Oh, yeah, that election thing was sobering. A big wake-up call. And every other cliche you want to use after you get stung in an election. But panic and pessimism are the opposite of where we should be going. Democrats are fully capable of winning more seats in the House, Senate, and statehouses across the country. They just have to deliver some good things for America’s working class, and not fall into the same old conventional wisdom that keeps us from winning elections.
I know. I’ve been in the middle of some surprising wins in big fights before.
In 1998, Democrats seemed destined for major losses. We went into the cycle knowing that no president’s party had gained seats in the sixth year of his presidency since 1822 — a year where there was no opposition party to James Monroe actually in existence, so I’m even sure that time counts. To add to those daunting odds, the Lewinsky scandal broke early in 1998 and dominated the news all through that year.
All the pundits, and our own party professionals, were predicting losses of 25-30 seats in the House and 4-6 in the Senate. The strategy coming from the party committees was to try and protect vulnerable members against the coming onslaught, and to avoid at all costs talking about Clinton and the Republican push for impeachment, which the GOP talked about incessantly. But there was a coalition of groups led by People For the American Way (and joined by the brilliant people who founded MoveOn.org, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades) that pushed back and created a campaign with a message that directly took on the Republican impeachment, that said it was time to move on and do something about the real issues that mattered in working families’ lives. In the end, Democrats picked up five seats in the House and didn’t lose any in the Senate. And we would have won the house back if the party committees had listened to us on this strategy.
Fast forward a few years. After Bush won the 2004 election, Karl Rove was confidently predicting a “permanent Republican majority,” and many Democrats were equally pessimistic. I remember an analysis from a widely respected Democratic data analyst that said we had almost no chance of winning either the House until redistricting after 2010, or the electoral college anytime in the near future. Meanwhile, I had written a paper that suggested we had a good chance to win the House back in 2006, and I was called by a top person at the DCCC who was mad that I was unrealistically getting people’s hopes up. But in spite of this pessimism, AFSCME and a group of progressive donors worked with us to build a major campaign to expand the House map and build a strong Democratic narrative. We proved the doubters wrong and won both the House and the Senate back.
On the other side of the docket, Republicans unfortunately also defied the historical patterns to gain seats (and control of the Senate) in the first midterm of the Bush presidency. People were scared about 9-11 and terrorism, and thought Bush would be able to protect us. Just to note: historical norms do not always play out- that was two midterms in a row where they didn’t.
So, yeah, midterms are historically tough for a president’s party, but the odds are defied sometimes, too, especially when you live in a-historical times. The Democrats gained seats in the 1934 midterms during FDR’s presidency because he was moving the country out of the worst economic crisis in our history. Democrats picked up seats in JFK’s midterms because they appreciated JFK’s calm, steady leadership in an international crisis (the Cuban missile crisis), and because the economy was strong and growing. In 1998, voters appreciated Clinton’s stewardship of the economy, and thought the Republicans were over-reaching with all the impeachment talk.
If Covid and the economy are moving in the right direction, and voters are seeing good things in their lives due to Democratic policymaking, we can win the 2022 elections. We have to have a message and some tangible accomplishments that focus on getting the working-class voters — the ones in our base and the ones who are swing voters — what they need. We need to actually talk about things like creating new jobs, lowering health care and child care costs, and making sure they have the money they need to raise their children. And we need to excite voters everywhere, not just in big cities and suburbs.
No Democrat should be consoling themselves about the Virginia and New Jersey elections with lines like “well, the president’s party usually loses the elections.” I don’t care. We live in a-historical times, with an opposition party that has embraced the idea of overturning our democracy, and we need to beat the historical odds. I know we can do it, because we’ve done it before. So don’t lose heart, Democrats. Just get your shit together and pass some legislation we can all go campaign on.