House Democrats didn’t fare as well in the 2020 election as they expected, and the blame game has started.
To moderate members like Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Conor Lamb (D-PA), the problem is clear: members of their own party. Both have said Democrats need to put distance between themselves and left-wing activists. But to more progressive Democrats, that’s scapegoating for broader failures. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and others argue the party’s organizing efforts largely failed in 2020 and have urged leaders to not ignore its base.
It could take months to know exactly what went wrong in 2020, but in some ways, both could be right, Cook Political Report House editor Dave Wasserman told Vox. Democrats’ messaging wasn’t always effective, and it’s likely that structural issues — like the party’s lack of in-person organizing brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic — also played a role.
“The Republican message against House Democrats was primarily on law and order and policing, and in most races, Democrats really did nothing to blunt that attack,” Wasserman said. “Democrats effectively let themselves be branded as a down-ballot party by the most prominent figures down [the] ballot.”
To be clear, Democrats will have control of the US House of Representatives in the next Congress, albeit with a much slimmer majority than in the current session. So far, seven moderate Democratic members lost their seats, compared to Democrats flipping just one Republican-held seat (plus two open seats).
But those losses — and the disconnect between them and the nonpartisan preelection prognostications that Democrats would expand their ranks — have been enough to start dissolving the party’s united front against President Donald Trump. There’s a genuine dispute among congressional Democrats about the party’s larger vision.
Democrats still hold the gavel, but Republican competitiveness suggests the 2022 midterms could be even more hard fought.
California Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who’s running for chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Vox in a recent interview he’s willing to listen to moderates and liberals alike going forward. Cárdenas is competing with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents an upstate New York district, for the DCCC slot.
“At the end of the day, Alexandria [is] part of what makes this the majority,” Cárdenas told Vox. “Conor, he’s part of what makes this the majority.”
Democrats are divided on ideology
The aftermath of congressional elections laid bare an intraparty debate that’s been simmering for a while.
Moderate Democrats like Spanberger and Lamb were clear that they think Republican attack ads tying centrist members to the party’s most left-wing positions were particularly damaging to frontline members — and could be Democrats’ downfall in 2022.
Progressives have gotten a foothold in the party on issues such as climate and racial justice. But even if their goal is trying to move the Overton window on the party’s big-picture goals through activism and organizing, members like Spanberger think ideas like defunding police departments and a Green New Deal are politically toxic.
“Tuesday, from a Congressional standpoint, was a failure — it was not a success,” Spanberger said on a leaked Democratic caucus call last week, adding that the main concern she heard from her constituents was about defunding the police.
“If we want to talk about funding social services and ensuring good engagement and community policing, let’s talk about what we are for,” Spanberger said during the call. “And we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. ... We lost good members because of that.”
Lamb echoed similar sentiments in an interview with Vox earlier this year, saying Democrats needed to eschew left-wing priorities and focus on commonsense issues such as lowering prescription drug prices, preserving Social Security and Medicare, and protecting jobs — even if those jobs are fracking for natural gas in places like western Pennsylvania.
“People want to know, ‘What are you going to do for me?’” Lamb told Vox. “The message I gave directly to some of vice president [Biden’s] top advisers is, you have to understand that nothing has replaced a coal or steel job like a natural gas job. Don’t tell us about green energy jobs that are abstract; they’re just not here, and they haven’t been here for a long time.”
Liberal members, meanwhile, have cautioned not to give up ideas that energize the party’s younger and more diverse base. While conceding those ideas aren’t popular in every part of the country, they also point to Democratic wins in places like Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2020 — wins that were driven by Black turnout in urban and suburban areas.
The message from House liberals is that the Democratic Party needs to beef up its organizing because ultimately, there is no platform that will be “safe” from right-wing attacks.
“I think one of the things that is very important is to realize that very effective Republican attacks are going to happen every cycle,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent CNN interview. “Not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police in this general election. The question is how can we build a more effective Democratic operation that is stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks.”
Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, a progressive grassroots group, told Vox that Republicans attacking Democrats as socialists is nothing new. He also pointed to progressives who were successful in tough districts, such as Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who supports Medicare-for-all and won a second term in a previously red Orange County district. Progressives like Porter are “leading in authentic ways that are authentic to them,” Mitchell told Vox, primarily talking about how to help working people.
“Republicans have now for a generation reliably labeled them socialists, so we shouldn’t be shocked when they do that,” Mitchell said. “The Democrats should have a sober postmortem that doesn’t have people reliably go to their ideological corners. If Democrats spend too much time fighting each other or navel-gazing, they may lose too much focus on working people.”
The fight over ideology isn’t the whole picture
Democrats working on House races admitted they’d misread the mood of 2020. The 2018 midterms were certainly a wave year for Democrats, but hopes that the wave would continue unabated in 2020 were dashed.
Democrats may have convinced their new base of suburban voters to show up in 2018, but they underestimated Trump’s appeal to his base.
Public and private polling data alike suggested congressional Democrats were leading the generic national ballot by 7 percentage points going into Election Day. As of now, they’re leading by 1.3 points in actual election results, according to RealClearPolitics, compared to a 3-point lead for President-elect Joe Biden.
2020 had many differences from previous elections, as Wasserman explained. First, both parties increased their turnout exponentially — this year’s election had the highest voter turnout since 1908. There may have been a blue wave at the top of the ticket for Biden, but there was also a red wave for Trump.
Second, Trump-averse independent voters in some districts split their tickets to cast their ballot for Republican candidates in House and Senate races — especially if they wanted a legislative check on a new Democratic president. Third, Democratic weaknesses with Latino voters in states like Florida and Texas were apparent in both the presidential and congressional races.
As Vox’s Nicole Narea recently wrote, while most Latinos voted for Biden and the Democrats, Trump also improved with the demographic in key areas. Florida’s 26th Congressional District, which encompasses part of Miami-Dade County, swung from voting for Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016 to voting for Trump by 5 points in 2020. And even though Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represents that district, ran ahead of Biden, it wasn’t enough for her to win reelection.
Cárdenas said Democrats need to rethink how they can appeal to Latino voters and recognize it as a truly diverse group.
“It’s a mistake for anyone to think the Latino community is monolithic, it’s not whatsoever,” he told Vox. “It’s really important people understand at the DCCC, we’re going to be more culturally eclectic and more competent than ever before.”
Some, including Ocasio-Cortez and the more moderate former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), argued the party simply didn’t put enough resources, including digital organizing and strategizing tools, into Latino communities and other communities of color around the country.
O’Rourke recently wrote a memo stating that Republicans in Texas continuing to hold in-person campaign events throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, among other factors, hobbled Democratic efforts.
“The fact that the border, from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso, has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly,” O’Rourke wrote. “The failure to invest in year-round canvassing — so that voters don’t just hear from us during an election — also made it harder for us to move voters at the end.”
Political science research backs up what O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez have said: The Democratic Party has traditionally been lackluster in year-round organizing efforts compared with Republicans.
“The Democratic Party has historically always lagged behind the Republican Party in terms of building up its organizational capacities,” Northwestern University political science professor Daniel Galvin told Vox. “This is a recurring problem for the Democratic Party, and as everyone’s trying to figure out a way forward, we’re trying to point out the importance of building the base.”
That base doesn’t always has to be left wing, Galvin added. But the party must be active and responsive to voters all around the country.
“Politics doesn’t organize itself,” he said. “It takes work, and it takes people to be devoted to the purpose, building strong local organizations and networks.”