Democrats should take no comfort from the fact that Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli on Friday finally conceded his loss in the race to run New Jersey. The margin of victory was significantly narrower than expected, giving him cover to delay his concession until 10 days after the election. And it comes on the heels of the outright defeat of Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race there.
If the 2021 elections are any indicator of the future, this time next year, Democrats across the country will be wondering how things went so wrong yet again.
Indeed, if the 2021 elections are any indicator of the future, this time next year, Democrats across the country will be wondering how things went so wrong yet again after watching Republicans overtake statehouses, governorships, the U.S. Senate and even the U.S. House of Representatives.
And it’s not just the poor showings in Virginia and New Jersey that portend this. A national poll just before Election Day found that only 42 percent of Americans prefer a Democrat in Congress, 3 points behind the GOP. Betting markets now give Republicans an 82 percent chance to win back control of the U.S. House.
But passivity is not our only option. We have the power, not to mention the moral imperative, to change the entire equation. If Democrats want to retain the House, our best shot for doing so is racking up wins in districts that went for President Donald Trump in 2020. The candidates who will be competitive in those districts are on the right flank of the party, and it’s time for all Democrats to help them.
After working to bring independent voters into the 2020 primary, we have watched Democrats continue to alienate the independent voters needed to win despite only narrowly winning the White House and losing 13 congressional seats. Democrats must become more welcoming and proactively recruit independents and ex-Republicans as both voters and candidates.
WelcomePAC, which recruits and supports leaders for a big-tent Democratic Party, took a look at Trump’s 2020 vote share within each congressional district. We’ve crafted a profile of congressional districts where Trump received 57 percent or less of the vote. As the large movement from Democrat to Republican in the recent Virginia and New Jersey elections demonstrated, swing voters do still exist, and we believe these districts are winnable — if and only if the Democratic Party expands the possibilities for the candidates it backs. Namely, by embracing independents and even Republicans who have been estranged from the GOP under Trump.
We used data from the Federal Election Commission to identify how much money the Democratic congressional nominees have spent in the past four cycles. According to our findings, nearly 78 percent (72 of 93) of these competitive Republican-held congressional districts have no credible Democratic challenger, which we consider any contender with less than $150,000 in cash on hand for campaign spending. In 19, no Democrat has even filed.
Instead of gawking at these somewhat unbelievable statistics, we can change future outcomes by taking on these potentially beatable Republicans rather than wasting critical time, energy and resources training our fire on one another.
Sprinkled across states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Georgia are congressional districts that may initially appear to be the “Safe Rs” that the official Democratic Party campaign entities bypass to focus their resources on more competitive districts. Take Rep. Ken Calvert in California’s 42nd District, southeast of Los Angeles. Calvert has been in office as long as I’ve been alive and hasn’t had a well-funded Democratic challenger since 2010. Yet just 52.7 percent voted Trump in his district, and his incumbency has been tainted with scandal.
Giving folks like Calvert a “free pass” every year doesn’t make for good democracy, and it certainly doesn’t advance Democrats into new territory if they concede by not even showing up for the fight.
While we’re out here giving Republicans this pass to continue their mindless tirades about voter suppression and stolen elections, there are folks across the country who would be perfect candidates for these “conceded” districts — that is, if they had a little encouragement from Democrats.
The 2022 midterms will be the third election cycle with little if any room for anti-Trump candidates in the Republican Party. Yet there are scores of talented moderates who, in an alternate universe with a Trump-less GOP, could have run for Congress. Think of state legislators who decided to retire rather than face a primary threat, or millennials who had planned for a future in public service but now can’t stomach the thought of running as a Republican, or principled leaders who, through family history or other affiliation, have aligned with the more conservative political side but now feel called to bring our country back from the brink of intense polarization and potential authoritarianism.
These new candidates care about what they can tell their grandkids when asked what they did when our republic was threatened by treachery and violence, and many might be willing to embrace a moderate Democratic Party stance if party leaders welcomed them with open arms and pockets. Democrats shouldn’t, and quite frankly can’t afford to, reject contenders like these just because they’ve historically been registered as Republicans.
In addition to improving democracy through competitive elections, there are at least two partisan motivations for Democrats to place more bets in more districts by encouraging those in the moderate faction of the party to compete in red states.
First, the polarization of the Trump era has also seen an increase in electoral volatility. There has been record voter turnout, but it is false that high turnout always helps Democrats. There has been increasing polarization on racial and gender attitudes, but Trump has made gains with women and Hispanic voters. More volatility means more uncertainty and should incentivize Democrats to challenge more districts with credible candidates who might have a shot of winning.
Second, Republicans have continued running up margins in red districts, hurting statewide candidates. In Virginia, the progressive data firm Civis Analytics found that while most state legislative districts shifted rightward, the GOP-held districts shifted even more. Giving up on unfavorable terrain may be an understandable short-term allocation of resources, but it is a recipe for long-term defeat.
Our analysis found that not many candidates will file after this point in the year before an election. And to make matters worse for Democrats, 88 percent of candidates who successfully flipped a district had filed by the third quarter of the previous year. Let’s hope the fierce urgency of now, to borrow a phrase, will convince more worthy candidates to join the cause, quickly.