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2020/2022

How Democrats came up short in bid to expand House majority

Where did Democratic messaging fail?

This swath of southeast Iowa isn’t supposed to be a nailbiter for Democrats.

For more than a decade, voters in the college town of Iowa City powered Democratic candidates to Congress. But that changed this month when conservatives who dominate the more rural parts of the district turned out in droves, eager to support President Donald Trump and other Republicans on the ballot.

Nearly three weeks after Election Day, a winner hasn’t been declared in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. That’s a sign of the unexpected strength Republicans demonstrated in House races across the country, taking down at least 10 Democratic incumbents and dashing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bold prediction of expanding her majority by double digits.

Instead, it appears Democrats made a serious miscalculation in assuming their antipathy toward Trump would fuel victories across the country. They failed to anticipate that Trump’s supporters would show up, too, with even greater force than before in rural areas.

“It’s the Trump factor,” Jasper County Republican Chairman Thad Nearmyer said on his farm outside Monroe. “People were super excited to vote for the president.”

Of course, Trump lost the presidency and Democrat Joe Biden will move into the White House in January after winning nearly 80 million votes nationwide, a historic high. But the enthusiasm for Biden — or for defeating Trump — didn’t trickle to other Democrats down ballot.

That leaves the party confronting a reckoning over how to move forward. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports the party’s House candidates, is beginning a “deep dive” examination into what happened.

Early interpretations blame a series of missteps. Chief among them was allowing Republicans to portray Democrats as radical, which overtook the party’s messaging in some cases on guaranteeing health insurance during a pandemic and rebuilding the economy. Democrats also failed to grow their appeal among some Latinos, particularly Cuban Americans in south Florida.

Other strategic decisions are coming under scrutiny. Democrats scaled back in-person campaigning and canvassing because of the novel coronavirus, seeking to protect their candidates and staff, and to model good behavior during a public health crisis.

But that gave Trump an opportunity to rally his supporters. The president’s nearly 74 million votes is the second-highest in history and fed massive turnout that helped reshape House races, especially in rural areas.

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There were few bright Democratic spots beyond rural areas, as the party’s congressional candidates around the country fell short.

Democrats gave up seats in south Florida and California, and failed to gain any in Texas, despite targeting 10.

That’s fueling an intense round of finger-pointing among Democrats. Some say the enthusiasm for Trump was compounded by unease among voters about some of the most progressive ideas that were debated during the Democratic presidential primary, including the Medicare for All health care plan and the Green New Deal to combat climate change.

When demonstrations over institutional racism swept the country, many Democrats also struggled to respond to false Republican attacks that they supported “defunding” the police. Voters for months watched Republican ads featuring unrest with narrators ominously attacking Democrats as anti-police, often with little response.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC which spent $140 million promoting general election Republican House candidates, claimed success tailoring broader attacks on Democrats on issues like defunding the police to individual races.

“We needed to move out of the national, charged language and make this about peoples’ individual lives and how this would affect them,” said CLF President Dan Conston, who also praised GOP efforts to recruit more women and people of color to run.

Ads criticizing the Green New Deal warned of tax increases in many areas, but highlighted the potential impact on the oil and gas industry in energy-rich places where Republicans ousted Democratic House incumbents, including New Mexico and Oklahoma.

By contrast, Democrats’ focus on health care proved less influential than during the 2018 midterms, after Republicans had unsuccessfully sought the repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. According to the AP’s VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate, voters’ top concern was the pandemic, followed closely by the economy, which favored Republicans.

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Material published with permission of the Associated Press.

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