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Incoming freshmen of Congress: More women, minorities, vets

Andy Manis / AP file

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin is the nation's first openly gay senator.

A substantial group of new faces will grace the halls and committee rooms of Congress come January.

Expect many more women, people of color, and recent war veterans.

The 84 new members in the U.S. House won’t be a record that title belongs to the freshmen class of 2010. But Democrats will usher in 49 newbies, a big boost over the “noble nine” they added after the last mid-term election.

Republicans will welcome 35 to their midst. In the Senate, there will be 12 new members.

David J. Phillip / AP

Ted Cruz, right, is the lone Latino to join the Senate this election cycle.

Here are just a few notable qualities of the next incoming freshmen class:

Fewer white men

This is more true for Democrats, who celebrated their first-ever “majority minority.” Women and ethnic minorities outnumber their white male counterparts in this group. Asian-Americans had their highest number of congressional candidates, yielding five freshmen. The Congressional Black Caucus also added five newbies, while Hispanics greeted nine new members.

House Republicans, meanwhile, lost one of their two only black lawmakers with the defeat of Florida’s Rep. Allen West. The Senate gained one Latino Republican Ted Cruz of Texas.

Representative-elect Tammy Duckworth, a Thai American Democrat from Illinois, said her victory reflects a shift in the nation’s demographics. She pointed out that her district was once reigned by a pair of white conservative giants, Phil Crane and Henry Hyde, but now is 22 percent Latino and 13 percent Asian.

“In my case, I more accurately represent my district,” she said. “It’s a strength of this nation right now. It’s why America is so strong. We’ll be better able to represent our constituents and our neighbors if we are more diverse in Washington.”

Susan Walsh / AP

Rep.-elect Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran who lost both legs in combat before turning to politics, arrives for a group photo at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 15.

Veterans

Duckworth is better known for making national headlines after becoming the first disabled woman to be elected to the House. The Iraq War veteran lost both legs and severely injured one arm in combat.

“The worst day for me in Washington on the floor of the House is never going to be as bad as me getting blown up. So bring it,” she told NBC News.

Duckworth, who joins eight other freshmen who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, will also be one of two women vets. The other is fellow Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a former medical operations specialist. 

The other freshmen veterans are Republicans, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who was inspired to join the Army after the attacks of September 11 but waited until he could pay off his student loans from Harvard Law School.

Michigan’s Kerry Bentivolio, 61, is the only new member to have served in both Iraq and Vietnam. 

Moderates becoming scarce 

Marco Garcia / AP

Democrat Tulsi Gabbard gives her victory speech after winning Hawaii's second Congressional district seat.

A combination of factors could make it more difficult to hammer out bipartisan deals in the next Congress. Among them is the return of fewer centrists, thanks to the loss of nearly half of the House’s Blue Dog Democrats and a handful of moderate House Republicans.

Candidates who benefited from recent redistricting also may contribute to the problem.

“A lot of their seats were made safer by redistricting,” said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. “I can see us headed for more partisanship because some of these people won’t have to worry about running in competitive races.”

She pointed out several North Carolina districts once considered Democratic strongholds will probably stay Republican for several more election cycles. The same thing occurred in key Illinois districts where Republicans have begun to lose their grip to Democrats.

LGBT lawmakers

House freshmen will welcome the largest number of openly gay members — three, all of them Democrats: Mark Takano of California, New York’s Sean Patrick Maloney, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. They also will have the first openly bisexual member: Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. In the Senate, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay U.S. senator.

Faux freshmen

Nine incoming House members — seven Democrats and two Republicans aren’t actually true freshmen. Some, like Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, are rejoining the chamber after losing re-election bids.

Paul Sancya / AP file

Republican Kerry Bentivolio, holding his granddaughter Emily Lee, 5, enjoys playing Santa at holiday parties and parades and often uses the reindeer he raises on his own ranch.

Alan Grayson was elected into office in 2008 but lost his re-election bid in the Tea Party wave of 2010. But, thanks in part to statewide redistricting, the Florida Democrat will return to the House in January after winning with a 25 percentage point margin last month.

“The first time around, I won by four points, so there was a big fat target on me,” he said. This time around, he feels he can focus more on the job ahead. “We can give the campaign its due, but I can also give the job our complete and full attention.”

Another returning House member is Matt Salmon. The Arizona Republican left Congress in 2001 after a self-imposed three-term limit. He then ran unsuccessfully for governor against Janet Napolitano before becoming a registered lobbyist.

“Our nation has taken a turn down the wrong path and I couldn’t aside any longer,” Salmon said in a statement after his November victory.

And then there’s Democrat Rick Nolan of Minnesota. Giving the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald's declaration that "there are no second acts in American lives," the 68-year-old veteran lawmaker returns to Congress after more than three decades away.

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