WASHINGTON — America’s two major parties had hoped the 2020 presidential election would render a decisive judgment on the country’s political trajectory. But after a race that broke records for voter turnout and campaign spending, neither Democrats nor Republicans have achieved a dominant upper hand.
Instead, the election delivered a split decision, ousting President Trump but narrowing the Democratic majority in the House and perhaps preserving the Republican majority in the Senate. As Joseph R. Biden Jr. prepares to take office and preside over a closely divided government, leaders in both camps are acknowledging that voters seem to have issued not a mandate for the left or the right but a muddled plea to move on from Trump-style chaos.
With 306 electoral college votes and the most popular votes of any presidential candidate in history, Mr. Biden attained a victory that was paramount to many Democrats, who saw a second Trump term as nothing less than a threat to democracy.
Yet on the electoral landscape, both parties find themselves stretched thin and battling on new fronts, with their traditional strongholds increasingly under siege. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans are facing perhaps the most unsettled and up-for-grabs electoral map the country has seen in a generation, since the parties were still fighting over California in the late 1980s.
This competition has denied either from being able to claim broad majorities and prompted a series of election cycles, which could be repeated in 2022, in which any gains Democrats make in the country’s booming cities and states are at least partly offset by growing Republican strength in rural areas.
The election represented a continuation of this trench warfare between two parties that are increasingly defined by their activist flanks and limited to only incremental advances.
“We are more divided than any other time in my lifetime,” said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee chair, whose first job in politics was on Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 campaign. “But usually when we’re at parity we’re bunched up in the middle — now we’ve got parity but with extreme polarity.”
Mr. Biden and the Democrats viewed this election as an opportunity to deliver a crushing repudiation to Republicans and the movement known as Trumpism, while Mr. Trump and his allies saw the chance to cement a durable governing coalition led by the far right.
Neither party got all it wanted. Democrats improved considerably on their performance in the last presidential race, repairing their standing in the Midwest, building their strength in the Sun Belt. Yet voters in Ohio, Iowa and Florida delivered a stinging rebuke to the idea the Democrats would pick off increasingly conservative states.
The G.O.P. defied expectations and gained seats in the House, limited their losses in the Senate and protected critical state legislative majorities. But they experienced troubling erosion in the South and West as Mr. Biden won Arizona and Georgia.
As the results come into sharper focus, a more sober mood has set in on both sides of the aisle.
Unless Democrats can win a pair of Senate seats in Georgia’s January runoff elections, Mr. Biden will arrive in the White House facing the same circumstances his predecessors have for eight of the last 10 years: an executive branch controlled by one party and part or all of the legislative branch held by the other.
Mr. Biden, elected officials and strategists in both parties agree, will most likely have a limited window upon taking office to show he can lead successfully. If he can bridge Washington’s bitter partisan divides to craft successful policies to fight the coronavirus pandemic and revive the economy, he may well have a chance to transform his party’s loose anti-Trump coalition into a more stable electoral majority.
Already, there are mounting signs of just how difficult it may be for either party to govern through pragmatism and compromise. With Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede the election and his talk of running again in 2024, Republicans are worried about Trumpian retribution if they break with a leader who remains the cultural and ideological lodestar of the G.O.P. base.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s defeat this month has removed the single most important force holding the Democratic Party’s eclectic coalition together: the president himself. With his ouster, the détente that persisted throughout the year between the Democratic left and center has begun to crumble, with open sniping and blame-casting between figures like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the party’s most prominent young progressive, and Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a centrist of vital importance to Mr. Biden’s agenda in the Senate.
It remains to be seen whether either party will embrace a head-on reckoning with its own electoral vulnerabilities. Moderate Democrats have mostly just criticized the party’s left wing for having promoted stances that they believe cost them seats in Congress, while Republicans have largely remained silent on Mr. Trump’s intransigence and conspiracy-mongering.
While Mr. Biden rebuilt the Democrats’ Blue Wall — reclaiming the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — he carried them by a fraction of the margins former President Barack Obama achieved in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. As long as Republicans manage to amass enormous leads with working-class white voters, those states may not be safely Democratic anytime soon.
Just as troubling to the party, Democrats sagged with voters of color, particularly in Hispanic and Asian-American communities where Republicans’ attacks on Democrats as a left-wing party appear to have resonated, denying Mr. Biden a victory in Florida and costing the Democrats congressional seats in that state as well as Texas and California. Indeed, the only House seats Republicans picked up that were not in districts Mr. Trump also carried were in heavily Hispanic or Asian regions.
On a Democratic conference call this past week, Representative Linda Sanchez, a former member of the House leadership, criticized Democrats’ Latino outreach strategy as a dismal failure, according to two people who participated on the call. And Representative Donna Shalala of Florida, who lost her seat in a heavily Hispanic district, complained on the call that her party did not effectively rebut Republicans’ portrayal of Democrats as socialists.
“Defund police, open borders, socialism — it’s killing us,” said Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from South Texas who won just over 50 percent of the vote two years after he nearly captured 60 percent. “I had to fight to explain all that.”
The “average white person,” Mr. Gonzalez added, may associate socialism with Nordic countries, but to Asian and Hispanic migrants it recalls despotic “left-wing regimes.”
Representative Harley Rouda of California, an Orange County Democrat who narrowly lost his bid for re-election, said the party needed to deliver a more assertive and moderate message if it wanted to claim districts like his. Mr. Rouda, who is planning to run again in 2022, said he suffered with centrist voters and his district’s numerous Vietnamese-American voters, many of whom recoil from the rhetoric of socialism.
“This narrative that the Democratic Party is borderline socialist, we need to fight back harder on that because it’s simply not true,” he said. “We needed to be more forceful in defending the moderate position of the Democratic Party as a whole.”
Chuck Rocha, a longtime Democratic consultant, said too many white Democrats “see Black and brown people as the same” instead of approaching Hispanics as people open to either party and in need of convincing.
“Our community is not a get-out-the-vote universe,” said Mr. Rocha, alluding to voters almost certain to support Democrats if they show up at the polls. “We’re a persuasion universe and should be treated like whites.”
Yet if Republicans cling to Mr. Trump, or to his brand of crude nationalism, they will continue to alienate voters in the fast-growing South and West who helped hand Mr. Biden Arizona and Georgia. As Mr. Biden showed, there are hordes of swing voters who find Mr. Trump and his divisive politics even more offensive than the slogans of the hard left.
Mr. Biden’s map-stretching victories were not isolated events. They cap a steady expansion of Democratic strength, especially in the West, where the party has gained four Senate seats since 2016: two in Arizona, and one each in Colorado and Nevada.
State Senator J.D. Mesnard of Arizona, a Republican who won a difficult race for re-election this month, said his state had clearly become “more competitive,” though he argued that down-ballot results suggested voters hadn’t abandoned the party entirely.
“You see similar things in Georgia and North Carolina — states that have seen a lot of growth,” Mr. Mesnard said. “A lot of these places that were pretty hard-core red are now on the bubble.”
The deeper problem for Republicans is the powerful grip Mr. Trump retains on the party — exactly the factor that made those states competitive.
Among Republicans, there is a stark difference between how lawmakers who are nearing retirement age or are safely ensconced in their seats approach Mr. Trump and how those who still require his favor speak of him.
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Senate Republican whose term is up in 2022, insisted that “the Republican Party is the Republican Party, it’s no one man’s party.”
And Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who just won re-election without ever endorsing Mr. Trump, said the president “is an important voice but not the dominant voice in party,” pointing to “next generation” figures like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.
“It’s President Trump’s supporters’ party,” said Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who faces re-election in 2022, adding, “That’s a group of people I think the Republican Party wants to hang onto.”
For Democrats, the election has illustrated the fragility of their coalition.
With Mr. Biden racking up overwhelming margins in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee — and even winning metropolitan Phoenix and Atlanta — progressives have become angered by the party establishment’s complaints about the issues energizing activists.
“While there is a lot of sniping at defund the police, Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and things like that, we also have to recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement was a seminal moment for the country and it also boosted Democratic registration and turnout across the country,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.
National Democrats, meanwhile, were shocked that Republicans made incremental gains with voters of color, especially in a campaign pitting Mr. Trump’s incendiary persona against Mr. Biden’s message of racial-justice message. That development challenged some of the party’s basic cultural assumptions.
Longtime lawmakers in both parties expressed guarded optimism that the depth of the country’s crises would at least initially force consensus and action, adding that their side would pay a political price if they are seen as obstructionists.
“They may not want to compromise with Mitch McConnell, but their choice is doing nothing that improves people’s lives or trying to find a way to compromise,” Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, said of her party’s left.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican, argued that it would be folly during simultaneous health and economic calamities for Mr. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to reprise his strategy of denying Mr. Biden bipartisan success the way he did with Mr. Obama.
“We’re going to have a tough map in the midterms and we need to get some stuff done,” said Mr. Cole. “Next year we better start governing in a normal way.”
The question for both parties is how they can satisfy voters who are pulling further apart, energizing their base without alienating a bigger share of the electorate.
”The more outrageous one sounds, the greater exposure they get to the public,” said Representative Emanuel Cleaver II, a Missouri Democrat, lamenting the modern incentive structure in politics. “But it just deepens the divisions and worsens the climate in the country.”
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.
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