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2 progressive House lawmakers are working on a strategy to keep their seats


The threat that Republicans will take over the House of Representatives hovers over the progressive movement of the Democratic Party. There's also a new wave of candidates fighting for congressional seats in the November midterms. Two progressive lawmakers in the House, Democrats Jamie Raskin and Ro Khanna, are working on new strategies they believe will rack up new victories for the party's liberal wing.

JAMIE RASKIN: We need to defend American constitutional democracy with everything we've got at this point. And that calls upon us to be as ambitious as we can be in terms of reaching out to people all over America.

MARTIN: They say this includes coalition-building, sharing a more optimistic message and less preaching. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales sat down with Raskin and Khanna. And she joins us now. Good morning, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: How are progressive Democrats outlining the stakes in this election?

GRISALES: Democrats are deeply worried about this threat in November. And this is part of how this conversation began for Raskin and Khanna. Khanna warned if the GOP does indeed take over, President Biden will be impeached. Certain Democrats will be forced off committees. But he's trying to stay hopeful that they can defy political projections. He says it will be critical to remind Americans that Democrats passed the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure plan into law, along with the nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief bill last year.

MARTIN: So these two lawmakers think they have a plan to help Democrats, in particular progressives. They both entered Congress in the same year, 2017, from opposite sides of the country, though - Raskin from Maryland, Khanna from California. How did they become the leads on this?

GRISALES: They said that there is a new urgency. And they saw in each other partners to address it, to grow Democrats' reach. Khanna said their brainstorming session started after a phone call from President Biden into a closed-door Congressional Progressive Caucus meeting last October, where Raskin made a poignant remark to the president.

RO KHANNA: I don't know if Jamie remembers this. But he got up, and he said, yes, we're all progressives. But we're also Democrats. And most importantly, we have to recognize that the challenge against us is the return of authoritarianism and that those are the stakes.

GRISALES: Khanna is seated next to Raskin. The two have met up this afternoon in Raskin's office in the House Rayburn Building to lay out their new mission to shake up discussions for the Progressive Caucus and Democrats. Khanna, of California, is a Silicon Valley progressive, while Raskin, of Maryland, a constitutional scholar. Both have tired of purity politics that have overtaken Democrats' message. In each other, they see coalition builders and pragmatists who can work to reorient how their wing of the party reaches voters and expands that reach along the way.

RASKIN: You know, I hear from Republicans frequently in my district who say they can't take it anymore. And they want to become Democrats. But they want to make sure that there's a place for them in our party, and I assure them that there is.

GRISALES: Raskin and Khanna argue that former President Trump was able to encroach on what was traditionally Democrats' turf - that is, middle America - by speaking their language. Still, voters have issues with both parties. During a recent visit to Pennsylvania, Khanna learned about a focus group that characterized Republicans as, quote, "crazy" and Democrats as preachy. Khanna and Raskin say that preachy tone has got to go - for example, when talking about sweeping proposals for progressives, such as Medicare for All. Here's Khanna.

KHANNA: Preachy is just go on TV and say, well, if you're not for Medicare for All, then you must be evil. And you must want people to die. And you must be wrong - right? - as opposed to saying, here is why.

GRISALES: Khanna says Democrats can make the case for Medicare for All for voters, start a dialogue and listen to their concerns. And he says progressives face a constant challenge along the way, asking the right questions.

KHANNA: How do we get people on board with it? And how do we make sure that if we have to compromise on something that we get something done? My view is we should be firm in our ideals, but then also pragmatic about what it's going to take to move the ball forward.

GRISALES: Raskin, who is also a member of the House panel investigating the January 6 attack, argues the right wing is trying to demolish faith in democracy. He says it's time for progressives and Democrats to better defend against Republican attacks.

RASKIN: I call myself a liberal because I think that liberty has got to be a central value of what we're doing. But these days, I love to call myself a conservative, too, because I want to conserve the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the land, the air, the water, the climate system, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Everything that our friends across the aisle seem to want to be tearing down is everything that we want to conserve.

GRISALES: Khanna says there's pockets of America that have been left behind that Democrats are not reaching today.

KHANNA: And so we have a skepticism out there for a large part of the country that has fallen behind, that's lost jobs. And when I or Jamie or someone's up on TV saying, here's what's going to happen, there's a skepticism whether - those communities, whether people feel like they're going to benefit.

GRISALES: Raskin says Democrats need to restore the idea that it's the American people's government, it's a democracy and they can make government work to get stuff done. And that, he says, is how you win back new voters to the party, warts and all.

RASKIN: What people say about the Democrats is, you guys are too big and disorganized and chaotic. And what's the message and all that? I hear all of that. I agree with all of that. But that is democracy. We are the party of democracy, and it's messy. We are not a religious cult. So we're going to work it out. And we want people to come and join us and to be part of this big, sometimes messy conversation, but the conversation that's actually moving America forward and making progress for the people.

MARTIN: Claudia, so interesting to hear the two congressmen there laying out their vision for Democrats and, in particular, progressives in this election. But they noted that President Trump made a lot of inroads in parts of the country that Democrats had taken for granted for a long time, in particular the middle of the country. Did they talk about how they expect to defend against that?

GRISALES: They say they need to reclaim issues of patriotism, talk about race more openly. For example, Khanna says it's naive to believe that becoming the first major multiracial, multiethnic democracy in the world could happen without conflict. Also, Raskin said Democrats should reject the socialist label and should not be in the political correctness business, noting that times have changed.

RASKIN: All of the political dogmas of the past are not serving particularly well. And we need to be opening up our minds to new interpretations of democracy.

GRISALES: He said the GOP has gotten a jump on Democrats on some issues and in some spaces in social media. And Democrats need to fend off Republicans, which they see as a, quote, "ruled or ruin" party.

MARTIN: NPR's Claudia Grisales. Thank you, Claudia. We appreciate it.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "TO THE NTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.