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From the outside, it looks like the Democratic Party is having a good time. President Joe Biden steadily won victories, including an early pandemic package that was bigger than both the stimulus bill and Obamacare put together, a bipartisan investment in infrastructure, and a climate-and-health agenda that could change the way many Americans see their government.
He passed a second huge bill about the environment that, as a bonus, capped the prices of some prescription drugs. He also got some compromise deals that aren’t quite what he wanted. These deals include background checks on some gun sales, protections for same-sex and mixed-race marriages, and more domestic production of semiconductor chips to compete with China.
Voters seemed to be aware of it. In November, Democrats went against historical trends at the polls. They kept the Senate, grew their presence in state capitals, defended every legislative chamber, and stopped a thrashing in the House. Biden’s once terrible reputation with the core of his own party has quickly improved, in part because he hasn’t been a political albatross this fall.
Still, Democrats who are happy and bubbly about it should stop. This is not a mandate, and the party’s brand is still in “fixer-upper” mode. Repair crews are now trying to make up for lost time and hope that no one will notice how bad the old place has gotten. “If Democrats keep the House and Senate, it won’t be because of the party brand, but in spite of it,” said one sharp warning on the day before the election.
The facts can’t be changed. This year was the first time since 2014 that the popular vote went to the GOP. One study on the Democrats found that the party was losing support because it was trying to criticise capitalism. Others have been saying for months that the Democrats were taking people of colour for granted as voters. In another poll, more than half of all voters (55%) said they thought the Democratic Party was preachy, too extreme, and not very patriotic.
Simply put, Democrats won a lot of races this year because Republicans were seen as more extreme in some places. In these places, 7–13% of reliable GOP voters just couldn’t vote for Senate nominees who were Republicans.
Smart donors always ask for a report on how their money worked or didn’t work after Election Day. Many of these left-leaning groups can rightly say that they have won in some ways. Still, none of the responsible groups should think that the lack of a drubbing in 2022 is a model for the future. Hoping that the GOP nominates un-electable candidates on its own isn’t likely to be mistaken for a response strategy that keeps everyone at the table and the table in one piece. But the long-simmering conflict between different groups can only be hidden for so long.
Even though the rising progressive wing of the party is loud and has a lot of money, it didn’t exactly run the electoral ticket. It had about the same chance of winning primaries and a low chance of unseating a Democratic incumbent. Most of the time, they did nothing but hurt the people in power and drain their bank accounts. Just ask Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who beat a primary opponent backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but still lost his election this fall by a small margin. Some candidates knew this well enough to ask the most well-known Democrat in the country, Joe Biden, to stay away. Others, like Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, ran on a platform of being willing to work with people from the other party. She got re-elected.
Between Labor Day and the end of October, groups with ties to Republicans spent $115 million on ads in the top eight Senate races that criticised Democrats on crime and immigration. This was three times as much as what Democrats spent on those ads. In the last few weeks, 45% of what Republicans said was about public safety, which is also known as “open borders” and “cut funding for the police.” And it might have worked if the Republicans hadn’t put forward some very bad candidates. On a national level, voters who said crime was their most important issue were about two to one Republican. According to exit polls, the vote was 3 to 1 against immigration.
Even though Trump didn’t campaign much, he helped Democrats win votes and raise money. Still, 31% of voters said inflation was their top issue this year. Voters said they trusted Republicans more than Democrats by a shocking 43-point gap. (This year’s results would have been very different if 27% of voters who put abortion rights at the top of their list hadn’t given the Democrats a 53-point advantage.)
This isn’t just a problem on the campaign trail, either. A divided Congress means that it will always be hard to get things done on Capitol Hill. Even though Biden doesn’t seem to be facing any real threats to his re-nomination right now, his White House is getting ready for a constant drumbeat of investigations, from partisan questions about Hunter Biden’s laptop and the role social media companies allegedly played in hiding that story to perfectly reasonable questions about the US’s quick exit from Afghanistan.
Democrats should remember how Hillary Clinton’s whole record, especially how she used email, affected local races in 2016. Innuendo and lying are stains that are hard to get rid of. A bad reputation for one hurts the reputation of all. The Democrats were ready for a beating in 2022, but it never came. Still stumbling and stuttering, they are just as unprepared for the next part.