Democrats were locked and freakin’ loaded this week to argue with other Democrats about what they all assumed was going to be a major blowout in the House and quite possibly a loss of the Senate. One left-leaning organization, the Revolving Door Project, sent a memo to Slate on Tuesday afternoon—before polls closed—already blaming corporate influence and overcautious rhetoric for the party’s presumed losses.
That document was “embargoed,” i.e., sent on the condition that it not be quoted from until election results came in. But another organization, the centrist group Third Way, let Axios print excerpts from its memo on Monday; it complained that Democrats have become too “extreme” (i.e., liberal), particularly on issues like crime.
And then, definitely to the surprise of these groups, the party did quite well, or at least has done quite well in the results tallied so far. Remarkably, it did so in a way that gives neither of its major factions much to blame the other for. Centrists like Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin won their races. But so did Chris Deluzio, a former Bernie Sanders delegate who won a House district in Pennsylvania previously held by conservative-leaning Dem. Conor Lamb, and Summer Lee, an outright leftist, who won nearby. As did candidates like John Fetterman and Gretchen Whitmer, who are relatively mainstream overall but don’t mind being perceived as aggressively liberal on issues like criminal justice reform (in Fetterman’s case) or abortion (in Whitmer’s). Finally, the youth vote seems to have helped Democrats everywhere, which at the least suggests that Joe Biden’s calculatedly leftist decision to forgive some student loan debt was not a disaster.
But Democrats have long been the more fretful of the two major parties, and whether they hold the Senate depends on a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia and mail-in votes in Nevada and Arizona that may take several days to count. The House could come down to an even longer mail-in tally process in California. The still-extant possibility of coming this close to holding both chambers, only to lose them, naturally leads one to think about what might have been done on the margin.
So here are four questions that the party’s supporters and officials can have bitter arguments about in the meantime—ranked in roughly descending order of the possibility that anyone could have ever realistically done anything about the problems described therein.
Did they give up on Wisconsin and North Carolina too early (and make the wrong gamble in Florida)?
Reports over the last month of the campaign pegged national Democrats as basically having given up on Wisconsin Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, whose poll numbers had dropped amid a hail of ads about his purported softness on crime. In North Carolina, locals were complaining that they were given even less attention (and money) for Cheri Beasley’s Senate race. In Florida, though, Val Demings had an enormous hoard of cash to spend on her race against Marco Rubio.
In the end, Demings lost her race by 17 points. Beasley is set to lose by 4 points and Barnes by only 2. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won reelection by 3. An enterprising progressive could certainly make the case that a great deal of spending was wasted on Demings—a former police chief—in a futile effort to give the impression that Democrats can be just as “tough on crime” as the other party. Speaking of which …
Whose fault is New York state?
The current media consensus is that if Democrats lose the House, they are going to need to flagellate themselves severely over having lost five close races in New York—four of which are in commuting distance of New York City. Progressives can blame former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s galaxy-brained appointment of conservatives to the state Supreme Court (which boned Democrats on redistricting), or tough-on-crime Democratic NYC mayor Eric Adams’ rhetoric about how soft other Democrats are on crime, or Democratic House campaign chair Sean Patrick Maloney’s decision to bully another incumbent out of a newly redrawn district which he (Maloney) then went on to lose. Moderates can blame progressives for alienating suburban voters by creating the very crime Adams is complaining about (by being soft on it, of course). There’s something for everyone!
Why didn’t the party do more about gerrymandering?
A higher level problem for Democrats is that in February the Supreme Court ruled that it was too close to the election to enforce the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition against racial gerrymandering. This may end up having cost the Democrats an estimated seven to 10 seats in the House.
There are two ways the party could have done something about this. One would have been to pass voting rights legislation at some point in the preceding two years that made racial gerrymanders, uh, even more illegal. Of course, the hardline conservative majority on the court could have just invalidated that legislation too, which suggests the other way the problem could have been avoided: building a time machine, going back to the beginning of Barack Obama’s term, and taking the necessity of strategic SCOTUS retirements and appointments more seriously. (Technically it’s still not too late to do this.)
OK, but should Joe Biden really, really run again?
We’re including this one just for laughs, because in the happy glow of a surprise non–red wave no one is grumbling too much about Biden’s low approval rating being a drag on Democratic tickets, or about him being too old to campaign in 2024. Moreover, in 2020 Biden was able to win an election largely without holding campaign events, just as John Fetterman did in Pennsylvania this year while recovering from a stroke. Also, despite his crummy record of 2022 endorsements, Donald Trump is still the favorite to be the Republican Party’s next presidential nominee, and if there is one thing that has been established in the last two cycles, it is that U.S. voters dislike Trump even more than they dislike Biden.
That said, it is entertaining to speculate about who might win an open Democratic primary in 2024, particularly with some obvious contenders like Fetterman, Whitmer, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker having built momentum this month. I mean, what else are Democrats going to do—agree that there’s more than one way to win an election and congratulate each other for doing a good job?