- Special Projects
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has made a career out of being a Beltway maverick.
She hasn’t been afraid to cross party lines or meet with those she disagrees with, including President Donald Trump on his home turf in New York.
She’s dissed the Democratic National Committee to endorse Bernie Sanders and secretly travelled to Syria to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, an accused war criminal, in what she believed was her duty to bring about peace in the region.
So where then does Gabbard fit in now that Democrats have won the House?
Gabbard, who was elected in 2012, has been in the minority party her entire congressional career. And while she’s amassed some seniority she doesn’t stand to gain a committee chair, meaning she won’t be able to set her own agenda when it comes to passing legislation.
She was once considered a rising star among progressives, one who checked all the boxes — female, minority, veteran.
But if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wins her bid for speaker and the Democratic establishment reasserts itself as a dominant player in congressional politics, Gabbard’s independent streak and willingness to attack her own party could limit her influence.
“This seems like a missed opportunity for her,” said Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
“This is when her maverick style and willingness to cross the aisle will come back to hurt her,” he said. “Now that the Democrats are in charge they might not appreciate all the things she did, so she may not be held in high regard with Democratic leadership.”
That’s not to say there won’t be sympathetic ears in the chamber, Moore said. After all, it’s still better to be in the majority than the minority. Both Gabbard and Ed Case, who won Tuesday’s general election for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District, will benefit from being Democrats.
It’s just that Gabbard, given her history, might not secure many favors or become a more effective legislator.
“Being a good Democrat and being a good team player is important if you want influence and she hasn’t done that so she’s not going to be rewarded,” Moore said. “This hasn’t been a liability for her before because the whole time she’s been in Congress the Democrats have been in the minority. But now with the Democrats back in power it’s a problem.”
Gabbard’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview with the congresswoman.
Gabbard won’t be alone in figuring out where she fits in.
A number of newly elected Democrat members of Congress rode in on an anti-establishment platform. Several have already said they plan to oppose Pelosi’s bid for speaker. Others have simply said it’s time to move on from the status quo without naming a specific successor.
Steven Olikara is the president of the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project in Washington, which seeks to curb partisan gridlock in politics.
His organization is behind the Congressional Future Caucus, made up of representatives from both sides of the aisle, including Gabbard, who was a founding member.
Olikara said being outspoken can present a conundrum to young representatives, who are often presented with the choice of “playing the old partisan game to get ahead or disrupting the status quo at the risk of ruffling feathers.”
“Ideally, you should be able to change this broken and toxic political culture we have now and effectively legislate at the same time,” he said.
“A lot of young members get elected to Congress and they wonder why they’re spending a majority of their time raising money, not only for their own campaigns but for the DCCC and to achieve certain committee assignments often at the expense of their ability to build relationships, learn about the issues and govern, which is their job.”
Olikara said Gabbard has been a good spokesperson for the caucus in that she’s shown a willingness to set aside partisanship to work on legislation that matters to her, particularly when it comes to helping veterans or putting an end to interventionist regime-change wars.
He said he’s hopeful that even if Pelosi and other establishment Democrats maintain control of the House they’re receptive to those younger candidates who won in part because of a backlash on how they’ve operated in the past.
Todd Belt sees opportunity for Gabbard where others, such as Moore, see difficulty. Belt is a political science professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo, which is in Gabbard’s district.
Because Democrats were unable to build a large majority there’s little room for error, Belt said. Assuming Pelosi is speaker, he said, she’s going to have to work with the party dissidents in much the same way Republican leadership cowed to the tea party and Freedom Caucus.
If Gabbard can position herself as a leader of the social democrat faction in the House, Belt said, she can leverage it to get more of what she wants.
“At the end of the day you have to get the votes and you have to make deals to get those votes,” Belt said. “And if Nancy Pelosi wants to bring on the progressive wing she’s going to have to make some deals.”
Whether Gabbard has the political moxie to put herself in that position is another question.
Former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than 20 years, says the congresswoman has a sharp political mind and expects she’ll make the right moves and do what’s best despite any past transgressions either real or perceived.
He said the Democratic Party is changing, and necessarily so. If party leaders want to retain control of the House beyond 2020 and compete for the presidency, he said it will embrace a new way of doing business. Holding grudges, he said, shouldn’t be a part of it.
“This is a new game,” Abercrombie said. “The Clinton people, the DNC, everything is being reorganized. It’s a clean slate.”
Hawaii’s voters, he said, seem to like what Gabbard is doing despite any quarrels she might have with the party or DCCC. She consistently polls as one of the state’s most popular politicians and in Tuesday’s midterm trounced her opponent 74 percent to 22 percent.
Another question to consider, however, is whether she’ll run for president in 2020.
All signs indicate Gabbard is preparing for a presidential bid, from her decision to write an autobiography, titled “Is Today The Day? Not Another Political Memoir,” to her recent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, two key stopovers for anyone seeking the nation’s highest office.
A Politico article published last month said Gabbard is “putting out feelers” for digital and speechwriting staff to help with a potential presidential campaign.
If she runs that could mean her time in the House will be stretched thin as she campaigns across the country. Not only will that be a distraction within the House Democratic caucus, but it would also likely detract from her ability to help her constituents in Hawaii.
Abercrombie said that if asked he would advise Gabbard not to run.
He said he doesn’t see a legitimate path to victory, and he questions whether it would open her up to an electoral challenge in her home state.
“It will be seen as taking her district for granted,” Abercrombie said. “You can’t run for president and still be in Hawaii. It’s not physically possible.”
What’s more, she doesn’t have history on her side. Only one representative in the history of of the U.S. made the direct leap from House to oval office. That was James Garfield in 1880.
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, factual, honest journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?