Roll Call: Democrats with military, CIA backgrounds unite to fundraise for each other

Five freshman Democratic women in the House want the world to know that the newcomers receiving the most attention so far in the 116th Congress aren’t reflective of the women who ran and won in tough districts last fall.

At an event to tout their formation of a joint fundraising committee to tap each other’s donors (and hopefully bring in more), the five, all with military or intelligence backgrounds, never mentioned New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by name.

But the message from Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania was clear: Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t represent them and she’s not who’s going to help Democrats maintain the majority. 

“There’s been an overwhelming focus on a small number of members in our caucus who did not flip seats, who did not help win the House, who are doing what is right for their districts, but who don’t represent our districts, or at least my district,” Slotkin said at Friday breakfast with a small group of reporters. 

The five all flipped seats previously held by Republicans to help Democrats win the House majority in 2018, and now they’re banding together to help each other fundraise to hold onto those seats in 2020.

With the exception of Houlahan, whose district became much more favorable to Democrats in redistricting last year, these women are all running for re-election in districts President Donald Trump won in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates those four districts as competitive, and the National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting the Democratic incumbents. 

Ocasio-Cortez defeated a powerful member of leadership in a primary, but her Bronx district is safe Democratic turf.

Recruited for service backgrounds

The five women ran as part of broad group of Democrats specifically recruited for their service backgrounds and lack of political voting records. Luria and Sherrill served in the Navy, Houlahan in the Air Force, while Spanberger and Slotkin worked at the CIA.

Their joint fundraising committee — Service First Women’s Victory Fund — is intended to benefit the five of them. It’s common for lawmakers to join forces for campaign fundraising, especially lawmakers who are from the same state or have a shared identity or ideological background.

Several other freshmen have formed joint fundraising committees with each other, such as New York Reps. Antonio Delgado and Max Rose (the Rosedelgado Victory Fund) and the first two Native American women in the House, Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland. Spanberger has also formed a joint fundraising committee with South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham.

Joint fundraising committees allow lawmakers to “share the costs of fundraising, and split the proceeds,” according to OpenSecrets. The Service First Women’s Victory Fund raised $56,000 in the first three months of the year and divided it evenly among the five lawmakers. The two donations came from the co-chairman of Bain Capital and his wife. 

Three of the five women — Slotkin, Luria and Spanberger — do not accept corporate PAC money. Asked how that commitment would affect their joint fundraising, Spanberger said those members would not have any corporate PAC money that comes into the victory fund transferred to their campaign committees. 

The money will not go to help recruit or support other candidates. As Republican targets running in Trump districts, they’re going to need it.

“It’s to keep our seats,” said Luria, who defeated GOP Rep. Scott Taylor by just over 2 points in a district Trump carried by 3 points.

But they also need allies. Each of them made the case on Friday that if they’re going to hold their seats next year — and if Democrats are going to retain the majority — they need to be visible to American voters (and donors). Besides just raising money, the joint fundraising committee is a way for these five women to show their constituents that not everyone in Congress is like Ocasio-Cortez.

“Being a Democrat is more than being a far left progressive,” Slotkin said. She said it’s important for American voters in districts like hers — which backed her by nearly 4 points in 2018 after supporting Trump by 7 points in 2016 — to see they are not alone.

“My mother-in-law’s a Republican in California,” Houlahan said. “And she’s completely convinced that I’m an outlier. ... I’ve tried to explain to her and to explain to our communities that  I am — we are — not outliers we are, you know, five to one, at least in terms of the power of our numbers,” she added.

Houlahan, who calls herself a centrist, won her district by 18 points last fall. But she started out running in a much more conservative area last cycle. Redistricting shifted Hillary Clinton’s winning margin in the seat from barely a point to 10 points.

Many of the women crossed paths on the campaign trail last year at fundraisers, and they shared support from groups like EMILY’s List or New Politics, a group that backs candidates with service backgrounds. New Politics is running and administering the joint fundraising committee but is not not taking any of the money that's raised.  

Watching each other’s speeches

They’re already friends — they tease each other about their outfits and joke about the introductory bios they’ve all heard each other tell a hundred times. Spanberger rewatched one of Slotkin’s floor speeches before bed Thursday night because she found it so moving.

“When I have a question or an issue or I’m thinking through something, you know, these are the people I go to,” Sherrill said. Having a group of like-minded legislators helps her convince her constituents of her effectiveness, she said.

Sherrill won her northern New Jersey district, which narrowly backed Trump, by 15 points last fall after the longtime GOP incumbent declined to seek re-election.

They’re used to being on time, running their own meetings, and supporting other women in the room. At Friday’s breakfast, they did all those things, while occasionally bemoaning the pace at which some more seasoned members of Congress operate.

“It takes everybody four minutes to clear their throat to ask a one-minute question,” Houlahan said. Slotkin described the first few months in Congress as figuring out who are the “work horses” and the “show ponies.”

These five don't miss votes: CQ's Vote Watch shows they voted 99.5 or 100 percent of the time they’ve been in Congress, compared with a 97 percent average for Democrats in the House.

They’ve also sided with their party less than the party average of 97.5 percent of the time. Slotkin has sided with fellow Democrats the least (89.7 percent), followed by Spanberger (90.5), Sherrill (92.1), Luria (94.5) and Houlahan (94.4)

Spanberger, who unseated former House Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat by nearly 2 points in a district that backed Trump by 7 points, said she isn’t about to start any Twitter wars with her GOP colleagues. The former CIA officer joked that she’s a boring member of Congress.

“I’m not going to do anything outrageous that’s going to garner the attention because how does that serve my district?” she said.