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'A huge catastrophe': Democrats grapple with congressional and state election losses

Biden's win obscures deeper problems that have left the party with an uncertain future.
Illustration: People react as a chasm forms between the U.S. Capitol and a filled out ballot.
Luke Wohlgemuth / for NBC News

WASHINGTON — Heading into the election, Democrats dreamed it would go something like "Star Wars," with rebel forces blowing up the Death Star and celebrating in the streets as a blue wave swept them into power in Washington and state capitals.

But President-elect Joe Biden's victory ended up looking more like the horror movie "Alien," with the last bedraggled survivor kicking the monster out of the airlock and then drifting off to an uncertain fate in deep, dark space. And wherever they ended up, there would probably be another alien.

Yes, Biden soundly defeated President Donald Trump — and there was even some partying in the streets — but the results were brutal down the ballot in ways that could haunt Democrats for years.

The party fumbled key Senate races, lost ground in the House and failed to capture state legislatures in a redistricting year despite having the political winds at its back, more money in its bank account and a hyper-activated grassroots movement that had spent four years preparing for this moment.

If this wasn't the year for Democrats to win big, then when?

"It's really hard for our party psychology to learn any lessons when we keep winning" the presidential election, Democratic strategist Danny Barefoot said. "But someone needs to have the hard conversation of saying: It's not enough."

In interviews with more than two dozen operatives and elected officials, Democrats said they are worried that this year's results will hamstring the party and the progressive agenda, setting up a bleak decade of uphill fights in which winning workable legislative majorities will be difficult at both the state and federal levels.

Of special concern was the party's lackluster showing in state legislative races, not only because the GOP will once again have the upper hand in drawing districts, but also because it revealed a fundamental problem in communicating the Democratic Party's brand.

"We have to demonstrate that we are the party that's on the side of working families," said state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic leader of the Texas state House.

In Washington, the plan for many Democrats was to capture the Senate and pass a lightning round of reforms, from voting rights to admitting new states to the union, that would help the party overcome structural limitations and set it up for not only sweeping policy wins, but also further electoral gains down the line.

"2020 was the last, best chance we had to have a real workable Senate majority. That's gone," said Sean McElwee, the founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress. "We have two more years where we can try to work within the structure and win these elections. And then I'm kind of at a loss."

There's still a lot that's not known about the election, but conversations — and finger-pointing — have already begun as the party begins to take away some lessons.

Demographics isn't destiny

For a long time, Democrats took as gospel that their future was secure as the country grew younger and more diverse, so long as they turned out those voters.

But turnout broke records this year, and not only did Democrats fall short of their hopes, but Republicans also ate into Democratic advantages among nonwhite voters they had considered part of their base.

Some worry that the party, once rooted in the working class but now run and funded largely by college-educated liberals, may be losing its touch with blue-collar voters of all races outside major metro areas.

"We're such a Beltway party that we can't even fathom that there are a lot of Mexicans in the [Rio Grande] Valley who love Donald Trump," said Chuck Rocha, a Texas-raised Democratic strategist who runs Nuestro PAC, a super PAC focused on Latino outreach. "Biden won, and that's great, but everything underneath Biden was a huge catastrophe."

White working-class voters started abandoning the party decades ago and some Latinos and African Americans, especially men without college degrees in more rural areas, followed suit this year, flipping a heavily Latino rural county in Texas red after it had voted for Democrats by a wide margin in 2016.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said that younger Black voters in particular were less connected to Democrats and that the party couldn't take them for granted moving forward. She noted that Trump made a concerted effort to attract them by highlighting his support for a criminal justice reform bill, even as his "law and order" message portrayed Black activists as violent extremists.

"He's a walking hypocrisy, but Trump is a master at being able to give sound bites and tell people what they want to hear," she said. "It was no different when it came to Black voters."

Fault here has been laid on both sides of the party's ideological divide, from party leaders who can sometimes seem out of touch with the daily struggles of working Americans to an activist class that pushes Democratic candidates to adopt sometimes unpopular positions that may not fully reflect the views of the groups they purport to represent.

All politics is national

The Biden campaign's goal was to make 2020 a referendum on Trump's chaotic term, and it succeeded, but the results were far worse down the ballot.

Republicans barraged swing districts with ads linking moderates to the most far-left voices in the party, which has led to bitter recriminations between the factions.

"When you're Joe Biden and you have 47 years in public life and you have a billion dollars behind you, you can build your own brand," said Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way. "But when you're down-ballot, it's hard to outrun that brand in red and purple districts."

Activists on the left have contended that they're being unfairly singled out. They argue that they delivered progressive voters for Biden and helped drive youth turnout to a new height.

"We cannot let Republican narratives drive our party," the left-wing groups Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, New Deal Strategies and Data for Progress wrote in a post-election memo.

But a surprising number of Democratic thinkers and strategists, including some on the left, are beginning to wonder — delicately and often privately — whether the party needs to de-emphasize some of the divisive cultural fights that play out, especially on social media.

After all, 6 in 10 voters don't have college degrees. More than 40 percent live in homes with guns. And while atheism and agnosticism are on the rise, the religiously unaffiliated still make up barely more than a quarter of the population.

That doesn't mean abandoning social justice policies, just publicizing the popular ones and not necessarily putting the more divisive ones front and center.

"We should care more about what the Latina woman working two jobs thinks than the hipster in Brooklyn whose entire engagement in the public sphere is on Twitter," Barefoot said.

The unknown future

While Democrats are already arguing over what went wrong in down-ballot races, clear answers may take some time to emerge.

Some states are still tallying votes, and analysts are still poring over precinct data to pinpoint where the party underperformed. Until pollsters figure out why they missed key races, it will also be harder to determine which issues resonated with the public and when.

Then there are the two biggest unknowns that only future elections will resolve: Trump and the pandemic. Trump drove turnout to levels unseen in a century on both sides, and it's unclear what happens if he's gone.

"Republicans don't do so hot when Trump is not on the ballot," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said, pointing to Democratic gains in 2018.

The coronavirus also makes the 2020 cycle hard to judge. Democrats mostly halted traditional in-person turnout operations for fear of exposing volunteers and voters.

"This is maybe the only campaign in history where you can identify that, overall, one party's candidates knocked on a lot more doors than the other party's candidates," said Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator and founder of the Future Now Fund, which targets state legislative races.

Arizona and Georgia showed a potential road map for the party's future, but wins there were the fruits of seeds planted years ago with high-profile campaigns to register and organize voters. In Arizona, it began a decade ago with efforts to overturn a strict immigration law and oust former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, while Stacey Abrams started her work in Georgia in 2014.

"If you want to win and sustain your wins, you have to sustain your investments," said Perez, who will soon be stepping down as DNC chair and, he feels, leaving the party in much better shape than he found it. "You can't just invest every four years and expect to win."

CORRECTION (Nov. 22, 2020, 8:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a prominent Democratic politician in Georgia. She is Stacey Abrams, not Stacy.