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Updated May 13, 2024, 6:10am EDT
politics

Democrats are about to lose their mod squad

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The News

They flipped old Republican strongholds, helped convince their colleagues to impeach Donald Trump, and established themselves a moderate counterpart to the Squad.

Now, “the badasses” are moving on. The close knit group of Democratic women, who adopted the nickname after winning House seats in 2018 following careers in the military and the CIA, is set to dwindle as several of them look toward higher office.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official, is running for U.S. Senate in Michigan. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a fellow CIA alum, is leaving Congress after this term to prepare for a run at Virginia’s governorship next year. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot, is “seriously considering” her own 2025 gubernatorial bid in New Jersey, where she tops early polls, even as she’s campaigning to keep her current seat for now.

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“Ruthless competence is something we’re all very attracted to,” Sherrill told Semafor. “And looking at ways in which we can be more effective, deliver better for people in our states, is also something that I think we’re constantly striving for.”

The fact that all three are considered top-tier candidates for statewide office may be a sign of staying power for their brand of Democratic politics. But it also means that the caucus will soon find itself losing a key set of moderate voices, who’ve also won respect across the aisle.

Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said that although he and Spangberger have disagreed in committee, he’s sad to see her go. “Both parties right now lack the fundamental understanding of critical national security issues,” he said. “There’s a handful of us that get it.”

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Originally a crew of five, “the badasses” were in many ways a perfect symbol of the anti-Trump revolt by suburban women that helped power that year’s blue wave. Each of them won in longtime Republican districts while campaigning against the GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. Their resumes in national security and armed services made for an especially pointed contrast with a president at war against the “deep state” over federal investigations into his relationship to Russia.

The group bonded on the trail over their backgrounds as women in defense, offering support to one another over a long-running group chat.

“You watch that speech in the Barbie movie about what’s expected of women, and I think that is true tenfold when you’re talking about women running for office because these are tough times,” Sherrill told Semafor.

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Once in the House, they quickly made their presence felt. Spanberger, Slotkin, and Sherill declined to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Less than a year later, the whole group found itself playing a pivotal role in the effort to impeach Donald Trump. Initially opposed to the push, they became supporters after it was revealed Trump had pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Biden family in return for releasing foreign aid.

With two other freshman colleagues, the five co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for impeachment hearings that proved influential among Democrats, in large part because it came from vulnerable swing state members with impeccable national security credentials.

“We all made the decision that if we had to lose our seats and be one-term congressmen and women, it was worth doing it because you have to have some basic principles,” Slotkin told Semafor.

As CNN’s Dana Bash and Bridget Nolan put it at the time, the op-ed “changed the dynamic for House Democrats, and indeed — the course of history.”

Though they tended to make headlines less often, the group has sometimes been described as the “other Squad” by Washington reporters. Their role as a moderate counterweight to left-wing members like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib became especially apparent during a private call between Democrats following the 2020 elections, during which a furious Spanberger blamed the party’s disappointing House results on progressive slogans like “defund the police.”

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. . . . We lost good members because of that,” Spanberger told her colleagues. “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success . . . we will get f---ing torn apart in 2022.”

Spanberger, who now represents battleground Democrats in the party’s caucus leadership, told Semafor that she felt the party had improved its messaging. “There’s definitely been an effort to be a bit more clear on what we’re for,” said, though she noted she was “certainly not giving myself credit” for it.

Though they were seen as vulnerable heading into the 2022 midterms, only one member of the “badasses” — Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria — ultimately lost their seat. If Slotkin, Spanberger, and Sherrill all depart, they will leave just one member behind, Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan.

Houlahan said she was confident more women with similar backgrounds would follow in the group’s footsteps to Congress. “I believe I’m the beginning of something,” she told Semafor. “I believe that I will not be the last and that there will be more coming behind me.”

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Kadia’s view

Even in a functioning, productive Congress, it wouldn’t be surprising to see successful House members take a shot at higher office. But in our conversations, Spanberger, Sherrill, and Slotkin seemed to express genuine frustration and restlessness over the way the House has become bogged down by Republican infighting.

It feels like a quagmire for members who spent their pre-political lives in results-oriented worlds like intelligence. ”If you come from a national security background, you don’t get special credit for trying,” Slotkin said. “You either do or don’t do.”

They’re now hoping they can make a bigger impact on issues like voting rights and abortion by moving up the political food chain.

Abortion became an increasingly intense focus for the group after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. When Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville began halting military promotions last year in protest of a Defense Department policy that helped ensure servicewomen could have access to the procedure, they rallied to try and help end the blockade, often coordinating on strategy via texts. (Tuberville eventually relented under pressure from his own party).

“Our inability to make the inroads that we need in an issue as important as [abortion] at the federal level certainly makes me motivated to work on it and address it at the state level,” Spanberger told Semafor. She added her decision to leave the House was “bittersweet.”

Slotkin, meanwhile, is promising to bring a get-stuff-done attitude to the Senate, vowing to support filibuster reforms that previous generations of moderates, like retiring Sens. Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, have opposed.

“We want there to be a strong consensus for any bill that has turned into law,” she said. “But this idea that we can’t even have an up or down vote on something as simple as voting rights, I think is a real problem.”

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Correction

Due to an editing error, this story originally identified Rep. Mike Garcia as a congressman from Texas. He is from California.

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