The argument for Joe Biden as a presidential candidate was always two-fold: he would beat Donald Trump and deliver for Democrats down the ballot.
As the votes trickle in more than a week later, it’s increasingly clear only one of these two assumptions was true. Trump triggered an unprecedented turnout of Republicans that appeared to swamp Democrats everywhere but the presidency. Biden’s coattails didn’t matter much in crucial state legislative races—where Republicans dominated again—let alone the U.S. Senate contests that showed Democrats badly underperforming. What to make of all this? Like 2016, this year should be studied thoroughly. There are dangerous trends for Democrats ahead, like a loss of Black and Latino support and the overall flight of less-educated, rural voters to the GOP. Trump, in defeat, won more than 70 million votes. Narratives were scrambled and new ones will need to be written.
In New York, the outcome is still muddy. Our outdated election law means absentee ballots are just being tallied. We can only begin to assess what happened down the ballot, where the real action took place. Though New York is thoroughly blue—Biden won it convincingly—Trump inspired a heavy GOP turnout in the suburbs and upstate, likely powering congressional and state legislative victories there.
But we won’t know the exact performance until votes are tallied. This hasn’t stopped Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party and mouthpiece for Governor Andrew Cuomo, from preemptively blaming progressives for whatever losses Democrats may incur.
“Those ideas play very well in the districts that elect them,” Jacobs told City & State. “They’re not sensitive at times to some of these swing districts. It's not just congressional. It’s state Senate, Assembly—whatever it may be.”
In New York, unlike many other states, the State Democratic Party does not participate in the process of party-building. It does not recruit candidates for local office or train them. It does not, with a few exceptions, lavishly fund down-ballot races. It does not fight, unambiguously, for Democratic power in New York, for the cause of electing left-of-center candidates everywhere.
The State Democratic Party, as I’ve written before, mostly functions as a campaign fund for Cuomo and no one else. This year, under Jacobs, that appeared to change slightly: the party account transferred a total of $125,000 to three Democratic State Senate incumbents on Long Island, where Jacobs lives. Meanwhile, the billionaire and Cuomo ally Ronald Lauder was pouring at least $4 million into a PAC to bludgeon these Long Island Democrats and others for supporting criminal justice reform bills in 2019. Cuomo’s office has denied he had any role to play in Lauder’s efforts, but it’s unlikely the cosmetics heir would spend so much money on New York politics without Cuomo’s approval. The two are friendly enough that Cuomo flew back on Lauder’s plane from a trip to Poland early this year.
Cuomo himself had more than $13 million in his campaign account as of July. It’s unclear any of that cash went to efforts to help Democrats grow their majority in the State Senate. Cuomo, a moderate Democrat, has long been a supporter of divided government, using much of his time in power to prop up Republicans in the State Senate and foil Democrats. Senate Democrats are still competing in districts Cuomo allowed Republicans to badly gerrymander back in 2012. After 2018, when Democrats took control of the Senate, Cuomo’s position became increasingly untenable. The governor signed off on progressive bills rushed to his desk while deputizing allies like Jacobs to trash them in public. It was a strange dance, but one close watchers of state politics have witnessed for a decade. The Lauder expenditure was merely the next step: try to take down as many Senate Democrats as possible so the chamber never achieves a supermajority, with the ability to override any Cuomo veto.
It may have worked. Democrats could fail to net the two seats they needed to grow their majority and could even backslide, losing several members. But while the three Long Island Democrats the State Democratic Party did fund are trailing in their races as votes are counted, Senate Democrats in Western New York, another stretch of Trump-friendly terrain, performed quite well. Three Democrats, including Samra Brouk, a supporter of single-payer healthcare, are poised to flip Republican-held seats. When the votes are finally tallied, some kind of verdict can be rendered. Centrists like Jacobs may be left to fume that Republicans can win on misleading law-and-order messaging in Nassau and Suffolk Counties but not in Western New York and Syracuse.
What’s been strange about this week of recriminations is how the centrists, despite losing, continue to blame progressives for their failure. The suburban Democrats who had won in the 2018 wave year were battered by Republican ads that portrayed their hard-earned triangulation as nothing more than closet socialism, tying them to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Nancy Pelosi, their longtime favorite bogeywoman. If only Democrats in safe districts talked less about left ideas, raged Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer who was re-elected in suburban Virginia, House Democrats could govern in a comfortable majority. Ocasio-Cortez returned fire, blasting the centrists for their weak tactics and ground game.
Success has a thousand fathers. Failure, always, is an orphan. Tactics and messaging certainly matter. There are uncomfortable questions Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez will need to answer, like how the party performed so poorly when turnout spiked across the board, which was always supposed to be a prerequisite for Democratic success. It was odd, in her interview with the Times, that Ocasio-Cortez criticized Conor Lamb, a Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania who was one of the very few to triumph in a swing district. Messaging does need to be tailored to individual districts, an increasingly challenging proposition in such a nationalized and polarized environment. What issues should Democrats emphasize? Which should they abandon? There are no easy answers. At the minimum, I would argue, defunding police must be explained better, particularly in poorer rural areas and cities where certain police departments, unlike the behemoth in New York City, have been undergoing funding cuts for years anyway. It’s a slogan with a worthy aim—reinvest resources for law enforcement in social services—but it’s one that has taken on many meanings in the last few months. Democrats, perhaps, should consider the word demilitarize instead of defund, since police departments have evolved, in recent years, into standing armies with an inordinate amounts of expensive, dangerous weaponry. Such phrasing would force conservatives to defend militarization, a more unpopular idea.
But the centrists like Spanberger are ultimately deluding themselves. There is no policy the Democrats can embrace or reject that would save them from Republicans branding them as socialists. Barack Obama, a conventional center-left Democrat who often deemphasized his own race and attempted bipartisan compromises with right-wing Republicans, was called a radical Muslim and rendered, throughout his eight years, as the ultimate Fox News hate object. Pelosi herself has been a chief Republican villain since she first became House speaker in 2007, featured in many thousands of vicious attack ads, even though her brand of liberalism is middling, mostly resistant to left populism. Republicans are smart enough to know they can bully Democrats into retreating from an ambitious policy agenda. What’s remarkable is that the Republican victories over the last decade have come almost entirely absent an overarching policy vision; rather, the GOP has relied on cultural grievance, the dominance of Fox News, gerrymandering, and an increasing inability of Democrats to court voters of all races without college degrees. The only consistency has come from Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, who has relentlessly and successfully focused on appointing Supreme Court and federal judges. That, for now at least, has been a powerful motivator of the Republican base.
If centrist Democrats imagine Ocasio-Cortez tempering her rhetoric on policing or healthcare would somehow lessen the severity of Republican attacks, they are living a fantasy of their own design. This is the age of negative polarization, of unshakeable party hatred, cable TV, and social media. No matter what a Democrat does—no matter how incremental or forgettable he or she decides to be—a Republican will be there, with the assistance of Fox and various other hard right outlets, to brand the candidate as outlandish and sinister. In this kind of world, it only makes sense for Democrats to support bold, far-reaching objectives, because they will not be rewarded for paring down their demands. The Democrat who opposes Medicare for All can be beaten just as soundly as the Democrat who supports it, the Republican braying of their radicalism anyway. Down-ballot from Biden, progressives and centrists were wiped out alike.
Campaigns, of course, matter, as does the national environment. The decision of the Biden campaign to forsake most in-person canvassing likely damaged Democrats running for Congress and state legislative seats. The chairman of the Texas Democratic Party certainly thinks so. For all the sugar highs of the Obama years, Democrats have been consistently out-organized and outhustled, beaten in the small towns and cities that decide the fates of major states. Without strong local party organizations and left-leaning social institutions like labor unions to counteract Republican propaganda, the GOP can keep winning on culture war issues. The Biden campaign, ultimately, stood for nothing beyond defeat of Trump and a return to a vague status quo. Enough Democrats reviled Trump to hand him an Electoral College win, but there was little in the way of an affirmative message or argument for Democrats. Meekly proclaiming support for the Affordable Care Act wasn’t enough.
In New York, the future is far less bleak for the left. When absentee ballots are counted, it’s possible several Senate Democrats who appeared on the edge of defeat will be victorious. Democrats will hold a majority in both chambers and, in theory at least, be in position to undo the most gerrymandered Republican Senate districts in the suburbs and upstate. Next year, as COVID-19 recedes and Cuomo’s popularity naturally dips, the legislature must reassert itself. A new election cycle will bring a new chance for a supermajority, the type that could permanently neutralize Cuomo if he manages to become a four-term governor. Already, our eyes turn to 2022.