Joe Biden won the White House, overwhelmingly, but otherwise, since Election Day, the news for Democrats has been bleak. They failed to flip the Senate—though the Georgia runoffs could still give them a 50-50 tie, broken by Vice President Kamala Harris—and lost seats in the House of Representatives, where they had been projected to pad their majority. But nowhere was the news worse than at the state legislative level, where despite unprecedented investment by Democratic organizations and outside groups, and expectations that they’d flip from four to eight legislative bodies—or more, in a “blue wave” election—the party lost ground.
With surprising candor, Nicole Hobbs, cofounder of Every District, a state legislative organizing, fundraising, and data analysis group, wrote in an election post-mortem: “It was a bloodbath.”
I heard that word a lot. Also “shit show.” Most mild: “No way to sugarcoat it.”
These came from people who are still going to try to raise money to continue their fight. Which makes them brave, even in (mostly) loss.
The losses were everywhere. Not all races in all states are called, but there’s no way, even with the outstanding contests, that Democrats will flip chambers. Against all expectations, they lost the New Hampshire House and Senate. Activists hoped Democrats might pick up the Iowa and Minnesota houses; they lost five and seven seats, respectively. They seemed close to flipping both the Arizona House and Senate; despite Biden’s win, they gained only one Senate seat there. They thought they had a decent shot of flipping the North Carolina House and/or Senate; they lost an estimated four seats in the House while gaining one in the Senate. After winning 12 seats in the Texas House in 2018, there was optimism Democrats could flip it by winning nine this year; they won one.
They were given good odds of winning the Michigan House, which seems reasonable in hindsight, since Biden won the state by almost 150,000 votes; instead, zero gains. Biden also won Wisconsin, though more narrowly, but thanks to hugely gerrymandered districts, Democrats lost two seats in the state Senate, while winning two in the House. And he won Pennsylvania, but Democrats lost three seats in the House and apparently one in the Senate.
There were a few bright spots—mainly that Democrats, mostly, held on to seats and chambers they only recently won. It really could have been worse. But in the year running up to crucial redistricting decisions, the losses could be major setbacks to Democrats’ long-term project of doing away with the GOP gerrymandering that keeps Republicans winning state legislative and congressional delegations despite getting fewer votes statewide. That was particularly critical in North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, states Republicans dominated after the dismal 2010 election and where they drew cartoonishly unfair lines; the only good news in Wisconsin is that Democrats retained enough legislative power to sustain a redistricting veto by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.
Why were Democratic expectations so high? (I held them too.) Not just because of an outsize cash investment by Democratic Party institutions and the liberal donor base, which was real, even though the GOP dumped a lot of money into the states in the last month. Democrats, by and large, recruited strong candidates, including a lot of women and people of color. This summer, many thought the Trump’s bungling of the pandemic would dampen GOP turnout and turn independents into Democrats. Many candidates were running innovative campaigns and focusing on “low-propensity” voters of color, instead of following orders from caucus leaders and consultants to prioritize Democrats who always vote, plus the independents considered persuadable, which many progressives see as a drag on Democratic fortunes.
All these lessons came from 2018, when Democrats won 309 seats in state legislative chambers, but lost some they might have won. This year, they had a chance to get it right.
So what happened?
Over the summer and fall, I followed the races of three women of color who ran and lost in 2018, unexpectedly narrowly in each case, and ran again this year: Aimy Steele for a Charlotte, N.C., area House seat, Joanna Cattanach for a Dallas-area Texas Senate seat, and Kathy Lewis in a Tampa-area Florida Senate seat. All three were essentially tied with their opponents in the last polls before the election; all lost by at least as much as they did two years ago.
Talking to them, and to the various outside groups and consultants who worked with them, I heard the same things I heard elsewhere in the country.
The number-one explanation: Donald Trump had long coattails, even in defeat—and Biden had short ones, even in victory. “That’s what people just didn’t see coming,” says Carolyn Fiddler of Daily Kos, long an evangelist for Democrats to pay more attention to statehouse races. “Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2018. We don’t know what would have happened if he was.” Everyone I interviewed agreed. And the suburban “blue wave” that helped lift Biden to victory? It did not carry Democratic state candidates (or, to be honest, a lot of US House or Senate seats). “Republicans heavily voted down-ballot, where Democrats did not again,” says Joanna Cattanach, who ran and narrowly lost a second time for a Texas state senate seat in Dallas County. “And we saw a slew of ticket splitters.” I heard that all across the country. It will take a lot more district-level analysis to be sure.
The seats in play this year were also a heavier lift than in 2018, most analysts told me. According to Every District, more than 60 percent of the districts that Democrats had to win to flip chambers leaned Republican, thanks at least partly to GOP gerrymanders. We got a preview of that in 2019: Democrats flipped both the House of Delegates and the state Senate in Virginia; they picked up more Democratic-leaning seats, but won only one conservative-leaning district. “We picked all the low-hanging fruit,” says Rita Bosworth, executive director of Sister District, a respected national group that links activists and donors in safe blue districts with those trying to flip purple or red ones around the country.
“Super-charged turnout by Trump supporters combined with really tough seats” is the way Andrew Whalan, Emily’s List senior director for state and local campaigns, described it.
As with the disappointing House and Senate outcomes, some Democrats complain that the Biden campaign focused too much on Trump and not enough on the devolution of the entire Republican Party into a racist, antidemocratic swamp. As Ron Brownstein put it in a must-read Atlantic piece, “Rather than presenting Trump as the culmination of Republican policies and values, Biden consistently portrayed him as an aberration; many strategists on both sides believe that made it easier for voters to oppose Trump but still back Republicans in House and Senate races.”
On the other hand, that might have been Biden’s only path to the presidency.
Polling was also terrible in these races, though that was true up and down the ballot: Cattanach was up by five points in the last preelection poll; she lost by roughly 1 point.
Maybe most troubling, Trump’s strength among Latinos helped doom Democratic hopes in Texas (somewhat realistic), Florida (less realistic), and some other less-expected districts around the country. Although so did the party’s tendency to treat “Latinos”—a diverse community including Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Central Americans, and more, that consists of both recent immigrants and people whose families have lived here for generations—as a monolith that was inevitably trending Democratic, and its failure to invest in long-term organizing.
Hugely disturbing: In the end, the pandemic probably hurt a lot of Democratic campaigns more than it helped. “If someone told Republicans you can take one tool away from the ‘blue wave’ in 2020, what would it be?” Our States Matter founder Christine Bachman asked. “They wouldn’t skip a beat—they’d say canvassing, the ability to knock doors. That’s been my greatest fear of the cycle.” In Florida, a Trump adviser said the campaign “took advantage of Democrats’ abandonment of door-to-door canvassing during the coronavirus crisis” to win the state by more than he beat Hillary Clinton by four years ago, in a memo obtained by Florida Politics. Beto O’Rourke likewise called the GOP’s “willingness to knock on doors and hold in-person events through the duration of the pandemic” a major factor in the disappointing Texas results.
When I first started hearing this complaint, I thought it was a fixation with small-bore political mechanics. But it wasn’t.
Biden didn’t suffer from not being able to knock doors or canvass. Neither did US Senate candidates, probably (although they might have suffered from down-ballot losses). Nor US House candidates (likewise). But everyone I talked to said the inability to be present, in person, whether at doors or small in-person events, really hurt this push for state legislative seats, where districts are smaller, and more conducive to neighbor-to-neighbor campaigning.
Multiple groups, from Emily’s List to Future Now Fund, have used numbers of doors knocked as a metric of campaign strength when evaluating state legislative candidates. Just before Election Day, Future Now Fund’s Daniel Squadron admitted that the group wasn’t sure its candidates had found ways of engaging in “relational organizing in a way that will match the impact of knocking doors.” It now seems many did not.
That dovetailed with another problem: The scurrilous GOP assault on Democratic candidates for supporting “defund the police” and “socialism”—even when they clearly didn’t. At the state legislative level, I saw none of the bitter finger-pointing that’s divided the US House Democratic Caucus, with moderate Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger shouting on a conference call that those two issues almost cost her the district “that I barely won,” and democratic socialist Bronx Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez blaming the party’s struggles on mediocre messaging and mobilization techniques and dismal digital media.
Republicans attacked that way nationwide, and up and down the ballot, from Biden (who won) to Staten Island, N.Y., Representative Max Rose (who lost). Neither candidate supports either demand, far from it. But the charge hurt state legislative candidates much more.
Aimy Steele, who ran for a North Carolina statehouse seat in Charlotte-area Cabarrus County a second time, after coming close in 2018, is one of the more troubling examples. She got hit hard with the “She supports ‘Defund the Police’” charge in mailers, social media, and television ads. Except she doesn’t. And her husband is a retired police officer; he’s now the local police chaplain. Steele says the inability to knock on doors and hold small events, even outside, hampered her response—though, toward the end of the campaign, she was able to pay for a TV ad, and resumed some door-knocking, belatedly.
“It made it so much tougher, not to be able to go out to knock on doors or have small meetings, where you could hear what your neighbors were saying,” Steele told me, more than a week after the election. “It prohibited any kind of clarification of your message.” Two white male GOP candidates for local office whom she knew personally, she said, shared the dishonest ads on Facebook, and she confronted them—on social media, and in person, at an early-voting site.
“You shared those posts about me, and you know my family,’” she told them. Four simple words set them back: “You hurt my feelings.” She heard another four words—“I am so sorry”—but it couldn’t undo the damage.
North Carolina Democrats faced highly coordinated attacks claiming that they supported “Defund[ing] the police”—the North Carolina GOP sent essentially the same mailer to attack each Democrat, just changing the name and photo. Where did Republicans get this claim? Evidently, it was based in part on the fact that many of the candidates, along with more than 1,000 others across the country, signed the Future Now Fund’s “America’s Goals” pledge. The pledge is anodyne, all patriotic goals—“Good Jobs,” “Equal Opportunity for All,” and “Affordable Quality Health Care”— that even Republicans might support. Somehow, Republicans claimed, the pledge included “Defund the police.” It absolutely did not. But apparently—and I learned this from North Carolina websites that were searching for perfidy—the group has a “policy library,” where they flesh out some of those goals. There they advance model legislation—which on the question of policing endorses bipartisan commissions, in all the states, to examine whether and how police funding keeps people safe, and whether other services need to be funded to enhance public safety.
To be honest, it’s so milquetoast, I’m sure there are Movement for Black Lives advocates who are like, Are you kidding?
If it wasn’t Future Now Fund, it would have been another group’s policy library. Many other candidates, not at all affiliated, faced the same attacks. But what is the answer?
So many people told me: Democrats mostly didn’t reply to the slurs. “I always punch back, if necessary,” said Orlando, Fla., Representative Anna Eskamani. Elected to her third term, impeccably progressive, she said Democrats mostly didn’t punch back. “On socialism? Republicans are the ones giving money to their corporate donors,” she notes. And on “defund the police,” she says, there was little effort, locally, statewide or nationally, to articulate any alternative vision of criminal justice reform.
In Texas, Cattanach agrees. “The [independent expenditure] and outside PACs sent mailers that left us frustrated and were generically the wrong message,” she wrote in an e-mail. “’Can’t trust him on health care’ wasn’t the same level as ‘baby killer’ and ‘defund the police,’ which stuck with voters.”
Eskamani also points out that Florida raised the minimum wage to $15. How does that square with the Democratic nightmare we saw unfold there? “Florida Democrats mostly supported it, but they didn’t really integrate it into any kind of messaging,” she says. Some red counties in Florida went for the minimum wage increase, which backs up Eskamani’s point.
By many accounts—not all—the Florida Democratic Party is in just about the worst shape among swing states (I’m not scapegoating any individuals, I’m just reporting). State Senate candidate Kathy Lewis, who got almost no support from state party leaders, says, “The party continues to do the same old things they do, and invest in too few people.” Eskamani agrees. But Lewis and Eskamani also agree that, as bad as Florida Democrats did—they lost five state House seats and at least one state Senate seat—the fact that insurgents like Lewis and many others ran made the GOP spend more money there.
The same was true in Texas. “We caused such a ruckus that the Republicans panicked and were forced to spend and defend a state they were winning anyway,” Cattanach notes. “It’s kind of nice to think we caused them to take their eyes off Pennsylvania and Georgia and…Arizona and Nevada.” She adds: “Ultimately, I still think Texas can be blue, but it may be fuchsia for a while.”
Ultimately, a lot of the so-called “outside group” leaders told me some version of the same thing: “Stop pumping money into candidates,” as Sister District’s Bosworth put it. “Start putting money into infrastructure.” She pointed to Georgia groups founded by 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, like Fair Fight Action and New Georgia Project, as examples of where that kind of ongoing organizing is happening—and changing the state. (By the way, in Georgia, where no one expected to flip a chamber, Democrats won two seats each in the House and Senate.) Wisconsin Democratic Party leader Ben Wikler also came in for praise for running a rare state party that invested in long-term organizing—which seemed to pay off in Biden’s win, as well as at the two seats gained in the state house.
Again, as in every year I’ve covered these state races, people had a lot of complaints about too-conservative, status quo–protecting state Democratic parties and house and senate caucus organizations—and the mostly white staff and consultants they employ. But at least one outside group leader told me, “It’s easy to point to them, but they really never have the money to make a real difference.” That person also said the answer is investing in local day-to-day community relationships. It’s a chicken and egg problem; many outside groups fund independent operations because they don’t trust the caucuses or party structures to recruit and support a full roster of challlengers —but then those institutions complain about money going to outside groups, and not to them.
Every District’s Nicole Hobbs agreed. “We have to continue to invest in Democratic institutions and year-round organizing,” she said, after the eight or so years, under Barack Obama, when Democrats lost 942 seats. “I hope this year’s disappointing results don’t scare people off.”
Editor’s Note: This article initially misspelled the county Aimy Steele sought to represent in North Carolina. The text has been corrected.