This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
Reading postmortems on the disappointing results of congressional Democrats this election cycle, one could be forgiven for thinking that Bernie Sanders, rather than Joe Biden, led the party to a catastrophic defeat that cost the party a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. In reality, Biden, who positioned himself as a moderate during his presidential campaign, won the general election by a closer-than-expected margin that coincided with losses for the Democratic Party in the House, though the party maintained control of the chamber.
In 2018, the victory of centrist candidates in swing districts was presented by some in the media as a vindication of party moderates and a rejection of the left’s theory that running on bold, transformative policies are necessary for Democrats to retake the speaker’s gavel. In 2020, many of these same moderate freshmen failed to secure reelection. It’s peculiar, then, that these poor performances are also presented as a vindication of the party’s moderate wing, which retains firm control of House leadership and the broader party apparatus. Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has faced almost no public scrutiny for the party’s losses in the House, and her reelection to the speakership remains a foregone conclusion.
Instead, the blame for harming the prospects of vulnerable House Democrats has fallen on Medicare for All advocates and proponents of defunding the police. On a strategic level, it’s understandable why critics of these policies, most notably House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger, are using the poor reelection results to disparage their political opponents. What isn’t understandable, however, is how little pushback these critics are receiving.
Medicare for All is widely popular, and multiple swing seat House members supportive of Medicare for All won reelection. In preliminary exit polling, 57 percent of voters expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, though the movement to defund the police went essentially unrepresented at the ballot box (perhaps because policing is largely a state and local matter). Not a single Democrat running in a swing district ran in support of defunding the police.
As it stands, the Democrats who lost reelection are: Florida Representatives Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, New Mexico Representative Xochitl Torres Small, South Carolina Representative Joe Cunningham, Iowa Representative Abby Finkenauer, Oklahoma Representative Kendra Horn, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson. They will likely be joined by New York Representatives Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose. With the arguable exception of Murcasel-Powell, none of these members support Medicare for All, and not a single one has given so much as lip service to the movement to defund the police. Indeed, Rose ran to the right on criminal justice policy and made his support for police a hallmark of his campaign. “I think that this is a critical moment where we should be investing in our police even more,” Rose said in an October debate. But even a commitment to more funding for the police did not stop the Sergeants Benevolent Association from calling Rose a “cop-hater”.
It should be noted that two House members, California Representatives Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda, supported Medicare for All in 2018 and won, abandoned support for the policy once in office, and currently trail in their bids for reelection. While it would not be especially honest to claim that turning their backs on the policy could cost them their seats, this narrative makes more sense than the argument that Medicare for All damaged Pelosi’s majority.
Katie Porter, also a California representative and a crusader against corporate power who supports Medicare for All, easily won reelection to her traditionally conservative swing seat. Representative Mike Levin, a progressive who supports Medicare for All and other left-wing priorities such as the Green New Deal, also comfortably won reelection in a battleground district in the state. Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, who represents a quintessential swing district and faced a star Republican challenger, won as a supporter of Medicare for All in tough territory. Representative Matt Cartwright, a supporter of Medicare for All, won reelection in his Pennsylvania-based swing seat, even as Trump carried the district. And Maine Representative Jared Golden (ME-02), also a supporter of Medicare for All, is on track to win reelection despite Trump winning his district. The idea that Medicare for All amounts to electoral poison in swing districts simply does not hold up to scrutiny.
Given the general underperformance by the party, it’s unsurprising that neither Democratic challengers supportive of nor opposed to Medicare for All fared well in swing districts. Moderate Democrats running in battleground seats who were seen as probable winners such as Texas Representatives Sri Preston Kulkarni, Gina Ortiz Jones, and Wendy Davis fared poorly, just as pro-Medicare for All candidates such as Texas Representative Mike Siegel and Nebraska Representative Kara Eastman were unable to win their contests. Embracing Medicare for All may not be a panacea for the party’s misfortunes. But neither it nor the call to defund police can be blamed for poor down-ballot results, as the emerging media narrative is claiming.
Aidan Smith is an electoral analyst at Data for Progress. He is also the founder of Labyrinth, a new journal of electoral politics.