New voices of moderation: the 'alterna-squad' Democrats

Five freshman women lawmakers in Congress have built an identity around moderation – adopting a nuts-and-bolts approach Democrats may need in 2020.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. walks to a Democratic Caucus meeting in Washington, on Jan. 4, 2019. Prioritizing pragmatism and continuity, Ms. Spanberger and a group of other moderate lawmakers have emerged as an alternative to the more leftist 'squad.'

Abigail Spanberger talked about rural broadband. She held court on health care, solar energy, and the border crisis.

But as the freshman Democrat from Virginia fielded a dozen questions during a recent town hall in Culpeper, she never once took on President Donald Trump directly – not even when the topic turned, fleetingly, to impeachment.

"We are making every decision, whichever way it goes, based on facts and evidence and our duty to uphold the Constitution," she said.

This is a story about a different kind of squad.

Ms. Spanberger is part of a group of first-term female representatives with national security backgrounds who flipped Republican seats last year and matter most on questions of impeachment and Democratic control. The alterna-squad consists of Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and Virginians Ms. Spanberger and Elaine Luria – women possessing deep military and intelligence experience, now voices of moderation in a party often portrayed as veering sharply left.

Ms. Spanberger, whose district is anchored in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, and extends to the exurbs of Washington, D.C., was a CIA operations officer. Ms. Slotkin is a former CIA analyst and acting assistant secretary of defense. Ms. Sherrill is a former U.S. Navy pilot, Naval Academy graduate, Russian policy officer, and federal prosecutor. Ms. Houlahan is an Air Force veteran and engineer. And Ms. Luria is a former nuclear engineer in the Navy.

The women are part of a group within the caucus focused on the minutiae of election security, with a name that hints at how they see themselves: Task Force Sentry. They can often be seen shuttling through hallways together, engaged in quiet conversation, or sitting side by side in the House. They are not the first to speak inside private caucus meetings, but when they do, "people listen," said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who chairs the Democrats' campaign arm.

"You don't come from a national security background and have any kind of extreme views," Ms. Bustos said. Constituents in these closely split districts, she said, "won't stand for extremism. They elected these people to get something done."

The national security veterans eschew cliques and Twitter fights, though they are careful to say that they have no quibble with members of the more famous "squad" made up of progressive Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York,and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Yet they are laboring, now, to edge around the fireball of Mr. Trump's battle with those four congresswomen of color over race and who is adequately American.

While Republicans portray the squad as emblematic of a Democratic Party turning toward socialism, the moderates are trying to forge their own brand. And Mr. Trump cannot easily cast them as villains, in part because they won't play along. They simply can't go down that road if they want to win reelection in their districts, which Mr. Trump won in 2016 and may yet win again.

"Don't even mention his name," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she advises all Democrats.

The advice applies most of all to the national security squad and the other 26 Democrats representing "red-to-blue" House districts, whose reelections are Ms. Pelosi's top priority.

Ms. Slotkin puts it this way about her constituents: "They fear that if we go down this path of impeachment, we're not going to be working on the things that affect their lives, their pocketbooks, their kids. And so if we're going to do this ... we better have our act together."

That approach is worlds away from Ms. Tlaib's "impeach the mother----er" war cry against Mr. Trump on the January day the new Congress was sworn in. For Ms. Spanberger and the other four women in the national security group, calling for Mr. Trump's ouster is politically perilous.

"She realizes she can be a one-termer and on impeachment, she can't be too far out in front," said Republican activist Kurt Christensen, who attended Ms. Spanberger's town hall in Culpeper.

"It would be political suicide here," agreed Democrat Ron Artis, who supported Ms. Spanberger in her successful bid to defeat Republican Dave Brat to become the first Democrat to represent the district in nearly a half-century.

These members have insisted all year that their constituents ask questions on issues like health care far more often than impeachment. So as Ms. Spanberger talks about rural broadband, Ms. Sherrill talks about the Gateway rail project. Ms. Houlahan says she gets questions about health care and education. Ms. Luria gets queries about veterans, and Ms. Slotkin had an event recently on the same topic.

Their ideas for legislation include preventing foreign financial support for U.S. campaigns and finding ways to identify threats.

But the expertise that girds that work also has focused members of this group on the first volume of special counsel Robert Mueller's report about Russian election interference in the 2016 campaign and the willingness of some in Mr. Trump's orbit to receive any information on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Especially chilling, these lawmakers say, is Mr. Mueller's warning that the Russians aren't finished interfering in U.S. elections.

Ms. Slotkin followed up on Mr. Mueller's testimony by co-sponsoring a bill to require campaigns to report attempts by foreigners to influence U.S. elections.

There is a palpable frustration among the congresswomen with constant requests to answer strictly political questions, such as whether there is concern that the president is succeeding in linking red-to-blue Democrats to "socialists."

"I don't think we should be talking about our feelings. I think we should be talking about legislation," Ms. Spanberger said while rushing to House votes before the August recess. "I just want to focus on [the price of] drugs and infrastructure and protecting the integrity of elections."

To this group, impeachment is "a process, not an outcome," said Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., a member of Democratic leadership.

"What these women have managed to do is come to Congress as veterans with amazing national security expertise that would be valued in anybody," said Ms. Clark, who has called for Mr. Trump's impeachment. "But it is also unique and interesting that they are women. ... They are respected."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.

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