But things aren’t getting any better for Democrats on down-ballot races. Democratic hopes of getting to 50 seats in the Senate rest on two runoffs in Georgia, and their House majority is on track to be the smallest one the party has had in the postwar era. This is far from what Democrats hoped for — or expected — given pre-election polls.
If you listen to some progressives, the fault lies with the Lincoln Project and other Never Trump conservatives. David Sirota, a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tweeted: “The Lincoln Project spent $67 million to persuade Republicans and Biden filled up the Dem convention with GOP speakers. The result: Biden lost ground with voters of color and Trump won more Republicans than he did in 2016.” In a similar vein, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.) wrote that the “Lincoln Project should take the L[oss] and publicly pledge to give a lot of their fundraising to the people who actually made a big difference” — meaning progressive activists.
It’s too early for a definitive evaluation of what happened, because exit polls are no more reliable than pre-election polls. But both the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT), the other major Never Trump organization, shared with me preliminary data to show that their work actually played a critical role in Biden’s victory. Their numbers are in line with publicly available exit polls showing that nationally 7 percent of 2016 Trump voters and 8 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters backed Biden. The share of independent and moderate voters supporting the Democratic nominee also increased from 42 percent of independents and 52 percent of moderates in 2016 to 54 percent of independents and 64 percent of moderates in 2020. Currently, Biden is leading in the popular vote by 3.4 percentage points.
The Lincoln Project contends that 85 percent of the counties it targeted in 10 states moved away from Trump — and that doesn’t even include Arizona, where ballots are still being counted and endorsements from Republicans such as Cindy McCain undoubtedly contributed to Biden’s lead. The Lincoln Project concludes that, across the top battleground states, Biden flipped an average of 6.8 percent of voters who cast a Trump ballot in 2016. Nationally, it believes, 5 percent of voters who voted for a Republican congressional candidate voted for Biden.
In the battleground states, Lincoln Project asserts that 7 percent of 2016 Trump voters switched to Biden in Pennsylvania, 6 percent in Michigan, 7 percent in Wisconsin and 6 percent in Georgia. The swings among independent voters, moderate voters and college-educated White voters away from Trump were even bigger in some cases. Given the narrowness of the outcome in these battleground states (Biden’s biggest margin so far is a 2.6-point win in Michigan), those numbers, if accurate, suggest that Republican and Republican-leaning voters helped deliver the election to Biden.
RVAT’s numbers tell a similar story. In Wisconsin counties where RVAT spent the most, it asserts, Trump underperformed Republican House candidates by seven points. In Pennsylvania counties where RVAT spent the most, it asserts, Trump underperformed Republican House candidates by five points. Again, those are decisive margins in such close states.
While RVAT focused only on the presidential contest, the Lincoln Project also tried to defeat Trump enablers in Senate races. Obviously, the Senate campaigns did not go as well — only two Republican incumbents have lost so far. The reasons vary from state to state, but one common theme is that moderate Democrats had trouble winning in red or purple areas when so many progressive activists were talking about defunding the police, socialism, Medicare-for-all, expanding the Supreme Court and banning fracking.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) argues that in his state the well-funded Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison lost because Sen. Lindsey O. Graham associated him with defunding the police. “That stuff hurt Jaime,” Clyburn said on “Meet the Press.” “And that’s why I spoke out against it a long time ago. I’ve always said that these headlines can kill a political effort.” Similar complaints have been heard from moderate House members such as Abigail Spanberger (Va.) and Conor Lamb (Pa.), who barely survived their reelection bids.
That’s not to deprecate the contributions of progressives. Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, for example, played a critical role in registering new voters and turning out African American voters to help put Georgia on track to flip from red to blue in the presidential race. But those on the left should be more cognizant of how their radical rhetoric plays outside of safe Democratic seats like Ocasio-Cortez’s New York City district, which is 29 points more Democratic than the average House seat.
And rather than trying to scapegoat Never Trumpers for Democrats’ underperformance in congressional races, progressives should thank disaffected Republicans for helping to defeat a president who revolted even many conservatives. As Sarah Longwell, the founder of RVAT, told me, “It took everyone from far-left progressives to center-right folks to put together a big enough coalition to defeat Donald Trump.”
That’s a lesson worth keeping in mind for future struggles, including the upcoming Senate races in Georgia. Neither party can afford ideological purity if it’s to win across a big and diverse nation.