By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - They came to Washington to shake things up and in their first two years in the U.S. House of Representatives the four lawmakers popularly known as 'the Squad' achieved stardom but also discovered that life in the political fast-lane can be perilous.
New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts' Ayanna Pressley, Michigan's Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota's Ilhan Omar stand to see their influence grow if Democrats win big on Nov. 3 by capturing the White House and a Senate majority.
But if their party falls short, they'll take a share of the blame.
Ocasio-Cortez's leadership on climate change makes her well-placed to have a voice in legislation that presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to pursue. Although Biden has distanced himself from aspects of her 'Green New Deal,' such as an immediate ban on fracking, the plan has nonetheless influenced his environmental platform, a weighty accomplishment for the youngest woman ever elected to the House.
"These women have completely broken open the climate debate," said Leah Stokes, a climate policy professor at University of California Santa Barbara. "Had the Squad not been elected this would not be happening."
Tlaib, from her perch on the powerful House Financial Services Committee, took the environmental cause to Wall Street titans when she grilled bank chief executives last year, challenging their commitment to "clean and sustainable financing."
All four, elected to two-year terms in 2018, already serve on heavy-hitting committees, including those that oversee the financial industry, foreign affairs and the federal budget.
None face a meaningful chance of losing re-election in liberal districts.
But Republicans have attempted to weaponize their unabashed progressive messaging to unsettle moderate voters in other parts of the country.
President Donald Trump has fired off repeated attacks. Last year, he wrote a tweet urging the four women to "go back" to where they came from, despite the fact that all are U.S. citizens and three of the four were born in the United States.
"The danger for Democrats in places like Ohio and the upper Midwest is that the Squad's willingness to embrace revolutionary terminology might make otherwise palatable and even attractive economic ideas appear threatening," said Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University.
Should Democrats fare worse than expected next month, the party may wonder whether it must redouble efforts to recruit more moderate candidates. In 2018, such tactics helped them take control of the House by winning districts Trump had carried in 2016.
Trump's attacks have strengthened the bond between the four. Omar has hosted takeout dinners at her house for the Squad to discuss legislation and political strategy, according to an aide to one of the lawmakers, who asked not to be identified.
STUMBLES ALONG THE WAY
The attention the Squad has garnered, unusual for first-termers and even many veterans of the 435-member House, has brought some negative publicity along the way.
In recent weeks, Ocasio-Cortez has been at the center of a dust-up over her decision to take part in - and then withdraw from - a 25th anniversary remembrance of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
Earlier, Omar, a refugee of Somalia's 1991 civil war, angered some U.S. Jews and Israelis over comments seen as anti-Semitic. She promptly apologized.
Meanwhile, language around the Green New Deal, co-authored by Democratic Senator Edward Markey, attracted the attention of other critics.
With its fact-sheet alluding to ridding the nation of gas-spewing "farting cows and airplanes," it delighted conservatives who mocked a world devoid of hamburgers and fast travel.
At one point, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who prioritized passage of climate change legislation in 2009, referred to it as "The green dream, or whatever they call it."
But the Squad has undoubtedly maintained its appeal to the growing liberal Democratic base.
Ocasio-Cortez has become a fundraising phenomenon, raising $16.6 million so far for her 2020 re-election, rivaling Pelosi's $20 million.
Liberal-minded college-aged students touring Washington have been known to bypass the House chamber and instead trek to her Capitol Hill office, simply for a selfie beside the door's nameplate.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O'Brien)