Democrats charged into the election as a unified party, setting aside deeply felt divisions to maximize Joe Biden’s chances of defeating President Trump.
Moderates blame liberals for promoting socialism and proposals to “defund the police.” Liberals are warning Biden not to cozy up to Senate Republicans, who might retain their majority. Latino leaders are raising alarms about Biden’s poor performance in some of their communities.
While Democrats were upbeat about Biden’s lead in the presidential race, they were also engaging in soul-searching. Because both Biden and the GOP can claim successes, the outcome defies simple theories about the electorate and potentially leaves Biden without full control of Congress or a unified direction for his party.
“There are lessons,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I’m not sure what they are just yet.”
Republicans portrayed all Democrats including Biden as left-wing radicals, which frustrated party leaders and Biden campaign officials who saw data showing how effective it could be, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Biden was able to fend off the criticism, but many others were not.
“Joe Biden has his own brand as a moderate, but the Democratic Party brand for much of the country seemed too far left,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left organization. “The terms ‘socialism’ and ‘defund the police’ and ‘Green New Deal’ were anchors around the necks of many Democrats.”
That led to results like the one in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, Kessler said, where Biden won but Kara Eastman, a liberal Democratic House nominee, lost.
The frictions were illustrated by a hostile conference call between House Democrats on Thursday, when moderate Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) said angrily that liberal Democrats must stop playing into GOP hands by calling themselves “socialists.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who identifies as a democratic socialist, tweeted Friday that such Republicans attacks are racial. “You’re not gonna make that go away,” she added.
The Democratic Party has moved left since Trump’s election, embracing such positions as a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which is now part of Biden’s platform. Liberals planned a big push for their agenda during a Biden presidency, but the recriminations suggest they may meet more resistance than expected.
Democrats are also frustrated that Trump held onto support in working-class counties they had eagerly anticipated turning blue, hoping to deliver a clear rejection of Trump’s often-crude populism.
“I’m disappointed that we are not gaining ground in the House, and I’m deeply disappointed that we don’t seem to be taking control of the Senate,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), whose district includes part of a county that went for both Barack Obama and Trump twice. “I think that’s largely because Trump drove turnout among his base very strongly.”
Levin argues that Democrats should embrace economic populism of the sort voiced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), although she lost in the Democratic presidential primaries.
“The way we’re going to win back working-class voters is through a program that drives their economic interests so strongly and so clearly,” Levin added, saying such a message would overcome Republican appeals based on race, religion and social values.
Yet Biden appears to have achieved gains with White working-class voters with an entirely different message, recapturing Michigan and Wisconsin, and leading in Pennsylvania. Biden was also leading in the Sun Belt battlegrounds of Arizona and Georgia, two states that have not gone for a Democratic presidential nominee this century.
But rather than embrace Biden’s moderate message, some Democrats are already arguing that, given the changes in the country and the party, Biden is likely to be the last Democratic nominee of his kind — White, centrist, old-fashioned. His runners-up for the nomination, they note, included a socialist, a fiery liberal woman and a young gay man, and his running mate is a woman of color with immigrant parents.
Democrats need to stop trying to woo centrist voters and White voters without a college degree who lean conservative, these people say, and focus on the young, minority and urban voters who are now the heart of the party.
“It’s unlikely that Joe Biden’s path will be the path for the next candidate,” said Ben Jealous, the former president of the NAACP who ran for governor of Maryland in 2018 and now serves as president of People for the American Way. “The next standard-bearer for the Democratic Party will need to run toward the base rather than run toward the middle.”
Biden’s attempt to satisfy these various factions on issues like energy and climate change created challenges during the campaign. Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), for example, scrambled to distance herself from Biden’s promise in the final presidential debate that he would “transition from the oil industry.” Horn ended up losing her race, in an area where the oil industry has a significant presence.
On Friday, Ocasio-Cortez, the leader of a youthful liberal movement in the Democratic Party, issued a lengthy rebuttal to the centrists on Twitter, suggesting Friday that moderate Democrats lost not because of the liberals’ positions but because they were bad at online campaigning.
“The whole ‘progressivism is bad’ argument just doesn’t have any compelling evidence that I’ve seen,” Ocasio-Cortez said. She added, “btw I’m happy to cede ground on things that aren’t working in some areas! But finger pointing is not gonna help. There’s real workable & productive paths here if the party is open to us.”
Among the biggest setbacks for Democrats on Tuesday was the limited support they received from Latino voters in some areas. Difficult discussions are underway about how to reach out to these voters, particularly in certain states.
“There were areas of concern, like Miami-Dade and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas,” Julián Castro, former secretary of housing and urban development, said in an interview. “What the party needs to do is a deep dive into both the good and the bad and to understand how it is that we lost support in some geographic areas with Latinos.”
In heavily Democratic Miami-Dade County, Biden won by just seven percentage points, a far cry from Hillary Clinton’s 30-point margin four years ago. The area is home to many Cuban Americans as well as other Latinos, and Republicans spent years courting their vote while local Democrats said the Biden campaign only started investing heavily in September.
Perhaps more shocking for Democrats was Biden’s loss in Zapata County, Tex., which sits on the border with Mexico and voted heavily for Clinton and Obama. Trump also lost nearby Starr County by just five points, after losing it by 60 in 2016.
Biden was weighed down by lingering anger in the Latino community about Obama’s strict deportation policies. And some Latino organizations said Biden and his campaign never put in the face time necessary to bolster confidence in his candidacy.
But the debate over socialism played into the battle for Latino votes as well. Trump’s hard-line policy toward Cuba paid dividends, and his attacks on Democrats as radicals resonated in a community where many fled oppressive leftist regimes.
Some Biden officials attributed their tardiness in Latino outreach to an initial fundraising shortfall that took time to overcome. “People may say we were slow in getting some of that moving,” said former interior secretary Ken Salazar, who co-chaired Biden’s Latino Leadership Committee. “We didn’t have the resources. We had the plan.”
Biden won Latino voters nationally and performed better among Latino voters in other regions, with strong support among Mexican Americans in Arizona, for example. That gave him a small lead in the state as votes were still being tallied.
Many Democrats were jarred by their struggles with Latinos, since Trump has frequently used anti-immigrant rhetoric and kicked off his 2016 campaign suggesting that many Mexican immigrants are “rapists.” Latinos made up about 13 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls, and Democrats say they need to correct this year’s problems before the 2022 midterm elections.
More immediately, various factions are trying to influence who Biden would appoint to his Cabinet and what his agenda will look like.
Biden has talked of a sweeping Franklin D. Roosevelt-style presidency. But he also campaigned aggressively on unity and touted his ability to work with Republicans. Now that the GOP might keep the Senate, liberals worry that Biden will orient his strategy toward working with them, and have begun plotting ways to assure that doesn’t happen.
“There are a lot of progressives who have, let’s say, been on their best behavior over the course of the last many months who are willing to now turn and begin the work of holding him to account,” said David Segal, the co-founder of Demand Progress, a liberal group. He said activists are already drawing up plans for a pressure campaign that will involve phone calls, emails and op-eds.
The election reflected a country that is not so much polarized between two ideologies as fractured among numerous communities, defined by geography, race, class, religion and a host of other factors. That’s also prompted a renewed discussion about social issues, with centrists arguing that Democrats have lost the ability to talk to rural voters.
“The Republican Party, I think, very adroitly adopted cultural issues as part of their main theme, whether you’re talking guns or issues surrounding the right to abortion in this country or things like gay marriage,” former senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told MSNBC. “As we, you know, circled these issues, we left some voters behind — and Republicans dove in with a vengeance and grabbed those voters.”
To some Democrats, such comments minimize the values of the party’s base of liberal and minority voters. Ocasio-Cortez noted derisively that McCaskill lost her own Senate race in 2018.
But if some Democrats see social values at the heart of Democratic challenge, many see race, particularly in the wake of a national reckoning over police violence and racism.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a Biden ally, said the party “has not done a particularly good job of getting candidates across the finish line because so often — and the party gets nervous when I talk about this — but we tend to be afraid of discussing racial stuff.”
He added: “When the race stuff comes up, we tend to run away from it. People want to deny that it exists . . . This country is divided by race. People don’t want to say it, but that’s what it is.”
Some Democrats warn that Trump’s influence on the political landscape will not disappear regardless of the election’s outcome. In their view, that means the party must learn more about how to counteract his influence and that of others who campaign in his mold.
“There are neighborhoods and towns and cities that voted for Trump where their interests really should be with Biden — lower-middle class or middle-class families in hard-working areas that we need to reach,” said Blumenthal, arguing that the party can improve outreach to such communities while staying true to its base. “That’s the challenge. We have somehow been missing those folks.”
Jane Sanders, whose husband is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), expressed a similar sentiment.
“We worked together to expand the electorate. Now @JoeBiden has received more votes than any president in the last century & is on his way to a win,” she tweeted on Wednesday. “But Trump held onto his 2016 vote & added to it. We need to think critically & analyze why, rejecting pundit’s shallow assumptions.”
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.