By Adam DuBard
The Democratic Party and its base were faced with an unfortunate dilemma in the wake of the November 2020 elections. With the votes all counted, how were Democratic voters meant to evaluate the electoral results? Yes, priority number one had been accomplished with Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump, and two Senate seats were flipped in Arizona and Colorado. However, the net gain of only one seat in the Senate by December, along with numerous losses in the House, turned much of the excitement on mute. Many in the party saw this as a tragic missed opportunity.
By January, the results of the Senate runoffs in Georgia made Democratic control of Congress a reality, if by just a hair. According to 538’s Senate predictor, Democrats had a 75% chance to assume control of the chamber. Even so, the Democrats’ performance was still largely underwhelming. Contradicting many of the pre-election polls, the Democrats massively underperformed down-ballot. There were costly, high-profile losses in South Carolina, Kentucky, and Maine, where Senator Susan Collins’ achieved an eight-point victory over Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. This loss was particularly egregious, as it occurred even though Gideon had maintained a lead in every 2020 poll according to Real Clear Politics’ tracker.
Indeed, a handful of House races remain undecided in California and New York. However, the Democratic performance in the lower chamber is still damning. By mid-December, Republicans had managed a net gain of nine seats, forcing the Democrats to prepare for no more than a four-seat majority, the smallest margin in 18 years. As Ronald Brownstein wrote in The Atlantic, the presidential election winner’s party losing seats down-ballot is uncommon, but not unheard of. Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton can all count themselves among presidents who won the election yet lost ground in Congress, although Biden’s substantial popular vote margin does stand out in comparison. Regardless, these results have led to vigorous debate within the party regarding what direction they should take.
In a party call shortly after the election, Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia’s 7th congressional district railed against the progressive wing of the party, blaming the phrase “defund the police,” and the accusations of socialist policies from the right for the losses of her fellow representatives. While a former CIA agent condemning socialism is nothing new in the United States, Spanberger was far from alone. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in House Leadership, also blamed what he deemed “far-left policies” such as “Medicare for all or defunding police or socialized medicine,” going so far as to say that Democrats would not win in Georgia if they continued to pursue these policies.
In response to these accusations, progressives pointed to structural flaws within the party itself as the root cause for the Democrats’ underperformance. In an interview with the New York Times, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez noted that the Democratic Party’s lack of digital infrastructure was a crucial weakness and one that needed addressing. She also highlighted a lack of door-knocking, something that the Democrats avoided partially out of caution, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This strategy appears to have cost them at least a few of the tighter races across the country. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington also joined Ocasio-Cortez in the aforementioned call, arguing that progressives had “turned out huge numbers of young people, brown and Black people.”
SAIS Professor David Unger, a former New York Times Editorial Board member, was generous enough to weigh in on this debate. First, he identified Spanberger’s rhetoric as an attempt to administer an ideological purity test within the party. This may beg the question: who really defines the ideological orientation of the Democratic Party, the centrist faction or the progressive faction? Dr. Unger continued by saying that while there are more progressives winning primaries than ever before, making an accurate determination of whether the United States as a whole leans further left today than it did four years ago would be difficult.
Dr. Unger argues that the establishment, centrist faction of the Democratic Party is unwilling to have a conversation about the impact of neoliberalism and globalization. The reason that the party lost states like Kentucky and West Virginia is that they became “the party of Greenwich Village instead of Main Street.” Continuing, Dr. Unger claimed that the progressive wing needs to ultimately decide whether they want to work within the Democratic Party establishment in an attempt to achieve their policy goals or not — a crucial question in a country with only two major political parties.
Dr. Stevenson, a long-term Senate staffer who previously worked for President-Elect Joe Biden, offered a different take on the election. Beginning by presenting the fact that exit polls and other post-election data were still unclear as a disclaimer, Dr. Stevenson noted that the lack of in-person campaigning certainly hurt the Democrats down-ballot. He also emphasized the importance of the success Republicans had “in using socialism and defund the police” against Democratic candidates, or how conservative media continued to exaggerate Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s role in the party as if she were the Speaker of the House. Further elaborating, Dr. Stevenson said that Democrats need more “reactive messages,” in that “Democrats needed to do more fighting back somehow, and they didn’t in enough places.”
Beginning in January 2021, the Democrats will be forced to reckon with a slim majority in the House and an increasingly gridlocked Senate. This will end up holding sway over President-Elect Biden’s ability to implement much of what is planned. Still — although so many high-profile Democratic candidates in both the House and Senate lost their races, many progressive policies were nonetheless passed in ballot initiatives across the country. For instance, Floridians voted by over 60% to raise their minimum wage from $8.56 an hour to $15 by 2026. This occurred in a state that Biden lost by over three points, despite having campaigned on a nationwide $15 minimum wage. Arizona voters chose to raise taxes on high earners to better fund their public education system. Montana, Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Mississippi all approved various measures legalizing Marijuana medically or recreationally as well (both in South Dakota’s case). Ultimately, the Democratic Party is first going to have to find a way to navigate this difficult political climate. How can this be accomplished? How can the party leverage the popular success of progressive policies, and meanwhile, simultaneously avoid alienating its centrist faction?