The Watergate Class of ’74 Has Valuable Lessons for Freshman Democrats

The politicians defeated or superseded by the 1974 wave had lost touch with their constituents because individual members of Congress didn’t matter that much. Power came only with seniority. Rank-and-file members didn’t have much to do and didn’t have to do much.

In 2018, members lost touch for a very different reason: They had grown complacent that they could count on waves of ideology and negative partisanship to carry them through yet another election, the fifth for those first elected in the 2010 wave. They campaigned in broad strokes on national issues such as immigration and the refugee caravan.

Since 2010, they had relied first on the coherent national message of opposition to Barack Obama, then on the small-government ideology of the speaker Paul Ryan and finally on loyalty to Donald Trump, to overwhelm smaller, local allegiances. Even Mr. Trump’s endorsements were boilerplate and national, with the same odd capitalization choices: “strong on Crime & Borders, the 2nd Amendment, & loves our Military & Vets.”

.. But today’s politicians face an obstacle that the class of ’74 could mostly ignore: the enormous cost of campaigns. Republican members fell out of touch with their districts in part because they were increasingly dependent on a few large national donors, operating through super PACs and political nonprofits such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, which get the bulk of their donations from billionaires in Las Vegas, New York, Texas and Florida.

Democrats, too, relied on these outside groups and their own billionaires, but 2018 brought an enormous wave of small donors. And while much of that came from fired-up progressives in solid Democratic districts, even in the highest-profile races, a surprising share came from the candidates’ own constituents — for example, more than 54 percent of Beto O’Rourke’s contributions came from Texans. A majority of Democratic challengers also refused corporate PAC money, which often runs through Washington lobbyists.

In 2020 and 2022, these new members will no longer be exciting insurgent challengers but incumbents, probably forced to compromise in ways that some supporters might find disappointing. If the volunteer energy and small-donor support that lifted them to victory in 2018 is missing, their campaigns will look very different. They’ll have to turn to corporate PACs again and, much like their predecessors elected in 2006 and 2008, focus their attention on donors rather than their districts, compromising their promises.