‘Blue wave’ Democrats eye comebacks after losing reelection
Democrats who helped their party recapture the House majority in 2018 only to lose reelection two years later are jumping back into the political fray ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
In South Carolina, former Rep. Joe Cunningham (D), who narrowly lost to Rep. Nancy Mace (R) last year, is running to oust incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster (R). Another former member of the House, Abby Finkenauer, mounted a Senate bid in Iowa last week.
Meanwhile, former Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who defeated former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) in 2018, is hoping to win back his old House seat from Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) after losing reelection last year.
Across the country and in Washington, Democrats are hoping to recruit so-called majority makers who lost reelection in 2020 to run again in 2022 as they confront threats to narrow congressional majorities.
“Sometimes you have to lose to win again, and I think that could be the story of the 2022 cycle for many of these candidates,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “Just because they didn’t get across the finish line last year doesn’t mean they can’t serve again.”
Democrats gained 40 seats in the House in 2018 as part of a wave election that was broadly seen as a backlash against a unified Republican government under former President Trump. But a dozen of the candidates who propelled the Democratic gains in 2018 lost reelection in 2020, confounding and frustrating party leaders who had expected to expand their House majority.
Despite those losses, many Democrats believe that by recruiting the defeated incumbents behind the 2018 “blue wave,” they may be able to recapture at least some of their lost territory next year.
“Politics is all about timing and environment and temperature, and every election cycle those things tend to change,” Seawright said. “The fact that these candidates won in very tough districts at a very transitional time tells me that their time isn’t finished in politics.”
“The truth of the matter is they won their seats because Democrats and Republicans and independents voted for them in ’18,” he added. “That’s the same coalition Democrats are going to need to be successful next year.”
Finkenauer became the latest of the defeated Democratic incumbents to launch a 2022 campaign when she announced last week that she would challenge Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for the seat he has held for more than four decades, giving Iowa Democrats their first prominent Senate candidate of the midterm cycle.
“She’s really strong in that she’s an up-and-coming star in Iowa politics, not just at the congressional level,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party. “We’re starting to see a lot of legislators endorsing her in the state; there’s a lot of people she’s worked with that are coming around for her.”
Bagniewski said that many incumbents that lost last year fell victim to poor circumstances. As the COVID-19 pandemic tore through the country, many Democrats set aside in-person campaigning and scrambled to bolster and reinvent their digital operations.
“I think a lot of them don’t feel like they got a fair shake in 2020 — like they couldn’t do the leg work, the door-knocking they needed to do,” Bagniewski said.
Democrats are hoping Finkenauer won’t be the last 2018 majority maker to mount another campaign, believing there’s still a chance that defeated incumbents like former Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) and Max Rose (D-N.Y.) will run again.
But they also acknowledge that there are reasons for some would-be candidates to take their time before making a decision.
The decennial redistricting process is just getting underway and congressional lines in many states are expected to shift, meaning that defeated incumbents may not be running in the exact same districts that they won in 2018. At the same time, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting a narrower set of GOP-held districts next year.
Democrats are also facing a grim historical reality: The party of a new president tends to lose ground in midterm elections, and Democrats currently hold control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Some Democrats also expressed frustration that defeated incumbents like Finkenauer and Cunningham are opting to run for higher office instead of the House. They see both as strong candidates but say that padding out their party’s House majority is a more urgent need than flipping statewide offices that have eluded Democrats in recent years.
“Our focus right now needs to be on keeping the House, and I think that’s where we need these candidates the most,” said one Democratic strategist with deep experience in House races.
“Running statewide is a different deal. You can be a rock star in the Democratic Party, nationally, but a lot of voters outside your old district don’t know who you are,” the strategist added. “These candidates can put in the work to change that, but it would have been a safer bet for [Finkenauer] to run for the first congressional seat again.”
Mounting another campaign after losing in 2020 also gives Republicans a clear line of attack. The National Republican Congressional Committee has repeatedly noted Rouda’s 2020 loss, labeling him as a “fired congressman turned retread candidate.”
Republicans have used a similar line on Finkenauer. After she announced her campaign last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee declared that she had “signed up to become a two-time loser.”
Not all of the Democrats’ 2018 majority makers are open to another run. Last month, former Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), who defeated Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) in 2018 only to lose to her last year, ruled out a 2022 campaign, citing a desire to spend more time with his children.
“This is a crucial time in my kids’ lives, with my son starting high school and daughter entering her final year of elementary school,” Brindisi said in a statement. “I’ve missed a lot, and want to be closer to my family.”