experienced “freshmen.”
Nevertheless, the vast majority of that incoming class — approximately 70 percent — will be assuming elected office for the first time. In fact, only six of those 41 new members even had prior experience running for office.
But this has ensured that the Democratic Party’s new House caucus will be able to draw on a diverse array of career experiences. For example, several of the record-breaking number of women who will join public office and Congress for the first time next month are veterans of the U.S. military or intelligence services:
- Rep.-elect Elaine Luria (D-VA) was a Navy commander
- Rep.-elect Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) was a Navy helicopter pilot
- Rep.-elect Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA) was an Air Force captain
- Rep.-elect Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) was a CIA analyst in Iraq
- Rep.-elect Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) was a CIA operations officer
All five of the congresswomen-elect appeared in this October ad from Serve America.
The newly-elected House Democrats also include:
- A 29-year-old who was working as a bartender less than a year before becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress: Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
- A public school employee and former social studies teacher: Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes (D-CT).
- A former flight attendant who became an activist for gun control after her son was killed at the age of 17: Rep.-elect Lucy McBath (D-GA).
- A longtime nonprofit employee who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 14: Rep.-elect Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL).
- A pediatrician: Rep.-elect Kim Schrier (D-WA), who “never thought” she would do anything other than care for patients, “but the last election and the utter failure of this Congress to provide checks and balances, or to work together on just about anything” inspired her to run for office.
- A 31-year-old nonprofit director: Rep.-elect Katie Hill (D-CA), who lives on an “animal rescue farm” with her husband, dogs, horses, and baby goats.
- A small business owner and community activist: Rep.-elect Cindy Axne (D-IA).
- A consumer protection attorney: Rep.-elect Katie Porter (D-CA).
- A former NFL player: Rep.-elect Colin Allred (D-TX).
The last time the House changed hands between the two parties was back in 2010, when the Tea Party wave brought a flood of 85 freshman House Republicans to the 112th Congress. That freshman crop of Republicans was, however, considerably more experienced, with 50 members having previously held elected office.