Politics

House Dems Brawl on Conference Call

Recriminations fly after an underperformance on election night.

Nancy Pelosi holds up her right hand as she speaks in front of American flags.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C. on Tuesday. Alyssa Schukar/Getty Images

House Democrats’ performance on Tuesday night was a catastrophe.

Rather than adding the five to 15 seats to their majority that their modeling, Republicans’ modeling, and outside analysts’ modeling showed Democrats netting, they are on track to lose an amount in the same neighborhood. They have, as of now, not won a single House race listed as a “toss-up” or unseated a single Republican up for reelection. Republicans, meanwhile, have flipped five Democratic seats listed as “toss-up” and three that were “lean Democratic.” Two of those three were in the Democratic debacle that was Miami-Dade County. Though Democrats will maintain control of the chamber, its majority will be smaller, and Republicans will be in strong position to retake the House in 2022 as Republican statehouses (yup, Democrats didn’t flip those either) draw new gerrymanders to get around Democrats’ improvements in the suburbs.

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And so House Democrats are, appropriately, at one another’s throats. That played out on a long, dramatic member call Thursday afternoon.

Freshman Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a centrist who narrowly won reelection after narrowly winning election in 2018, called the night a “failure” and blamed leftists for the poor evening.

“We have to commit to not saying the words ‘defund the police’ ever again,” Spanberger said, according to ABC News. “We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she says. “It does matter, and we have lost good members because of that.” She claimed an ad against her about “defunding the police” nearly cost her seat, while Dallas-Forth Worth Rep. Marc Veasey blamed such ads for their miss in Texas pickup opportunities. And House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn warned that any peep about defunding the police, “Medicare for all,” or socialism will ruin their chances of winning the two expected Senate runoffs in Georgia in January.

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“We will get fucking torn apart” in the next election if this crazy leftism continues, Spanberger warned.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried her best to caution against the screaming. “I do disagree, Abigail, that it was a failure,” Pelosi said. “We won the House.” Pelosi would leave the call for a period of time but came back to wrap up the three-hour call by saying, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us.”

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When centrist Democrats and leadership (and even some progressives) tell a handful of the most progressive members that their dabbling with leftist policy ideas is the entire reason congressional Democrats across the country biffed it, it is reasonable to expect those targeted progressive members to push back.

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“Don’t blame myself and others who are fighting for issues that matter to our communities,” Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of the “Squad” of younger, more leftist members—to whose ranks will be added in the next Congress—said on the call. Both Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, by the way, won their own seats handily and helped deliver Joe Biden victories in the critical states of Minnesota and Michigan.

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Here’s the knotty issue with this dispute: It’s irreconcilable.

There is no reason to doubt that certain beliefs confined to the younger, left wing of the party—defunding the police, or a rosier perception of socialism—hurt Democratic candidates in swing districts when Republicans spend millions on ads trying to tie those members to those positions. That must be very annoying for them, just as it’s annoying for suburban Republicans to be tried to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. On the other hand, if Ilhan Omar believes that the Minneapolis Police Department is so beyond repair that it needs to be dismantled, and that belief is shared by many of her constituents, then Abigail Spanberger has no right to tell her that she can’t voice that opinion. If she believes that’s a dangerous opinion, it’s her obligation to explain that to her constituents, and if she can’t convince central Virginia that “defunding the police” is a position that only a handful of Democrats in Congress have even entertained, that’s an issue for her. And Medicare for All is a popular policy position among Democrats.

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Democrats are dramatic, and they would be running hot and finding things to complain about even if they had added 20 seats. Consider that they’re this mad when they’re on the precipice of unseating an incumbent president—a lunatic—for the first time in 28 years.

What’s unnerving for House and Senate Democrats—and to a lesser extent the Biden campaign, though they look like they’ll get away with it—is that they’ve essentially been flying blind with bad data. The electorate they had modeled was not the 2020 electorate. They had every statistical reason to believe they were on offense. You’d be shook, too, if you only realized you were on defense as the returns came in, and for the second straight presidential election.

“I also want to say the thing we’re all feeling,” Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told her colleagues, according to Roll Call. “I’m furious. Something went wrong here across the entire political world.” Bustos herself only narrowly prevailed in her reelection.

“Our polls, Senate polls, [governors] polls, presidential polls, Republican polls, public polls, turnout modeling, and prognosticators all pointed to one political environment,” she said. “That environment never materialized.”

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