We are firmly in the autumn of Democratic discontent, between the struggle in Congress to get Joe Biden’s agenda enacted; the president’s own sagging job-approval ratings; the persistence of Donald Trump; and a bad moon rising over Donkey Party prospects in the 2022 midterms and maybe even some 2021 elections.
The search for scapegoats — from President Joe Biden to Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and their fellow “centrists” in the House — is understandably intense. But the underlying problem is a 2020 election that fell short of expectations, and fell even shorter of what the party needed to govern effectively. Initial relief over finally ejecting Donald Trump from the White House and excitement over winning control of the Senate should not obscure the fact that Democrats emerged from the last election with the stage set for their present troubles.
Consider how they underperformed in every significant category:
The 2020 presidential misfire
A lot of the pre-election chatter revolved around the question of whether Biden would win by a landslide and earn a clear policy mandate, or would instead win by a more modest margin. (And of course, many Democrats feared that Trump might win legitimately, despite Biden’s polling lead, or make good on hints that he would try to steal the election.) Ultimately, a mere 44,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin kept Trump from tying Biden in the Electoral College. Yes, Biden ultimately defeated Trump by a 4.4 percent national popular-vote margin, nearly as big as Barack Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney in 2012. But the final polling averages at FiveThirtyEight projected an 8.4 percent Biden win, with the Democrat likely to carry Florida, North Carolina, and the 2nd congressional district of Maine along with the jurisdictions he ultimately won.
In the run-up to the election, I was one of many analysts who thought that perhaps a Biden win in Florida on November 3 might settle it all early enough to avoid a contested election, even if Trump was as unscrupulous as we expected:
It’s a different matter, of course, if Florida is called for Trump or the state is just too close to call as the morning after Election Night dawns. There are definitely some Biden paths to victory without Florida being in his column, but they may not be entirely apparent in early returns if Trump is leading in most of the battleground states. So Democrats would be well advised to kick out the jams in the land of Mickey Mouse and the NBA bubble.
Unfortunately, they didn’t. Perhaps there was no margin of victory by Biden that would have convinced Trump not to claim a stolen win and seek to execute an election coup that finally failed on January 6. But a close race definitely made it much easier for Trump to fire up the MAGA base, convince rank-and-file Republicans to believe his Big Lie about a stolen election, and ensure lockstep GOP obstruction of Biden’s actions as president.
The House fiasco
To say that House races didn’t turn out as expected would be a major understatement. The respected Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball projected just prior to Election Day that Democrats would win 243 House seats, a net gain of 10. Instead they won 222 seats, a net loss of 11. Here’s what Cook Political Report’s House race wizard David Wasserman had to say when the dust settled:
[I]n the House, Republicans nearly swept the 27 races in our Toss Up column and won seven races in our “Lean” and “Likely” Democrat columns. These included some big upsets: Republicans held every vulnerable seat in Texas, picked up four Biden/Clinton-won seats in California and even picked up two Miami area seats Clinton had carried by more than 15 points in 2016.
In 2018, Democrats won most of the Toss Ups and even four seats we had rated as “leaning” or “likely” Republican — not entirely dissimilar. But this time, instead of a strong majority, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is left with 222 seats and virtually no margin for error — especially with Reps. Cedric Richmond (LA-02), Deb Haaland (NM-01) and Marcia Fudge (OH-11) set to decamp for administration posts.
This last point is worth underlining: Given Pelosi’s narrow margin of control in the House, you might think the president-elect would ask his intended appointees who were House members to hold off for a while until his agenda had been mostly enacted. He did not and that’s why House Democratic centrists were in a position to join with their Senate counterparts in holding Biden’s agenda hostage this summer and fall (even as House progressives felt their own oats in a narrowly divided House and made their own threats).
The Senate fail in North Carolina
You might say that whatever bad luck or skill Democrats had in the late stages of the presidential and House races was matched by their great fortune in those two January 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia, where they won control of the upper chamber and a governing trifecta. That may be true. But it was an Election Night fail in North Carolina that left Democrats with 50 Senate seats and a situation inviting any one senator to hold the party agenda hostage.
Democrat Cal Cunningham led Republican incumbent Thom Tillis in nearly every poll of their contest for months and months. Then in the final weeks of the campaign it all slowly unraveled, as CNN reported at the time:
Text messages leaked last week and reports detailing Democrat Cal Cunningham’s alleged extramarital affair this summer have undercut the image he has carefully crafted, as a man of integrity who serves in the Army Reserve. While Democratic and Republican strategists say it’s too early to know how the scandal may influence his race against GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, particularly in the age of Trump, Republicans now have a new line of attack — and are planning to put millions of dollars behind it in the final days of the campaign.
It worked, and while Democrats still won control of the Senate, they didn’t have the margin for error the much-predicted North Carolina win might have given them. And that in turn gave any one Democratic senator the power to veto the budget-reconciliation bill advancing much of Biden’s domestic agenda. Two senators, Joe Manchin and Kysten Sinema of Arizona, have used that power aggressively, likely paring the size of that bill by more than half from its original dimensions, and creating a yet-to-be-resolved battle over its specific provisions.
The state legislative disaster
The U.S. House disappointment was made worse by the failure of Democrats to win nearly all of their ambitious goals for flipping state legislatures and getting control of redistricting after the 2020 census. Politico succinctly described the disaster:
By Wednesday night, Democrats had not flipped a single statehouse chamber in its favor. And it remained completely blocked from the map-making process in several key states — including Texas, North Carolina and Florida, which could have a combined 82 congressional seats by 2022 — where the GOP retained control of the state legislatures.
Democrats also fell short in Arizona and Georgia, while losing control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature, leaving the GOP in control of 61 chambers overall as compared to 37 for Democrats.
Coming just before a reapportionment and redistricting year, this was a disappointment that will continue to sting for a decade, with Republicans now expected to net somewhere between six and 13 House seats in 2022 from the new maps alone, immensely complicating the already difficult Democratic goal of maintaining House control. Since a majority of state legislatures also draw their own maps, the Republican advantage at the state level may be perpetuated as well.
The legacy of Democrats’ 2020 fumbles
To be clear, ejecting Trump from the White House by any margin was critical, and however fragile the Democratic trifecta now seems, it was better than divided control of Congress. Still, to the extent that Democrats are now struggling with legislation this year and fretting over midterm elections on the horizon, 2020 was the big win the party needed and didn’t get. The biggest problem still ahead could be a 2024 presidential election close enough to nourish the Big Lie and undermine confidence in democracy among a dangerously high percentage of rank-and-file Republicans. It does little good to look back in anger, but we should all have some sympathy for what elected Democrats are going through now. It’s not all about the events of 2021.