Democrats battle for soul of party as Biden win masks alarming failures

The sense of relief Democrats felt with Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election was not the same as a feeling of victory.

The party’s loss of congressional seats and failure to take control of state legislatures, not to mention the US Senate, indicated an alarming slippage for a party that had thought it was growing as Trump was supposedly torching the Republican brand.

After the election, a fierce internal Democratic debate broke out, with centrists arguing that slogans such as “Defund the police” and “Medicare for All” had hurt the party with moderate voters and exposed candidates to wild accusations from Republicans equating universal healthcare with Pol Pot.

The progressives said that on the contrary, the party had not staked out its program on behalf of working people proudly enough, instead trying to play it safe behind an innocuous presidential candidate whose main pitch was a return to normalcy.

The problem, said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was that the party lacked “core competencies” to reach voters with decisive rebuttals to wild charges from Republicans.

The political strategist David Axelrod said the problem was that the party needed to learn how not to talk down to working-class voters, noting that while Democrats dominated in and around big cities in the 2020 election, Republicans had won in 80% of US counties.

“If Democrats continue to cede 80% of the country, if they can’t break through, they’re kind of screwed, in my view, at least in the short run,” Axelrod said on his podcast.

The debate is not academic. Two years from now, with Joe Biden in the White House and the Senate up for grabs, the Democrats could create their first opportunity in more than a decade to do something big: deliver major legislation to expand healthcare, protect voting rights, defend the environment, or implement humane immigration policy.

Democratic political analysts, organizers and operatives interviewed by the Guardian agreed that opportunity lay ahead, but emphasized that to capitalize on it, the party must renew its efforts to connect with voters all year long, at a local level, and not be afraid of progressive messaging especially on economic issues.

One key insight: local politics is not the same as national politics, and opportunities to reach even diehard Trump supporters abound when there is no Super Bowl presidential race inflaming partisan passions.

“Locally, you can do more,” said David Pepper, the outgoing state chair of the Democratic party in Ohio. “You can win and make progress despite the national conversation. It’s a different type of politics.

“It’s what the Koch brothers did for decades before we caught up.”

The entire Democratic party sensed opportunity in 2020. With Trump having alienated a significant share of moderate voters, and Democrats running high-single-digits ahead of Republicans on the generic ballot, control of both Congress and the White House seemed tantalizingly close. The party spent $50m in an effort to flip state legislatures in advance of the redistricting process.

But when the dust had settled, none of the eight statehouses targeted by Democrats produced a win, and control of the US Senate hung on thin hopes of winning two runoff races next month in Georgia. Most damagingly, Democrats had lost at least 11 seats in Congress, with candidates swamped by Trump voters but also not helped by Biden at the top of the ticket.

Democratic primary voters picked Biden in part on the theory that he was most capable of beating Trump. But Democrats disagree on whether Biden’s success in districts where other Democrats lost meant that the party seemed too far left – or insufficiently bold in its progressive prescriptions.

“In general, instead of blaming the progressives for the down-ballot failures, we should listen to them more,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist. “Because I think the progressives in the party do a better job of talking basic economics, and talking about it in a way that people relate to.”

There were bright spots. In Ohio, Democrats flipped a state supreme court seat by 10 points – in the single race in the entire country in which Democrats flipped a statewide seat from red to blue in a state Trump won.

Pepper, the outgoing party chair, said the party had made local gains by encouraging voters to vote their entire ballots – instead of skipping down-ballot races – and by seeking to contest every election, no matter how local, in every year, not just in presidential races and during midterms.

“We’ve done that for five years and it totally works,” Pepper said. “We have in Ohio now our biggest city footprint in recent history at least. We have mayors in almost every big city, winning by more, and bigger council footprints in these big cities.”

Fighting to win local elections in 2019, Ohio Democrats unseated Republican mayors in three cities – Irontown, Coshocton and Norwalk – in counties that Trump won just one year later by an average of 45 points.

But the swell of partisan politics in 2020 overwhelmed the ability of scrappy campaigning to make a difference statewide, with Trump taking Ohio by eight points.

To fight in a noisy election year, Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times last month, Democrats need to beef up their ability to go on TV and target ads on the internet for an entire election cycle instead of right before elections.

But it’s not clear what level of messaging would be required to bring around Republican-leaning voters, when a majority of Republicans are prepared to believe, absent any evidence, in a multi-state conspiracy to steal the presidential election – in short, to believe anything that Trump, a historic liar, says.

One of Trump’s strengths is his zeal at playing into the empirically proven politics of anger and resentment, of racist fears and xenophobic scapegoating. Democrats are aware that one challenge they face is to offer an alternative to voters who might be susceptible to, or at least not repelled by, that kind of pitch.

“It’s not just about having deliverables and tangibles to offer,” said Axelrod on the Hacks on Tap podcast. “It’s about changing an attitude that basically thinks of these folks as something less.

“The Democratic party envisions itself as the party of working people but it doesn’t feel that way to a lot of working people. And the Democratic party needs to figure that out.”