The Good, Bad, and Extremely Ugly of the 2020 Election

Looking beyond Joe Biden’s unexpectedly modest victory, the 2020 election was a historic failure for the Democratic Party. On the other hand, despite some painful hitches coming out of this campaign season, the Left has reason to be hopeful.

Representative Ilhan Omar speaks at a campaign rally for Senator Bernie Sanders on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

It’s safe to say that few could’ve predicted the results of last week’s elections, which are still in the process of being fully resolved. The one thing we can say for sure at this point is that Joe Biden has succeeded in beating Donald Trump for the presidency, and that the result for the rest of his party has been a historic collapse.

As the calendar ticked over to November 3, conditions seemed ripe for a historic drubbing of the sitting president and his party, suggested by months of polling. Donald Trump was already a uniquely polarizing and unpopular president before coronavirus struck the United States, and once the virus did begin to surge through the country, he soon proved catastrophically inept and even disinterested in handling it, leading to the deaths of 238,000 Americans and counting, and a series of lurching lockdowns and reopenings around the country that have thrown ordinary people’s lives into chaos.

This was on top of an economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, that saw massive unemployment and business closures, followed by a dramatic but erratic recovery. When a president and his party preside over an economic downturn in an election year, they are usually punished by voters. (An exception was Harry Truman’s infamously close win in 1948.)

With the virus spiraling further out of control in October, Congress deadlocked, and Trump acting increasingly erratically, Democrats were, understandably, confident about their chances going in. “Tonight, House Democrats are poised to further strengthen our majority,” House speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday. Jim Clyburn, Biden’s South Carolina kingmaker who did more than perhaps any other single person to revive the former vice president’s flagging candidacy, predicted a “good night for Democrats.”

Down in the Upper Chamber

Instead, in a historic aberration, Republicans, the governing party responsible for this carnage, were rewarded by voters, while Democrats, the party largely outside of power, were punished.

Thanks to a string of losses in toss-up Senate races, Democratic control of the Senate, on which visions of a Rooseveltian Biden presidency rested, is now a vanishing prospect. Across the country, Republican candidates defied dire polling, personal scandals, and fundraising deficits to overcome Democratic challengers at the last minute.

In Maine, which went for Biden, supposed “moderate” Susan Collins pulled ahead to what is now a sizable 7-point lead over statehouse speaker Sara Gideon, whom virtually every poll had beating Collins by as much as 8 points. Collins, who had controversially voted to confirm Trump’s 2018 Supreme Court pick but voted against his 2020 nominee, nonetheless ran up big margins in conservative parts of the state, while Gideon underperformed Biden in some areas. It was the most expensive race in the state’s history, raising a combined total of $95 million.

South Carolina saw another upset, where Trump ally and perennial warmonger Lindsey Graham was fighting for his political life against Clyburn disciple Jaime Harrison. Harrison, a former coal lobbyist who had unsuccessfully run for DNC chair in 2017, spent $105 million on the race — nearly double what Graham had — but ended up 10 points behind in a race that polls pegged as much closer.

Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper speaks to the crowd during the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

Over in Montana, the state’s popular Democratic governor Steve Bullock conceded the race to sitting GOP senator Steve Daines, who is currently sitting on a 10-point lead. The Cook Political Report had rated the race a toss-up, and Bullock had outspent Daines $38.6 million to $26.1 million, creating one of the most expensive races this cycle. But Daines, one of the richest members of Congress, had largely given Trump a political bear hug, while Bullock’s campaign had centered protecting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a position that is popular but inspires little enthusiasm given widespread ambivalence about the health reform law even among its strongest supporters.

An even more expensive race happened in Iowa, between Republican incumbent Joni Ernst and businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, the most expensive in the state’s history and the second most this cycle, with a staggering $217 million spent by the end of October. Greenfield outspent Ernst around two-to-one, but conceded the race with a 6-point deficit, far outside the result predicted by most polls.

The party suffered a disappointment in North Carolina, too, where Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham has narrowly fallen short of besting incumbent Thom Tillis, a sock puppet for the pharmaceutical industry. Cunningham was somewhat hurt by a sex scandal that broke just hours after his opponent was diagnosed with coronavirus due to his own stupidity, but was nonetheless overwhelmingly favored to win by polling, in a few cases by as much as 10 points. He ended up losing by 1.7 points.

Alaska similarly saw its Republican incumbent, Dan Sullivan, steamroll a better-financed independent challenger, Al Gross, with Sullivan officially coming out the victor today. Democrat hopes of flipping the seat had been helped by a scandal that saw the operators of an unpopular mining project recorded on tape saying that Sullivan would allow them to expand the project, contrary to his public position. The Lincoln Project had spent $1 million on his opponent’s behalf. But with 75 percent of the votes counted, Sullivan is 20 points ahead, far beyond what the polls had suggested.

Elsewhere, Democrats traded seats. Alabama senator Doug Jones, best known for narrowly defeating an accused pedophile in 2017, lost his, while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, best known for drinking fracking liquid, unseated a Republican incumbent in a Colorado that’s become far bluer than the incumbent. Michigan senator Gary Peters, a first-term incumbent, appears to have squeaked out a narrow win in another expensive race, while astronaut Mark Kelly succeeded in outspending and ultimately ousting Trumpist Republican incumbent Martha McSally in Arizona.

Potential Democratic control of the Senate is now up to Democrats winning two runoff races in Georgia, which Biden succeeded in flipping by a razor-thin margin this year.

Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, the Republicans who’ll be competing in those runoffs, are perhaps best known as the ultrarich congresspeople who lied to their constituents about the risk of COVID-19 while quietly engaging in insider trading to profit off the virus that they knew was more dangerous than they let on in public. Respectively, they’ll be facing down Dr Raphael Warnock, a reverend at the church where Martin Luther King Jr once preached, and Jon Ossoff, who ran a high-profile unsuccessful bid for the House in 2017. Presently, Ossoff is 2.3 points down against Perdue, the same number won by the race’s libertarian candidate; while Warnock is up 11 points in a race where a second Republican, Doug Collins, has won 20.1 percent of the ballots.

It was unlikely that Democrats were going to flip all of these seats, or even most. But this result is massive letdown for a party that had been openly predicting a Biden landslide that would hand them a Senate majority, and that had been planning to do everything from abolish the Senate filibuster to pack the Supreme Court. “We severely miscalculated,” as one anonymous Democratic lawmaker told CNN.

Or, as the Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor put it: “This was a full-scale disappointment for Democrats, because they had multiple paths to the majority and at this point, virtually all of them have closed.”

Bringing Down the House

The result seems even worse looking beyond the Senate. Far from increasing their House majority, Democrats have lost ground they made in 2018’s midterm blue wave, with Republicans flipping several seats and leaving the party with a smaller House majority, despite raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

As the Washington Post notes, much of this was concentrated among vulnerable incumbents in more conservative areas or outright Trump country, such as Iowa’s 1st district, Oklahoma’s 5th district, New Mexico’s 2nd district, South Carolina’s 1st district, and Minnesota’s 7th district. (As Data for Progress’s Aidan Smith pointed out, contrary to the left-punching recriminations currently being thrown around by right-wing Democrats, these were all conservative Democrats who publicly rebuked left-wing policies.) But maybe more alarmingly for the party, incumbents were also upset in two seats located in the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County in Florida, too. And the two seats the party won in North Carolina owed largely to congressional maps being redrawn more favorably last year.

All of these results are stark when compared to previous recession-year elections, which typically result in a swift boot to the governing party and large gains for their opposition. In 1920, for instance, Republican Warren Harding won a thirty-seven-state, 26-point landslide after ten years of mostly Democratic rule, and increased his party’s majority by ten seats in the Senate and seventy-four seats in the House. Perhaps a closer analogue is the 1932 defeat of Herbert Hoover and the GOP in the wake of the Great Depression. Following its onset, Democrats first neared overtaking the GOP in the 1930 midterms, adding eight seats in the Senate, before adding twelve more in the Senate and ninety in the House two years later, on the back of Franklin Roosevelt’s forty-two-state, 17-point landslide win.

More recently, Ronald Reagan capitalized on the 1980 recession to become the first candidate since Roosevelt to unseat a sitting president. On the back of his forty-five-state, nearly-10-point victory, the GOP reduced the Democrats’ House majority by thirty-three seats, and poached twelve seats from the party to wrest control of the Senate. Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crash under Bush saw the Democrats build on their 2006 midterm gains that year, expanding their House majority by twenty-one seats, and ultimately winning eight seats in the Senate, later expanded further to create a sixty-seat supermajority, on top of Obama’s 7-point win in the popular vote. To say this week’s result fall short of these precedents is an understatement.

The recession Trump is presiding over is the worst since Roosevelt’s 1932 landslide, and the October unemployment rate of 6.9 percent, while dropping a point from September, is comparable to than in both 1980 and 2008. And unlike those recession years, this one is paired with a massive health crisis devastatingly and flagrantly botched by the incumbent. In light of this, Democrats are rightly asking themselves behind closed doors how they could have failed so abysmally.

Things get grimmer at the state level. After being decimated in state legislatures around the country during the Obama years, Democrats had what they called a “decade in the making” plan to flip dozen of statehouses and governor’s mansions, and prevent another onslaught of Republican-led partisan gerrymandering that would last another decade. They have failed, the fewest changes in party control at the state level in at least seventy-six years.

Democrats fell short of their prizes in Michigan, where the parties traded two seats each; in Iowa, where Republicans expanded their majority; in Minnesota, where divided government will remain for at least two more years despite Democrats out-fundraising the Right two-to-one; and in Pennsylvania, where their initially good-looking odds to flip at least one of the chambers have evaporated thanks to Trump’s strength in white working-class areas on Election Day.

Particularly disappointing for the party was Texas, where Democrats needed to gain nine seats to take the majority in the state house, but failed to make any impact despite $12 million poured into the contest by a Democratic super PAC. The only change this election saw was in the Republicans’ favor, with the GOP flipping both legislative chambers in New Hampshire, two years after Democrats had done the same.

The results “will put the Republican Party in a position where we’re able to secure a decade of power across the country,” a euphoric Republican State Leadership Committee president said the day after the vote. Or as Daily Kos’s Stephen Wolf put it, they were “an unmitigated catastrophe for Democrats,” expanding the GOP’s already formidable advantage in redrawing congressional districts, and granting Republicans another decade of power in the House disproportionate to their share of the actual vote.

Pushing at the Margins

The election wasn’t a wholesale triumph for the Left, either, as several high-profile Berniecrat candidates fell short.

Kara Eastman, taking her second swing at Nebraska’s 2nd district, has fallen 5 points short of winning the seat, despite Biden’s 6-point win there. Eastman may have been hurt by former rival and fellow Democrat Brad Ashford, who endorsed her Republican opponent with less than a month to go. Several Sanders-endorsed progressives lost in Texas, including Julie Oliver, who tried flipping a gerrymandered Austin district for the second time on a platform featuring the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. In West Virginia, Paula Jean Swearengin, who had a prominent role in 2019’s Knock Down the House when she ran a long-shot campaign for Joe Manchin’s Senate seat in West Virginia, was soundly fended off by senator Shelley Moore Capito this year.

On August 4, Cori Bush defeated ten-time incumbent William Lacy Clay to become Democratic nominee for Missouri’s 1st congressional district.

In brighter news, all four “Squad” members cruised to reelection. In fact, they may well have dragged Biden with them. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib respectively campaigned hard in Minneapolis and, even more crucially, Detroit, ignoring the Biden campaign’s invisible presence in their states and canvassing in person to turn out the vote, supported by grassroots organizational efforts. Biden ultimately received a far higher share of the vote and number of ballots in Minnesota than Hillary Clinton had in 2016, while high turnout in Detroit was crucial to his pivotal Michigan victory.

The Squad will be joined by an expanded cast this year. High-profile, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–backed insurgents Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush won their general election contests as expected, with Bush to become the first black congresswoman from Missouri. Meanwhile, as Ryan Grim has pointed out, though Tennessee’s DSA-backed Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw lost her bid, she ultimately did about as well as uninspiring centrist Amy McGrath did against Mitch McConnell, for a fraction of the McGrath campaign’s $30 million price tag.

In all, twenty of twenty-nine DSA-endorsed candidates won races around the country, from council seats in cities like Washington, DC, Baltimore, and Burbank, to state legislatures in Minnesota, New York, Montana, and others. Socialist caucuses exist in fifteen state houses now, and three socialist candidates have won seats in Pennsylvania’s state legislature. In Los Angeles, the Bernie Sanders–endorsed Nithya Raman has won a city council seat, beating an opponent who received the backing of entertainment executives and Hillary Clinton, and who is now the first council member in seventeen years to be unseated.

While not socialists, several strong progressives will also be entering Congress this year. Marie Newman has won Illinois’ 3rd district, after ousting an uncompromisingly conservative incumbent Democrat earlier in the year in a seat that had become far more progressive. In New York, Mondaire Jones, who was endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and supports a Berniecrat agenda, has easily won election. Meanwhile, steadfast progressives Katie Porter and Mike Levin have held on to their seats in formerly Republican districts, against expectations. They were among a host of other progressive Democrats and Medicare for All cosponsors who won reelection in competitive districts this year, including Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright and Susan Wild, and Arizona’s Ann Kirkpatrick, who soundly won in ousted GOP senator Martha McSally’s old seat.

Unfortunately, the upcoming Congress will also feature some new far-right members, too. The twenty-five-year-old Madison Cawthorn, who has a penchant for using far-right imagery, was thrilled to visit Hitler’s vacation house, and until recently followed exactly eighty-eight people on Twitter, has become the youngest member of Congress since 1965. Racist QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene won her Georgia seat, and she will be joined by Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a hard right gun activist who has flirted with the conspiracy theory. According to the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, with some races still to be called, the number of anti-abortion women lawmakers in the House has doubled, with seven having flipped Democratic-held seats.

In better news, far-right Islamophobe Laura Loomer was crushed in her Florida House race.

On the Issues

It was a similarly mixed bag when it came to ballot measures. The big winner of this election seems to have been drug policy, with voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and even South Dakota all legalizing recreational marijuana, while those Mississippi made medical cannabis available. The successful measures will bolster the case for action at the federal level; Biden had run for president on a policy of decriminalizing marijuana but forcing anyone caught with it to attend rehab. Others have gone even further, with Oregon legalizing psychedelic mushrooms for therapy and decriminalizing all drugs, and the nation’s capital decriminalizing psychedelic mushrooms.

In Florida, a ballot measure to lift the state’s minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 by 2026 passed with nearly 61 percent of the vote, or 6.3 million votes, proving more popular in the state than either major presidential candidate this year. The measure’s passage in a right-leaning state, in a year of huge Republican turnout, suggests once again that conservative voters are not reflexively hostile to more leftward economic policies, and could be a point of consensus with more left-leaning constituencies. A similar ballot measure passed in Portland, Maine, along with ballot measures establishing rent control, banning facial surveillance, and creating a municipal Green New Deal.

With states hemmed in by budget demands under the pandemic that the federal government has largely failed to lend a hand with, several tried to raise taxes, with mixed success. Arizona voters passed Prop 208 hiking taxes on the state’s wealthy to cover better salaries for educators, but with more than a third of ballots yet to be counted, Alaskans rejected a tax hike on oil producers that was opposed to the tune of millions of dollars by, surprise, surprise, oil companies. In Illinois, residents similarly rejected a measure to replace the state’s flat income tax with a progressive one, even though it was backed by their billionaire governor — in part thanks to a campaign funded by a rival billionaire.

Likewise, with a quarter of ballots yet to be counted, Californians appear to have rejected a measure removing the state’s fiscal straitjacket on taxing commercial properties to pay for schools and local government, which had been opposed by the president of the state’s NAACP chapter on spurious social justice grounds. The state’s voters similarly rejected an affirmative action measure, and one putting in place rent control. They did, however, pass the outrageous Proposition 22, preventing gig workers from being classified as employees and making it all but impossible to change the law, backed by $250 million of corporate money and tugging on the heartstrings of liberals through more misleading appeals to social justice.

Finally, abortion rights were both protected and undermined at the ballot box. Coloradans voted down a ballot measure seeking to ban abortions after twenty-two weeks, while in Louisiana, 62 percent of voters passed a measure opening the door to abortion restrictions if and when the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade. With Democrats rolling over and letting through Trump’s third Supreme Court pick just weeks before the election, it may be sooner rather than later that the state will have the opportunity to exercise this new, dangerous right.

A Defeat for Neoliberalism

Though Biden’s defeat of Trump, and his narrow flipping of Georgia and several battleground states to do it, will be painted as a grand triumph, the 2020 election was a disaster for the Democrats, arguably worse than the infamous 2016 result given the context and stakes.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on September 14, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Under catastrophic economic and health conditions, and tethered to an unpopular president, Republicans somehow did the unheard of and gained on the Democrats’ House majority, while holding off a Democratic takeover of the Senate. They fended off a well-funded and long-planned Democratic assault on the state legislatures, ensuring they will engineer Republican dominance in the House for another decade. There is something very rotten with the Democratic Party.

Beyond some victories by the Left, a handful of ballot measures, and Trump’s ouster — a happy but temporary victory for decency and basic democracy — there is not much in this result to be pleased about, unless you’re either a Republican or a socialist, each of whom saw important victories this year. As for the Democratic Party, their candidate now ascends to the presidency without the resounding mandate his party had expected, likely at the mercy of a ruthless Senate majority leader, and with even his capacity to make policy by executive order potentially checkmated by Trump’s takeover of the Supreme Court — all in the middle of an ongoing crisis poised to return the GOP to power if not adequately dealt with by the incoming administration.

The neoliberal Democratic center bungled this election, and it is unclear what the next four years will bring. Nor is it clear if the Republicans will even prove capable of capitalizing on this unusually advantageous situation. But one thing is for sure: whether through little-noticed down-ballot races, or in the war of ideas, the Left may not be close to ascendent yet, but it is gradually winning the future.