The view surprised many legislators. Within hours, your map he was in front of President Joe Biden. Dingell lost his leadership race to a Californian, no less, but he’s making his way with his call for the party to settle in the middle of the country or risk losing ground in 2024.
“Debbie’s message was really important,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a fellow Midwesterner. “That map, essentially, is the evidence that our adversaries have been using against us for some time, which is: we are the coastal part.”
Dingell is launching what she called the Heartland Caucus, a group of Democrats who plan to advocate on manufacturing, trade and other economic issues they see as critical to repairing their party’s tarnished brand at home. Midwestern Democrats are coming together at a critical time, as their region will host several must-win Senate races next year as the party prepares to elevate Michigan on its White House primary ticket, but at the expense of Iowa, another core state.
“You can’t live in the bubble here,” said Dingell, who famously predicted that Donald Trump would win in 2016 when the Democrats lost ground with voters in his home state. After losing his caucus vice-presidential bid last week, Dingell said, “I went to bed Wednesday night and said Thursday morning: Let’s get this started.”
A big motivator behind his new caucus: The number of offshore Democrats who will lead the party in a House committee next year can be counted on one hand. The party’s top five incoming leaders hail from New York, Massachusetts, California and South Carolina. It’s part of a big shift across the party in the past two decades, when Missouri’s Richard Gephardt and Michigan’s David Bonior once helped lead House Democrats.
“California always has a seat, in fact quite a few seats, and so does New York. And then we have Boston,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who helped form the caucus. “And it’s like, what about us?”
The Ohio Democrat cited a recent fight she had with other Democrats in the caucus’ special committee on economic equity. Kaptur said she had to “fight and fight and fight” to have the plight of her region’s economy represented in the group’s final report this week. But in the panel’s 30-minute documentary, she said she couldn’t mention the Midwest at all.
“I’m angry about it. Ask Jim Himes, the committee chair from Greenwich, Connecticut,” Kaptur said. He said that when he described the struggles of the working class in Lorain, Ohio, or Flint, Michigan, or Kenosha, Wisconsin, “the attitude of some on the committee was, ‘Well, let them move.'”
While many Midwesterners said their current generation of leaders supports their high-priority issues, they remain concerned about a dearth of regional voices in the upper ranks of the party. And those members warn that a lack of geographic diversity among top policymakers can have serious electoral consequences.
“We end up with policy decisions that don’t reflect the Midwest. And so we ended up losing the election in the Midwest,” said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) of the lack of representation for his area among caucus leaders. “I think it’s something that has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The exact boundaries of the upcoming Heartland Caucus are still not entirely clear, fittingly, since the very definition of the Midwest itself is a famous controversial topic. Lawmakers involved in launching the caucus said they initially plan to rely on the dozen states included in the Census Bureau’s definition, a square piece of map that stretches from the Dakotas and Kansas to Ohio.
But the group’s organizers said they have also received membership applications from Democrats in western Pennsylvania, northern New York and even rural California, whose districts often behave more like the Midwest than their urban bases. colleagues along either coast. (The group will not be formally launched until the next Congress).
Dingell and his Michigan peers scored a big victory this week: Biden made a concerted effort to make Mitten one of the first five states with party presidential primaries, boosting his prospects for formal elevation on the party calendar. It was the culmination of a 30-year search by Dingell and the late state Sen. Carl Levin, and a sign to many Democrats that the president himself sees his way in keeping the White House running squarely in the region.
“Michigan is really a microcosm of the country in many ways. You have to win to win,” said representative Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Carl Levin’s nephew and a longtime witness to the fight.
Still, other Midwestern Democrats pointed out that Michigan’s success came at the expense of Iowa, where the party lost a Senate race this fall in addition to its lone House seat.
That Iowa seat, where Rep. Cindy Axne fell short last month, is one of several pro-Trump Midwest districts that House Democrats relinquished thanks to a combination of losses and retirements. Also on the list: rural seats held by outgoing Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wisconsin) and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).
Bustos, who has sat on Pelosi’s leadership table for several terms as the last member from the Midwest in the upper ranks of House Democrats, encouraged her colleagues to continue prioritizing rural America. United after she, Axne and others leave the Hill.
The region will get some leadership representation, with Phillips and Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) taking lower-level roles next Congress as co-chairs of the caucus’ messaging arm. But Bustos, among other Democrats, stressed the importance of pushing for more.
“Having a seat at the leadership table really matters,” Bustos said. “I think it’s harmful to Congress overall and to our nation if we don’t have a loud enough voice representing rural America and the Midwest.”
Ally Mutnick contributed.