The freshman class starts to mix and mingle
They took office just three days before an armed mob stormed Capitol Hill. They wear masks to work and vote in turns to increase social distancing. They can’t do class meet-and-greets or other typical new-to-the-Hill social events. Making friends in Congress is much harder now than in years past, to say the least.
Meet the House freshman class of the 117th Congress: nearly 60 ambitious dreamers and cynical opportunists, hard-nosed businesswomen and local potentates, establishment rising stars and complete outsiders. They’ve entered a historic body at a historical low point — at odds with itself and torn over Donald Trump.
Yet after a few tension-filled weeks, some semblance of normalcy is emerging as these new members begin to figure out the kind of lawmakers they aim to be. A natural sorting among the freshman class has begun to take shape.
Not all are friends or formal allies, but they’ve embraced political identities that signal how they intend to influence events on the Hill and beyond. So we’ve placed them into groups that will help illuminate the next two years. TL;DR: It’s gonna be one helluva wild ride.
The 44 GOP freshmen are split between a raft of more diverse, mainstream recruits and a vocal band of Trump-backed hard-liners, while the 15 new Democrats include both vocal progressives and a contingent of moderates. Here’s how they break down:
Even prior to arriving on Capitol Hill, there was a group of House GOP freshmen who emerged as conservative firebrands with widespread recognition, often because of controversial views or remarks.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has embraced the dangerous QAnon conspiracy theory, is part of this pack, along with the gun-toting Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and 25-year-old Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), one of the youngest members to ever serve in Congress.
All three voted against certifying the 2020 election results, with Greene and Boebert among the most vocal proponents of Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen. Cawthorn spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the Capitol riot, but he has since joined a letter with other GOP freshmen in expressing a willingness to work with the new Democratic president on bipartisan issues like Covid relief.
Other new Trump allies looking to make their mark early in the new Congress include Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), who is leading the push to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from her leadership position over her decision to vote for impeachment. There’s also Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) who drew fire for praising Adolf Hitler in a speech to Trump supporters two days after taking office, though she has since apologized.
Some of the newest conservatives are also big skeptics of measures to tackle the pandemic, with Greene refusing to wear a mask sometimes in Congress and Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) calling the coronavirus a “phony pandemic.”
While Trump’s grip on the GOP is still tighter than ever, a few freshman Republicans are stepping up to urge the party to change course.
Most notably, that includes Reps. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Meijer became the only freshman member of the GOP to vote to impeach Trump, and he has called for Republicans to make fundamental changes so that voters can trust them again.
“I think we need to get the Republican Party back to a point where we have a shared set of facts and a common understanding of truth,” Meijer told POLITICO in a recent interview. “The fact that some politicians, some in Congress, who have propagated, who have amplified, and who have profited off of those lies — you know, they’re not the ones who were killed on Jan. 6.”
While Mace ultimately chose not to impeach Trump, she had signaled her support to censure the outgoing president. In various interviews, she has fiercely criticized Trump and blamed him for inciting the rioters who stormed the Capitol.
Mace, who was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel military college, has also appeared to take on some of her fellow freshman, if not by name. “We have allowed QAnon conspiracy theorists to lead us,” she lamented recently.
The Texas Six
With the pandemic preventing gatherings at the usual hotel bars and other meet-and-greet events typically set up for House freshmen to get to know each other, some lawmakers are forming more tight-knit groups within their state delegations.
That’s been particularly the case for the Texas delegation, which boasts a bunch of new members. The Texas Six, as they’re called on the Hill, include GOP Reps. Troy Nehls, Anthony Gonzales, Ronny Jackson, Beth Van Duyne, Pat Fallon, and August Pfluger. (This does not include Rep. Pete Sessions, who had previously served in the House for more than a decade and is back for another term in a different Texas district after being defeated in 2018).
Four of the six Texas freshmen also jumped to action to help Capitol police respond to rioters trying to break into the House chamber on Jan. 6 to overturn Biden’s victory. The lawmakers say the moment further bonded them together as they stood side-by-side in a potentially life-threatening situation.
Then there is “the Force,” a group of GOP freshmen positioning themselves as the GOP counterweight to the progressive Squad.
The initial band of four includes Reps. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.), Carlos Gimenez (Fla.), Maria Elvira Salazar (Fla.) and Victoria Spartz (Ind.). The lawmakers connected during freshman orientation because of their shared family histories living under dictatorships — and they say the GOP can gain ground on an anti-socialism message.
The foursome in the Force have also sought to bring in other members of the freshman class, particularly in a bid to showcase the record number of women and people of color who joined the ranks of the House GOP in 2020. That includes Mace, as well as Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel, Korean immigrants who flipped a pair of swing districts in California and who have long been friends .
Friends of the Squad
The most well-known Democratic crew in the Capitol is the progressive squad formed two years ago by then-freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)andRashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
Now, they’ve got reinforcements in freshman Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who both took down Democratic incumbents in 2020. “Squad up,” Bush tweeted with a photo of the six lawmakers on the day they were sworn in.
Along with a handful of other liberal freshmen like Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), Marie Newman (D-Ill.), Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), the caucus’ left flank is emboldened and eager to push Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi for ambitious reforms.
Finally, there is a small group of more moderate freshman Democrats, who will also hold real sway this year amid Democrats’ slim majority.
Such freshmen include Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.), the only Democrat to flip a House seat from red to blue this past election cycle in Atlanta’s quickly expanding suburbs, and Rep. Kathy Manning (D-N.C.).
Both women previously ran in 2018, but lost to GOP incumbents. Bourdeaux won an open seat in 2020 after Rep. Rob Woodall chose to retire rather than face another tough challenge. Manning was elected after some redistricting in the state.
There’s also Rep. Frank Mrvan, a moderate Democrat from Indiana, who ran a campaign aimed at winning back support from working class men and women who supported Trump.
Pelosi will be eager to protect her most vulnerable members from having to take tough votes ahead of the 2022 election, when the House will be up for grabs. And if she’s going to get the party’s agenda passed, she’ll need to win over the centrists.