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EDITORIAL: Why Democrats Nearly Lost the House
The Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal Editorial Board
Democrats nearly lost their majority in the House on Nov. 3, and their post-election recriminations show the reason. They think their problem was their packaging instead of their policies.
Democrats have already lost eight seats net and could lose as many as 13 after the counting ends. They lost two in South Florida, at least two in California, and here and there across the country in places they had gained in 2018. They failed to pick up seats in Texas, Ohio or Florida, which they had targeted. We also count some 26 seats so far that Democrats won with 52% of the vote or less, despite a huge fund-raising advantage.
The result may be the smallest House majority since 1919, and it’s especially shocking as Democrats reclaimed the White House. Joe Biden leads Donald Trump in the national popular vote by about 3.6%, while House Democratic candidates are ahead by only 2.1% (a margin that exaggerates the Democratic edge because more Democratic seats were uncontested). Democrats also had an incumbency advantage with three times as many Republican House Members retiring this year than Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blamed the losses on Mr. Trump’s ability to turn out Republicans, but the results show that Mr. Biden is more popular than are House Democrats.
Democrats are now brawling over the reason, with progressives and swing-state Members blaming each other. Progressives refuse to take any responsibility. A post-election memo from the left-wing Justice Democrats warned Democrats against retreating from their positions on culture or economics, claiming that their agenda drove turnout. It quoted a New York Times article saying, “the key is to link racism and class conflict.”
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed her defeated colleagues for not knowing how to run smart digital campaigns and how to sell progressive policies. She told CNN the problem is a weak party operation that needs to become “stronger and more resilient to Republican attacks.” She isn’t backing down from the Green New Deal or cutting funds for police, though GOP ads hammered Democrats on both issues in swing districts.
Swing-state Members are more realistic in that they recognize the damage from GOP ads that attacked Democrats for socialism, defunding the police, raising taxes and eliminating oil and gas drilling. But these Democrats also seem to think it comes down to packaging.
“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger told her colleagues in a meeting after the election. “We lost good members because of that.” She won her seat with 50.9%.
But the socialist charge worked because in its policy essence it was true. House Democrats turned sharply leftward in the last two years as they indulged progressive priorities across the policy spectrum. They voted for huge new tax increases, vast new spending, a gradual end to fossil fuels, and the most radical labor agenda since 1935.
The House didn’t vote to defund the police, but Member after Member indulged Black Lives Matter, which does want police budgets slashed. Max Rose, the Democrat from Staten Island, joined a BLM march that featured in a Republican attack ad. He lost.
The problem isn’t the Democratic message; it’s the reality of their program. You can disguise your policies by not calling them “socialist,” but voters will still eventually figure out what those policies mean in practice. They know the Green New Deal means more expensive energy and an end to fracking. They know Mrs. Pelosi refused Mr. Trump’s offer of even $1.8 trillion in Covid relief as too little.
They also know that Senate Democrats talked openly about ending the legislative filibuster, and that House and Senate Democrats advocated packing the Supreme Court. No wonder they elected more Republicans in the House and Senate as a check on these policies.
If Democrats ignore this lesson, they’ll set themselves up for further losses in 2022. Mrs. Pelosi rules with an iron fist, but even she will find it hard to navigate her divided caucus with a narrow majority. Centrists will want to show their independence from the left. Yet if Mrs. Pelosi moves too far in the swing-seat direction, the progressives may not go along.
Mrs. Pelosi might have to make concessions to Republicans to pass some bills. Perhaps she can consult former Republican Speaker John Boehner for advice, since the progressives could become the equivalent of the GOP Freedom Caucus of 2011 and 2012.
Meanwhile, GOP gains in state legislative races mean that Republicans might gain several seats from the reapportionment of House districts in 2021. GOP strongholds will gain seats, while New York could lose two and California could lose one. If Democrats want to hold the House in 2022, they will have to learn the right policy lessons from 2020.