After down-ballot Democrats blew it in the 2020 election, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of regaining power in just two years.
Democrats thought concerns about health care and COVID-19 would ensure that they’d increase their advantage in the House. They pretty much ignored President Trump’s wild claims about suburbs being overrun and cities burning. “Democrats rolled their eyes at attacks that Republicans made their central theme—socialism and defund the police,” says Dave Wasserman with the non-partisan Cook Political Report. Of course Democrats weren’t running on those issues, but voters don’t take stock on where politicians stand day to day and the incendiary rhetoric broke through.
An attack unanswered is an attack that lands successfully. Democrats did little to blunt the incoming, and they paid the price. Instead of expanding their House majority as they expected, it’s down from 15 to just three seats.
Democrats didn’t forcefully rebut the charge of socialism in part because they didn’t want to risk fragile party unity and alienate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of other Democratic Socialists of America adherents in safe Democratic districts. AOC may be the party’s future, but it was a big mistake to assume that most voters associate socialism with European countries providing universal health care, rather than brutal dictators in Latin America.
And Democrats didn’t forcefully and repeatedly condemn the “defund the police” slogan in part because they didn’t want to lose the momentum of a racial justice movement in the wake of the protests that followed George Floyd’s murder. Defunding the police has succeeded in some places, most notably seven years ago in Camden, New Jersey, when a corrupt and ineffective police force was disbanded as a last resort and a re-imagined department emerged. But once you start explaining Camden, you’ve lost the argument.
There’s no room for nuance in political campaigns. Politics is about emotion, not facts that take a whole lot of explaining. Defunding the police—you’re for it or against it, and you’ve got to be clear about it. Republicans were clear; Democrats didn’t want to criticize Black Lives Matter, a powerful racial justice movement that is rightfully pushing for police reform and generated the slogan. The overwhelming majority of Democrats didn’t run on defunding the police, but they didn’t want to shout their opposition from the rooftops. So, they weren’t heard.
Those mistakes are much clearer in hindsight than they were in the heat of the race, in part because pollsters, too, misread the down-ballot environment. The day before the 2020 election, Wasserman released his final outlook on House races, predicting a Democratic gain of 10 to 15 seats, with anywhere from 5 to 20 seats well within the realm of possibility. Instead, Democrats lost a dozen seats. “It's clear that we and others in our frenzied, polling-addicted sphere misjudged the down-ballot environment more than in any cycle in recent memory and must assess the polls' (and our own) blind spots before moving on,” he wrote in a post-election mea culpa.
He found that both major political parties based their spending on what the polls said, and that Republicans could have won back the majority with some better strategic allocation of resources. Republicans nearly swept the 27 races that the Cook Political Report listed as tossups, and they won seven races in the “lean” and “likely” Democrat columns including four seats in California and two in the Miami area that Hillary Clinton had won by more than 15 points in 2016.
The “suburban revolt” that the pollsters predicted never materialized. Democrat Joe Biden got more than 7 million votes more than Trump, but those votes didn’t always translate into support for Democratic House candidates. Republicans made strong gains in what used to be Democratic turf: diversity. The 13 Republicans who flipped Democrat-held seats were all women and/or minorities. “Three are of Cuban ancestry, two were born in South Korea, and one was born in Ukraine,” Wasserman notes, “allowing them to personalize an anti-socialism message.”
Wasserman cites two races to back up his assertion that “genuinely progressive challengers fared the worst.” Medicare-for-All proponents Kara Eastman in Omaha, Nebraska, and Dana Balter in Syracuse, New York, lost to Republicans by five and ten points, respectively, while Biden carried both districts by seven points.
In Dallas, in a district Biden carried, Republican Beth Van Duyne had an ad where she stood flanked by seven police officers as she accused her opponent, Democrat Candace Valenzuela, of siding with “radicals” who want to “defund the police, end cash bail and release criminals.”
“The Democrat’s rebuttal was to have a mom sit in a light-filled living room saying, ‘Candace wouldn’t do that, she supported school safety.’ In the Trump playbook, when you’re attacked, you attack back twice as hard and you accuse your opponent of what you’re being attacked on,” says Wasserman.
Democrats learned the hard way in 1988 when Republicans pummeled Democrat Michael Dukakis that even the most baseless attacks must be rebutted, or they will take hold. The lesson was learned again in 2004 after Democrat John Kerry ignored for too long attacks on his military record.
Biden, now president-elect, navigated Trump’s attacks better than others in his party, but the success of his legislative agenda and his ability to confront the multiple crises before him depends on how much help his party can give him on Capitol Hill. Without knowing the outcome of the two Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5, we do know that the typical midterm favors the party out of power, which in 2022 House races would be the Republicans.
Wasserman isn’t so sure. There was such an enormous turnout in favor of Republicans in 2020 that they may have maxed out. And Trump won’t be on the ticket. But one thing he is sure of is that Democrats can’t pursue an agenda that’s too far left in the current legislative environment and expect to hold on to the House. And while it may not be socialism or “defund the police” in 2022, there’s no question that Republicans will find issues to scare voters about. The question is if Democrats will be ready to respond and define their own positions.
“On the one hand, you’ve got this progressive wing rather laughably chastising the campaign strategy of Democrats running in swing districts,” Wasserman said. “Most of the members on the far left have no idea what it’s like to run in a swing district and did objectively worse in swing districts. On the other hand, Democratic candidates in these districts weren’t effective in answering Republican attacks.”