Of all the Republican grifters who attached themselves to the Democratic bid to upend Donald Trump’s presidency, few came out of the 2020 election with so little to show for it as former Ohio governor John Kasich, the anti-choice, anti-labor charlatan who failed in his 2016 Republican presidential bid, remade himself as a “Never Trumper” and landed a prime-time gig at last summer’s Democratic National Convention. The theory was that Kasich was just the guy to swing Republicans and self-identified conservatives in battleground states—such as Ohio—to Joe Biden. So what happened in Ohio? Nothing. In 2016, Trump won the state by 8.1 percent of the vote. In 2020, he won it by 8.2 percent. Ohio didn’t flip. Yet there was Kasich on CNN, minutes after Biden’s victory had been declared Saturday, arguing that Democrats would have done better “if they’d have been more clear in rejecting the hard left.”
“The best thing that’s happened to Joe Biden is the fact that the United States Senate is either going to be Republican or very close,” said Kasich, who is reportedly angling for a cabinet post. “And the far left can push him as hard as they want. And frankly, the Democrats have to make it clear to the far left that they almost cost him this election.”
That’s nonsense. Outgoing Congressional Progressive Caucus cochair Mark Pocan of Wisconsin summed up the absurdity of deferring to Kasich when he told The Nation, “I hardly think someone with experience only in electing Republicans, someone whose own state went for Trump, is the most credible source for explaining what happened in a presidential election where Democrats flipped Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.” Yet the Kasich line was being picked up by pundits and Wall Street–friendly Democrats who have a vested interest in fostering the fantasy that progressives are the problem, as part of their ongoing effort to constrain the ambitions of the party as it reclaims the presidency.
There were even House Democrats, stung by setbacks in 2020 congressional races, who unloaded during a call last week on the supposed “damage” done to the party’s prospects by progressives who advocated Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and major reforms in policing—even as exit polls showed 70 percent of Americans favor “changing the health care system so that any American can buy into a government-run health care plan,” 68 percent favor “increasing federal government spending on green and renewable energy,” and 72 percent think racism in policing is a serious problem while 68 percent say the criminal justice system requires major changes up to and including “a complete overhaul.”
After Kasich finished pontificating Saturday, historian Barbara Ransby expressed frustration that CNN would give a platform to a Republican “who has no credibility or following, as he lashes out at the very people who offer the excitement, energy, hope for the Democratic Party.” Highlighting the work of progressives such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ransby explained, “Biden did not win this, movement organizers did.”
Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “John Kasich, who did not deliver Ohio to Dems, is saying folks like @IlhanMN, who did deliver Minnesota, are the problem. Please don’t take these people seriously and go back to celebrating and building power.” AOC went to the heart of the matter when she added, “I’ve been thinking so much of @IlhanMN. Trump made Minnesota explicitly about HER. Said he’d win because of her. Many Dems in DC believed him, & marginalized her. That burden wasn’t fair, but she took on the challenge anyway. She won. Credit and respect her. @RashidaTlaib too.”
While votes are still being tabulated in Arizona and Georgia, where Biden maintains narrow leads, results from Great Lakes battleground states have given the Democrat the Electoral College votes needed to claim the presidency.
In 2016, four “blue wall” states that backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—voted Republican. And a fifth, Minnesota, came within 45,000 votes of doing so. This year, Trump’s strategy was to hang on to Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and to flip Minnesota.
On election night, Kasich’s Ohio went early for Trump. And it didn’t look good in the other states. But then the votes started to be counted in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other big cities. Minnesota held firm for the Democrats. Wisconsin went for Biden. Then Michigan. Finally, on Saturday, Pennsylvania was called. In each of those states, determined grassroots organizing drives, which mobilized multiracial, multiethnic working-class neighborhoods and talked up progressive policies, succeeded in delivering essential support for the Biden-Harris ticket.
Consider Minnesota, where Trump declared in September, “How about Omar of Minnesota? We’re going to win the state of Minnesota because of her, they say. She’s telling us how to run our country. How did you do where you came from? How’s your country doing?” Omar’s response to Trump’s racist appeal was a massive organizing drive to bump turnout in her overwhelmingly Democratic congressional district. The goal was to increase the statewide Democratic vote in a way, she told me, that would “make sure that this is a completely embarrassing election for [Trump].” Though her reelection was assured, Omar’s campaign hired organizers to hit the streets in Minneapolis, knock doors, and explain, “We have an opportunity to show up, be counted, and then have our voices heard.” The representative also worked with unions and grassroots voter mobilization groups, earning praise from Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party chair Ken Martin, who told The Washington Post that Omar “recognizes that she has a responsibility to drive up turnout; it’s really important for all of our statewide races, especially the presidential race.”
The strategy worked. In 2016, in Minneapolis and surrounding Hennepin County, the Democratic presidential ticket received roughly 430,000 votes, 63 percent of the countywide total. In 2020, Democrats won more than 530,000 votes, 71 percent. “We knocked doors. We made calls. And we turned out more Biden voters than anywhere in the state,” explained Omar, whose district’s almost 90 percent turnout contributed mightily to Biden’s 52-45 victory in Minnesota.
A similar story played out in Wisconsin, where Pocan restructured his campaign to highlight the top of the ticket in vote-rich Madison, while US Representative Gwen Moore launched a “MooreAction” drive to bump turnout in Milwaukee. Organizers recognized both cities for their roles in reversing the 2016 result in the state and giving Biden a 20,000-vote win.
In Michigan, where Trump won by barely 10,000 votes in 2016, Tlaib went to work in Detroit and surrounding Wayne County. “Our team knocked doors, called, and texted residents, and registered folks who had never voted before,” she said. This year, Detroit gave Biden 233,908 votes to just 12,654 for Trump, as Democrats carried the state by roughly 150,000 votes.
Like Omar, Pocan, and Moore, Tlaib was quick to share credit with grassroots groups that worked to increase turnout. “I love how we do it in Detroit,” she told me Thursday. “You had people organizing on the ground, so much hard work in every community.” But newly elected US Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York did not hesitate to explain that Omar and Tlaib “were MAJOR factors in delivering Minnesota and Michigan for Joe Biden. My sisters are movement and nation builders.”
Bowman’s right. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and the movements they work with made meaningful contributions—unlike John Kasich—to swinging the battleground states that elected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They’re the ones media outlets and Democratic strategists should be listening to.