Democrats in the United States House of Representatives, while managing to hold on to a majority, suffered serious defeats in the 2020 election, falling far short of expectations and setting off infighting.
Democrats, who held a 35-seat advantage in the House, will see their majority nearly evaporate, losing 10 to 15 seats as Republicans defied pre-election polls.
“It feels like a small but important number of voters who didn’t like Trump and voted for Biden also didn’t want to give control of Congress to Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.
“The Republicans did a lot better than most people expected,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now will have to navigate between rival factions of the Democratic Party – progressives and centrists – with a narrow and divided majority that will be in jeopardy in 2022. It will be like sitting on a powder keg.
Republicans won, or are leading in the ballot counts, in all but one of 27 House races rated as toss-ups by independent political analysts prior to the election. They successfully defended their endangered seats and picked up six that were seen as leaning in Democrats’ favour.
For Democrats, the losses already have sparked an intra-party fight between progressives and establishment centrists over who is to blame.
The shouting started November 5 on a conference call of Democratic House members when Representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly won re-election in Virginia, blamed progressives.
“Defund the police almost cost me my race because of an attack ad,” Spanberger said, dropping an expletive and warning that Democrats should to “get back to basics” and steer clear of “socialism” – or be “torn apart” in the next election.
Speaker Pelosi attempted to shut down the bickering, saying Democrats won a mandate, but the back and forth has continued in the media and on Twitter.
Representative Rashida Tlaib, who won re-election in the majority Black city of Detroit and helped deliver Michigan for Joe Biden, rejected Spanberger’s argument and lashed out at demands that she keep quiet.
“We’re not going to be successful if we’re silencing districts like mine,” Tlaib told a Capitol Hill news outlet.
“If [voters] can walk past blighted homes and school closures and pollution to vote for Biden-Harris, when they feel like they don’t have anything else, they deserve to be heard,” Tlaib told Politico.
A group of top progressive organisers circulated a memo on November 10 that took direct aim at Pelosi for “unforced errors” and cozying up with Wall Street.
“We need a new generation of leadership grounded in a multiracial, working-class experience and background,” said New Deal Strategies, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a CNN television interview on November 8, rejected complaints that Democrats lost because of progressive policy ideas.
“Not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police in this general election,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who easily won re-election from her New York City district.
Ocasio-Cortez blamed Republican attack ads that distorted Democratic policy proposals and pointed to Democratic weaknesses in digital campaigning and party organisation.
‘Defund the Police’ was a slogan that emerged in the Black Lives Matter racial justice protests that rocked the US last summer.
‘Medicare for All’ was a cornerstone of Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign for president, which Ocasio-Cortez supported. Trump and Republicans tarred it as socialism.
But Democrats lost in South Florida and in Texas, where some Hispanic voters turned to Republicans – and also in South Carolina, where the ‘Defund the Police’ slogan was used against Democratic candidates, one House leader said.
“I have always said these headlines can kill a political effort,” Jim Clyburn, the number-three House Democrat, said in a television interview on NBC on November 8.
“I just hope that going forward, we will think about each one of these congressional districts and let people represent their district,” Clyburn said.
“People should reflect that diversity in our country,” he said.
After the losses, Representative Cheri Bustos announced on November 10 that she would not seek re-election as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the political arm of House Democrats.
“I understand Representative Bustos’s decision to step down,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement.
“She was confronted with a major challenge of holding some thirty seats” Trump won in 2016, Hoyer offered.
There were 30 House districts held by Democrats in 2020 that Trump had won in 2016. Democrats appear to have held at least 20 of those 30 but the losses elsewhere still sting.
Bustos’s resignation can only be interpreted as fallout from the poor Democratic showing against expectations. There had been talk of a wave election like the one in 2018 that swept House Democrats back into power. The DCCC spent $264m in the 2020 campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Democrats lost seats in Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina. Bustos almost lost her own race for re-election in Illinois, winning only narrowly after requiring a late cash infusion from the party.
Bustos told Democrats in a conference call on November 10 that they lost Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s district in Miami because of surge of support for Trump, according to reports.
“South Florida and south Texas were just absolute disasters for Democrats,” Kondik said.
Alabama Senator Doug Jones, the only Senate Democrat to lose re-election, pointed to the Democrats’ success in Georgia this year following the voter registration drive spearheaded by Stacey Abrams.
The Democrats’ campaign committees, “the DSCC and the DCCC spend too much time investing in candidates and not in the electorate,” Jones told the Politico news outlet.
“They do not invest in House districts. They do not invest in states,” he said.
The icing on the cake for Republicans: the impeachment drive against President Donald Trump in 2019 appears to have cost Democrats two seats.
Representative Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey switched his party affiliation to Republican after voting against impeachment. He survived re-election.
Minnesota’s Representative Collin Peterson, a founder of the old ‘Blue Dog Coalition’ of conservative Democrats that held sway in the 1990s, was defeated after 30 years in the House. He was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.