This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. We will run a series of articles in the coming days on progressive victories that came out of the 2020 election at the state and local level.
Progressive voters and movements helped rescue democracy from Donald Trump, a white supremacist wannabe dictator, who even after losing continues to lob attacks at the American electoral system. Joe Biden beat him by more than five million votes. Almost every voter who had supported Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primaries got behind the former vice president, some more enthusiastically than others. By removing Trump, the progressive project of building a more inclusive, democratic, egalitarian society will likely gain momentum instead of simply playing defense, attempting to stop bad things from happening.
But, it would be foolish to ignore the reality that Biden’s margins were a bit too close for comfort and that 70 million Americans voted for an incompetent and authoritarian megalomaniac with little acquaintance with the rule of law. It is one thing to defeat Trump. It will take much longer to defeat Trumpism.
Besides electing Biden and a Black woman, Kamala Harris, as vice president, progressives scored many victories at the local and state levels across the country. As I documented in the first of this series last week, the Black Lives Matter movement had an impact. Although most voters don’t want to “defund the police,” they overwhelmingly backed candidates and ballot measures to address racial profiling and other forms of police misconduct, mass incarceration of people of color and the racial disparities of the war on drugs. And, as I’ll discuss in upcoming articles, voters elected the most diverse group of politicians in the nation’s history, with a record number of women, Black, Latino/a and LBGT candidates scoring victories. Moreover, organized labor and the burgeoning socialist movement played important roles in supporting the Biden-Harris ticket, as well as in electing progressive candidates and winning progressive ballot measures — from adopting progressive tax measures for universal preschool and public libraries to raising the minimum wage in Portland, Maine and Florida.
But that Florida victory also reveals important challenges for the left. Even as 61 percent of Florida voters approved a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage from its current rate of $8.56 to $15 by September 2026, they also supported Trump with 51.2 percent of the vote.
Part of Trump’s Florida victory can be attributed to his campaign strategy to falsely tie Biden to socialist leaders like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the late Cuban President Fidel Castro, which resonated with Florida’s large Venezuelan and Cuban population. The Trump campaign ran a YouTube ad in Spanish — that showed more than 100,000 times in Florida during the eight days before Election Day — making the outrageous claim that Venezuela’s ruling clique was backing Biden.
Across the country, but especially in key swing states and congressional districts, Republicans sought to discredit even moderate Democrats by falsely branding them as socialists and misleadingly linking them to calls to “defund the police.” This has led to a public dispute and finger-pointing within the Democratic Party over whether the defeat of a significant number of moderate Democrats in those states and districts can be blamed on the party’s leftward turn.
But Trump’s victory in Florida and other states, as well as the success of Republican candidates in states and congressional districts that Democrats had expected to win, may have had more to do with another factor: Contrary to Trump’s claims, widespread voter fraud was not a problem. But Republican-sponsored voter suppression was. In many states, Republicans have adopted laws requiring voter identification cards, reduced the number of polling sites in Black communities and college campuses, purged voter rolls, and used other techniques to reduce voter turnout among Democratic-leaning voters.
For example, in 2018, 65 percent of Florida voters voted yes for an amendment to restore voting rights to ex-felons. But then the state’s Republican-led legislature and governor overruled that vote by adopting new obstacles for former felons to vote, including paying fees and fines, which is nothing less than a poll tax. According to some estimates, 1.4 million Florida residents would have gotten their right to vote back. Instead, only about 300,000 of them were eligible to vote this year. Because Florida’s prisoners are disproportionately Black people, their disenfranchisement may have tilted Florida toward Trump and other Republicans in the recent elections.
A similar dynamic played out in Georgia that not only shaped the presidential election but could also influence the outcome of the two Senate run-off races that will occur in January and will determine whether the Republicans or Democrats have control of the U.S. Senate. In 2017, as he was preparing to run for governor, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp removed nearly 700,000 people — ten percent of all voters — from the voting rolls. More than 100,000 were removed not because they had died or moved to another state, but on the specious grounds that they had skipped one too many elections. Voting rights advocates correctly argue that just because someone chooses not to vote shouldn’t allow the state to remove them from the voting rolls. Kemp’s effort was clearly racially motivated, since those removed from the registration list were disproportionately Black. It worked. In the 2018 race for governor, Kemp beat Stacy Abrams, a Black state legislator, by 1.4 percent, or about 55,000 votes.
As governor, Kemp and his fellow Republicans continued their voter suppression campaign, in part by reducing the number of polling places, especially in Black areas. In this year’s June primaries, voters in Atlanta and the surrounding Black majority suburbs had to wait for as long as six hours to vote. Georgia law requires that polling places cap the number of people served at 2,000, but many counties far exceeded that number.
Although Georgia is also required by state law to send absentee ballots to all who request them, many had not received them by primary day. Moreover, Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service — and his attempt to interfere with the agency’s ability to process mail-in ballots — made many Georgians and other Americans skeptical of putting their votes in the mail, forcing them to vote in-person or not vote at all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Abrams’ loss in 2018, and the anger surrounding the long lines at polling places during this year’s primary, may have triggered a backlash among Black voters. A number of grassroots nonprofit groups, including the New Georgia Project and Abrams’ own Fair Fight, mobilized a large-scale voter registration and turnout effort for this month’s elections, targeting Black voters. Along with the Democratic Party, activist groups also erected billboards in the Atlanta area urging people to vote early, organized caravans to take people to polling centers and recruited people to serve as election day volunteers and poll watchers. The result was a record number of Black voters, along with significant gains among Georgia’s growing Asian American and Latino voters, particularly in the diverse suburbs outside Atlanta.
These efforts helped Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. He assembled a diverse coalition of young voters, suburban voters and voters of color, winning by a margin of just over 14,000 votes, or 0.3 percentage points.
It is impossible to know how much bigger Biden’s Georgia vote might have been if the Republicans had not engaged in the years-long voter suppression campaign that still disenfranchises many voters, particularly African Americans. But certainly that effort will come into play in the current movement to win the state’s two Senate seats in the January run-off that will determine if the Democrats will have 50 votes in the Senate, with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote.
Even if Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff prevail, Democrats and progressives will still face structural disadvantages as a result of the nation’s election rules. The most obvious is the domination of corporate money in our politics, exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. In that decision, the court defined corporations as people with First Amendment rights, which they claimed, ridiculously, included money as a form of free speech. A 2018 Pew Research poll found that 77 percent of the public believes “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations” can spend on political campaigns. But until the Supreme Court overturns Citizens United, that form of legalized bribery will continue.
The Electoral College, a relic of the Founding Fathers’ distrust of popular opinion, also handicaps Democrats and progressives. George W. Bush (in 2000) and Trump (in 2016) won the presidency while losing the popular vote. It almost happened again this year. Despite Biden’s 5 million-plus popular vote margin, his narrow victories in a number of states were too close for comfort. A shift of one percent of the vote in several states would have given Trump another four years in the White House.
Another problem is gerrymandering. Over the past two decades, right-wing billionaires and other funders have helped Republicans win control of a majority of state legislatures, giving them the opportunity to draw the lines for state legislative and congressional districts that give Republicans an unfair advantage. Even in many states where Democratic candidates win a majority of votes, Republicans have gained a majority of seats.
All of these factors played a role in the Democrats’ losses in this year’s congressional races.
Immediately after Election Day, on a phone call among House Democrats, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a freshman from Virginia who narrowly won re-election in a district she won in 2018 that had been in Republican hands since 1971, lashed out at her progressive colleagues for embracing “socialism” and calls to “defund the police.” Republicans, she said, used those as weapons against candidates like her — moderates from swing districts. She won her race, but other swing district moderates — including Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida, Harley Rouda and Gil Cisernos in California, Abby Finkenauer in Iowa, Max Rose in New York, Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, and Collin Peterson in Minnesota (perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the House) — lost their reelection bids.
Democrats were also disappointed that several promising candidates — including Gina Ortiz Jones and Wendy Davis in Texas, Michelle De La Isla in Kansas, and Ammar Campa-Najjar in California — lost their races in swing districts. In another swing district in Los Angeles’ distant suburbs, Republican incumbent Mike Garcia is currently ahead of Christy Smith by 104 votes.
Several other moderate Democrats supported Spanberger’s analysis, as did John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio who endorsed Biden this year. He said that Democrats must make “clear to the far-left that they almost cost him this election.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) challenged that interpretation of the election results. Pointing to the strong support for Democrats among young people, people of color, and suburban women, she told the New York Times that Democrats must recognize that “their base is not the enemy.”
“If the party believes after 94 percent of Detroit went to Biden, after Black organizers just doubled and tripled turnout down in Georgia, after so many people organized Philadelphia,” she said, “the signal from the Democratic party is the John Kasichs won us this election? I mean, I can’t even describe how dangerous that is.”
The reality is: both Spanberger and Ocasio-Cortez are right.
In a presidential year with high Republican turnout, it should be no surprise that the GOP would not only hold onto their existing seats but also take back some Democrat-held seats in traditionally red districts.
For sure, Republicans’ false accusations against all Democrats as supporters of socialism and defunding the police hurt in some swing districts. But no Democrat running for Congress called for the complete defunding and dismantling of local police departments. And, as Ocasio-Corez noted, Democrats’ support of progressive ideas like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and holding police accountable for misconduct helped them win in other districts.
In its report from Chaska, Minnesota — a Minneapolis suburb that went for Trump in 2016 but supported Biden this year — the New York Times discovered that while the protests and clashes with police that followed the killing of George Floyd “might have stoked some anxiety in Chaska, it did not seem to evoke serious concern,” in the Times’ words. In fact, it raised voters’ awareness of the reality of systemic racism and police abuse.
In 2018, the left-leaning freshmen Democrats who won their seats came mostly from safely-blue districts where they upended a more moderate Democrat in the primaries. These include Ocasio-Cortez, Reps. Ayana Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who all easily won re-election this year. Every other veteran progressive House member won their seats in 2018 and again this year. This year’s new crop of progressives — including Cori Bush (MO), Jamaal Bowman (NY), Ritchie Torres (NY) Mondaire Jones (NY), and Teresa Leger Fernandez (NM) — won seats in safe Democrat districts. But in a few cases, outspoken progressives, including Katie Porter (CA) in 2018 and Marie Newman (IL) this year — prevailed in swing districts. Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a liberal but not a progressive, won her seat in a safely Democratic area in Washington.
Moreover, most freshman Democrats who won their races in swing districts in 2018 did win re-election, despite the Republicans’ efforts to target them as too liberal for their areas. These include Lucy McBath (GA), Conor Lamb (PA), Lauren Underwood (IL), Colin Allred (TX), Antonio Delgado (NY), Jahana Hayes (CT), Joseph Neguse (CO), Steve Horsford (NV), Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens (MI), Josh Harder (CA), Kim Schrier (WA), Jared Golden (ME), and Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski (NJ).
This year, several Democratic candidates prevailed in swing districts as well, including Carolyn Bourdeaux (GA), and Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning, both in North Carolina. Ross and Manning both won in Republican-held seats that became more friendly to Democrats after court-ordered redistricting. These results demonstrate that, as Spanberger argued, Democrats have a harder time winning in swing districts if Republicans are able to use red-baiting and gerrymandering to gain the advantage.
But, as Ocasio-Cortez noted, liberal and even progressive Democrats can win in some swing districts, despite the structural obstacles put in their way, by increasing turnout among the Democrats’ core base as well as persuading voters — particularly white voters — that liberal ideas like expanding health care coverage and raising the minimum wage will improve their lives. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of Americans (including those in swing districts) lost their job-based health insurance, a government-funded public option — if not full Medicare for All — should be appealing.
Polls consistently show that a vast majority of Americans (some Republicans) think that wealthy people and big business have too much political influence; believe that the rich and big business don’t pay their fair share of taxes; support an increase in the minimum wage so people who work full-time aren’t living in poverty; want the government to guarantee (if not directly provide) health insurance to everyone; support the right of workers to unionize, oppose reducing scientific research to address environmental problems; support background checks to reduce the proliferation of guns; support allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to stay in the country; and believe that the police and criminal justice system to not treat people of color and whites equally.
Americans with liberal views can be found in blue, red, and purple areas, but they are not distributed evenly across the country. Thanks to gerrymandering, residential segregation, and the nation’s demographic diversity and economic inequality, the country’s political geography is highly polarized. In many cases, Americans’ partisan loyalties are often stronger than their views about specific issues. Exhibit number one: the Florida vote for Trump and the higher minimum wage.
Among white evangelical Christians — who account for one-quarter of all voters — party loyalty and opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage is a potent force. In 2016, they gave Trump 80 percent of their votes —– in total, 45 percent of his 63 million voters. White evangelicals are not confined to red states. In 2016, they accounted for 38 percent of voters in North Carolina, 34 percent in Georgia, 33 percent in Ohio, 28 percent in Wisconsin, 27 percent in Michigan, 26 percent in Illinois, and 21 percent in Florida. In 2016 and again this year, the religious right drove white evangelical voters to the polls by organizing a vibrant, focused, and expensive but relatively invisible grassroots campaign. Eighty percent voted for Trump again this year.
The white working-class — primarily, those who did not attend or finish college — has been increasingly voting for Republicans for some time. In 2008, for example, 58 percent of non-college whites supported John McCain. In 2012, 61 percent of that group voted for Mitt Romney. In 2016, 66 percent of white voters without a college degree backed Trump, the largest margin for a Republican presidential candidate since 1980. Only 29 percent of white working class voters backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Based on data from surveys and in-depth focus groups, Guy Molyneux of Hart Research Associates estimates that more than one-third of white working class voters —– about 15 percent of the electorate — are neither hard-core conservatives nor fervent liberals, but moderates. The political question is how they channel their fears and frustrations. Do they scapegoat immigrants, people of color, foreign countries and “big government,” and try to turn back the clock on the victories of the civil rights, women’s, LBGT, and environmental movements? Or do they focus on the influence of big business and conservative policies that are primarily responsible for stagnating wages and rising costs that make it difficult for working families to make ends meet? Unions have traditionally been a vehicle to mobilize working class voters — union members and their families, but also others — to support liberal and progressive candidates. Their capacity to do that has weakened over several decades, but this year witnessed something of a revival of labor’s electoral accomplishments — a topic I’ll return to in a subsequent article.
Democrats’ success depends as much on movement as on message. In 2018, the Democrats translated the growing resistance movement against Trump into electoral victories, as women’s groups, Indivisible, unions, young voters, and others built grassroots efforts to turn out the vote in safe-blue and swing districts alike. Key to success is keeping those grassroots leaders and organizations engaged in-between election cycles, so that when Democratic campaigns come door-knocking, they are familiar faces whom voters trust because they’ve been them organizing and fighting for them on local issues like public schools, gun violence, the environment, housing and health care.
Reviewing this year’s elections, Rep. Primala Jayapal (D-WA), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told NPR: “I think people are mourning the loss of some colleagues that wasn’t as expected as it should have been. I think we just have to be real about what happened here. And we should focus on our long-term organizing strategy, because I think that is what is ultimately going to help us.”
Peter Dreier is professor of Politics and the founding chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His books include Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, and the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.