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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

Apocalypse Not Now: Democratic infighting melts away after strong midterms

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Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist at an election night party in Detroit. November 9, 2022.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

With a “red wave” on the horizon, progressive Democrats were prepared for an intra-party knife fight starting Tuesday night over which factions to blame and whose message should hold sway moving forward. One week later, they’re still counting their wins and the Democratic civil war has been called off.

“The great thing about having your strategy being proven correct is that you don’t have to rethink your strategy,” said Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the Trump-era progressive group Indivisible, which campaigned on abortion rights and a Republican threat to democracy “We would have, if the red wave materialized. But it didn’t have the potency that we thought.”

Swing-state Republicans ran on “protecting girls’ sports” and lost. John Fetterman talked about getting a third of the state’s inmates out of prison and won. Abortion rights campaigners went six for six on state ballot measures, including in deep red Kentucky. Policies they demanded from the Biden administration — canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, a student debt relief plan still tied up in court — didn’t power GOP upsets, or break the 2020 Biden coalition.

Democrats benefited from distrust of Republicans, who voters frequently viewed as too far-right. In the national exit poll by Edison Research, 60% of all voters said that abortion should be “always” or “mostly” legal; Democrats won that group by 48 points. 50% favored student debt relief, which Republicans had run more ads attacking than Democrats had run ads supporting. And they got substantial support from voters who disapproved of Biden’s job performance or said they’d been hurt by inflation.

“We gave them something to be hopeful about,” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal told reporters on Sunday, surrounded by new members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We gave them student debt and action on climate change… and we didn't tell them that they were naïve and shouldn't want so much.”

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Republicans are still heading toward a likely House majority, smaller than GOP leaders expected but enough to smother progressive bills. But there’s been no repeat of the 2020 aftermath, when centrist Democrats immediately blamed their losses on the left and its talk about fracking bans and defunding police departments.

This year’s scapegoats are Democrats in two places where House losses were decisive — New York, where losses were tied up with crime issues, but also validated years of left-wing complaints about the state party’s incompetence, and Florida, where no faction pretends that the state party is competent.

Republicans unseated New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the night’s biggest Democratic casualty, by attacking his support for cashless bail. But the losers didn’t reserve all of their blame for the left. They shared it with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who won his 2021 race by promising to drive crime down, then spent much of 2022 blaming his own party’s bail reform, inaccurately, for driving it up.

“Democrats should have leaned in and argued forcefully for their position on public safety,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “Now that this wacky electoral cycle is over, this irrational panic about crime can dissipate.”

Mitchell, Levin and other progressives had wanted more from the Biden administration. It pleased nobody with its immigration strategy, keeping Trump-era rules blocking asylum seekers while Republicans accused them of creating “open borders” and enabling an “invasion.” The White House proposed new funding for 100,000 more police, which weakened the impact of Republican accusations that Democrats would “defund” law enforcement.

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There was no electoral downside. Activists who’d thought the party had opened up space for them were sidelined, and moved on to local races they could win, without a panicky national party intervening.

“Folks in the streets are beginning to mobilize around reparations,” ,” said Rukia Lumumba, the co-director for Electoral Justice at the Movement for Black Lives. “It’s the local that leads the national. We’re learning that.”

After more races in Arizona were called this week, progressives saw another win: Trans rights had not succeeded as a wedge issue in close races. In red states, led by Texas and Florida, Republican incumbents won after passing bans on “gender identity” talk in schools or gender-affirming medicine for children. But in swing states where social conservatives elevated the topic with ads and billboards accusing Democrats of mutilation and sexual perversion, there were no Republican breakthroughs.

“My big worry was that if this worked, these ads accusing Democrats of ‘taxpayer-funded child mutilations,’ it would give more life to the misgivings,” said Sean Meloy, the vice president of political programs at the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “They’re running out of time to continue using these false narratives.”

Democrats did see their share of the national vote slide back. When the count is finished, sometime later this month, they’ll have shed some seats that the president won by 10 points or more. None of the structural problems they saw after 2020, like a locked-in white working class electorate that has put formerly competitive states like Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri out of reach, look fixed.

And some center-left Democrats worry that progressives are over-interpreting wins that relied, in many places, on Republican mistakes. The same electorate that gave surprise wins to Democrats was sour on President Biden, and had negative views of both parties.

“Majorities prefer Republicans to deal with inflation, crime and immigration,” wrote Politico columnist Bill Scher on Monday, arguing for a new nominee to fix the party’s issues ahead of 2024. Not only did a slight majority of voters consider Democrats to be “extreme,” but 67 percent told exit pollsters that they didn’t want the president to run again.

But right now, there’s none of the factional blame-tossing that progressives and centrist Democrats were preparing for eight days ago. They have just what they had in 2018: A heavily urban and suburban coalition, which expands if they can portray Republicans as too extreme.

“Basically, the Republican approach in this campaign was to highlight the challenges that people are facing,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Guess what? That's easy. Voters want to know: Well, what are you actually doing about these challenges? Republicans offered no agenda, and we could talk about what we’d passed.”

undefined headshotDavid 's view

If Democrats had lost the House and Senate, I was expecting an old-fashioned backlash against the left. That’s how the party reacted to various defeats (1980, 1994, 2002) until 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss convinced many Democrats that they should embrace more populist economic ideas, a theory that carried into Biden’s presidency.

Title iconRoom for Disagreement

In The American Conservative, Republican Senator-elect J.D. Vance of Ohio suggests that Democrats now have a cash and turnout advantage in midterm elections – a fixable problem, not a sign of MAGA weakness or progressive strength. “Any autopsy of Republican underperformance ought to focus on how to close the national money gap, and how to turn out less engaged Republicans during midterm elections,” according to Vance.

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