Democrats have a new explanation for why they performed poorly in congressional races in last November’s election, even as President BidenJoe BidenBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Biden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Biden: Comment that DOJ should prosecute those who defy subpoenas 'not appropriate' MORE swept into the White House.
A large part of the answer is: Trump.
A post-election “autopsy” by the House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), suggests that then-President TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE juiced Republican turnout in a way that neither pollsters nor his political opponents predicted.
But a more contentious question is what this means for the 2022 midterm elections, when Trump will no longer be the central figure in American politics.
House Democrats will be defending an extremely thin majority — currently their edge is eight seats, with five seats vacant — while their colleagues in the Senate have no margin for error at all.
DCCC Chairman Sean MaloneySean Patrick MaloneyProgressives hit back after moderates take aim at Pelosi Entire NY Democratic congressional delegation now calling for Cuomo's resignation The Memo: Democrats torn over whether Trump's absence helps party MORE (D-N.Y.) argued that his party could benefit from Trump’s lower relevance come 2022.
“In 2022, when Trump’s name is not on the ballot, there's no evidence that Republicans’ current message, which is divisive and reckless, will be able to recreate the turnout Republicans saw in 2020, and it might in fact hurt them,” Maloney said in a statement released this week alongside the new report, officially known as the “DCCC 2020 Deep Dive.”
But one of the most vexing political questions of recent years — was Trump, electorally, a net asset or liability for the GOP? — has never been definitively answered.
“There’s no question about it” that Trump’s centrality in 2020 didn’t just boost GOP turnout, Texas-based Democratic strategist Keir Murray noted. It also motivated many anti-Trump voters to show up for Democrats.
Trump won the White House in 2016 but did so while losing the popular vote. He racked up the most votes of any GOP nominee in history in 2020 — but fell about 7 million short of Biden’s tally.
He is now being credited even by the DCCC with saving some GOP members last November — but he entered office with Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, and now his party has neither.
2020 “was an election of vital importance for the people who hated Trump and for the people who loved Trump,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is also a columnist for The Hill. “He brought out people on both sides.”
The former president doesn’t appear to be in any rush to leave the political battlefield.
He has reasserted his control over the GOP since the Jan. 6 Capital insurrection that he was impeached for inciting. He issues statements with increasing frequency from his Florida estate of Mar-a-Lago, endorsing some candidates but more often taking aim at those who have displeased him.
But even if Trump can still make his muscle felt in episodes like the ouster of Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn Cheney'You're a joke': Greene clashes with Cheney, Raskin on House floor The 9 Republicans who voted to hold Bannon in contempt of Congress Cheney reveals GOP's Banks claimed he was Jan. 6 panel's ranking member MORE (R-Wyo.) from House Republican leadership, he clearly won’t be the dominant figure on the national landscape that he was in 2020.
Democrats outside the DCCC aren’t so optimistic about what that means for their party.
“I don’t think you can ever make another election a referendum on Trump. And even in 2020, we saw the limitations of that strategy,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
This source expressed concern that Biden’s victory, and the continued focus on Trump, could blind Democrats to vulnerabilities in their own position, especially with voters who are receptive to the argument that the party has turned too far to the left.
“Every one is so fixated on ‘Trump lost!’ that they miss the fact that in other races outside the presidency, Democrats suffered a number of significant, devastating losses,” the strategist said.
Democrats lost 11 seats in the House last November and only took control of the Senate after winning two runoffs in traditionally Republican Georgia. A hoped-for surge for House Democratic candidates near the southern border never materialized, and favored Democratic Senate challengers in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina all came up short.
The DCCC report acknowledges the dangers of the party being painted as radical leftists, even as it tries to play down the effectiveness of GOP attacks on this theme.
“The lies and distortions about defund and socialism carried a punch, but the Republicans think it got them over a 10-foot wall when Trump’s turnout gave them a 7-foot ladder,” Maloney told The Washington Post earlier this week.
The careful phrasing may help the DCCC chairman maintain a delicate dance between moderates and progressives within his party.
Tensions between the center and the left have mostly been contained during Biden’s presidency, with the exception of divergent views on the recent bloodshed between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But a fundamental schism remains over the fundamental question of how to win elections. Progressives insist that it is important to “embrace the base,” while moderates fear the impact of slogans like “defund the police.”
Murray, the Texas-based Democrat, said that the attacks on the party as “radical” had a significant effect in a state like his:
“The ‘socialism’ argument, the ‘defund the police’ argument — both of those did considerable damage to Democratic candidates in Texas, not just Biden but down the ticket as well,” Murray said.
“I think it is an attack that can be refuted but that is going to require an acknowledgment of the severity of the attack in order to counteract it,” he added.
The tensions between Democrats in mostly urban, left-leaning strongholds and those competing in battleground states and districts are simmering and could boil over at any point.
“The Democrats who are most woke come from places where that works, because they are very, very Democratic places,” said a second party strategist who asked for anonymity. “The people who are hurt are not those people — they are people in swing districts, and they get hurt by it because they live in a different cultural milieu.”
And as for Trump? Democrats just can’t make up their mind whether his relative absence is a net-plus or net-negative.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, believe that a situation where the former president is still politically engaged but not actually on the ballot could work out very well for them.
“Even people within the Republican establishment who may not love Trump want him on the battlefield. They know he is a net positive. They know he does appeal to atypical Republican voters, especially from a working-class background,” said one GOP operative with ties to Trump World.
“We could see a situation in which Republicans get a lot of the benefit from Trump’s appeal to conservatives and rural voters — without the downside of jacking up Democratic voters and suburbanites.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.