Here’s some of the better analysis I’ve come across, the conclusions are not necessarily in agreement, but speak to the divisions we are seeing in the Party on what went wrong.
The number-one explanation: Donald Trump had long coattails, even in defeat—and Biden had short ones, even in victory. “That’s what people just didn’t see coming,” says Carolyn Fiddler of Daily Kos, long an evangelist for Democrats to pay more attention to statehouse races. “Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2018. We don’t know what would have happened if he was.” Everyone I interviewed agreed. And the suburban “blue wave” that helped lift Biden to victory? It did not carry Democratic state candidates (or, to be honest, a lot of US House or Senate seats). “Republicans heavily voted down-ballot, where Democrats did not again,” says Joanna Cattanach, who ran and narrowly lost a second time for a Texas state senate seat in Dallas County. “And we saw a slew of ticket splitters.” I heard that all across the country. It will take a lot more district-level analysis to be sure.
As with the disappointing House and Senate outcomes, some Democrats complain that the Biden campaign focused too much on Trump and not enough on the devolution of the entire Republican Party into a racist, antidemocratic swamp. As Ron Brownstein put it in a must-read Atlantic piece, “Rather than presenting Trump as the culmination of Republican policies and values, Biden consistently portrayed him as an aberration; many strategists on both sides believe that made it easier for voters to oppose Trump but still back Republicans in House and Senate races.”
Maybe most troubling, Trump’s strength among Latinos helped doom Democratic hopes in Texas (somewhat realistic), Florida (less realistic), and some other less-expected districts around the country. Although so did the party’s tendency to treat “Latinos”—a diverse community including Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Central Americans, and more, that consists of both recent immigrants and people whose families have lived here for generations—as a monolith that was inevitably trending Democratic, and its failure to invest in long-term organizing.
Compared with Republicans, it took a long time for Democrats to realize just how important down-ballot races can be—from the representatives and senators who write state laws to the district attorneys who decide which crimes to prosecute. It wasn’t until after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in 2016 that Democratic donors and activists, their party exiled from power in Washington, D.C., turned their attention to the states instead. A constellation of new groups emerged, among them former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which came with the blessing and fundraising firepower of his ex-boss Barack Obama. Each started with the aim of flipping state legislative chambers in 2018 and 2020 and giving Democrats a much bigger say in the redistricting process that will begin next year.
While the coronavirus pandemic did not stop voters from turning out in record numbers across the country, Democrats believe that it did hamper them in down-ballot races, where in-person campaigning is equally if not more important than TV ads. And just as at the presidential level, Democratic candidates were much more likely than Republicans to curtail their canvassing in the interest of public health and safety. “The candidate that knocks on more doors in a state legislative race is going to outperform the district,” says Daniel Squadron, a former Democratic state senator from New York who in 2018 founded the Future Now Fund to help the party flip legislative chambers across the country. “We’ve never before had a scenario where one party did it and the other party didn’t.”
Republicans reveled in their success, openly boasting of their ability to control redistricting in many states and mocking Democratic donors who poured money into groups such as the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and the DLCC only to get little to show for it. “Absolutely embarrassing,” tweeted Austin Chambers, the executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
“The system is broke,” said Chuck Rocha, a progressive strategist frustrated by what he sees as his party’s lack of sophistication in talking to nonwhite voters. “This election exposed how we run all these campaigns the same way, from the same place.”
However, moderates who lost their seats or narrowly escaped defeat directed their blame elsewhere — toward the progressives. Rep. Conor Lamb of suburban Pittsburgh has vented that voters in his district are uneasy with all the talk within the party of ideas such as defunding the police or a Green New Deal. In a postmortem conference call of House Democrats, other swing-district Democrats echoed that complaint.
“The evidence is overwhelming that the Democratic brand is so damaged by the far left and their ideas that it is very difficult to overcome if you are in a very red place, or sometimes even a light-red to deep-purple place,” said Jon Cowan, president of Third Way, a center-left advocacy group trying to push the party back toward the middle. “The far-left undertow just dragged some members under.” Progressives, however, say it’s absurd that moderate candidates who ran on cautious platforms are blaming the left for their woes. They say that progressives’ calls to action on racial justice, economic fairness and confronting climate change galvanized the voters who were crucial to pushing Biden over the top.