If Democrats had any hope of seizing back a GOP seat in Virginia’s Trump country in 2020, it rested with Cameron Webb.
Webb — a Black doctor who served in the Obama and Trump administrations — was running against a far-right Republican who was underfunded and opposed gay marriage and birthright citizenship. But in the end, Webb’s message of strengthening health care and rising above partisanship was drowned out, and he lost by 6 points.
“My opponent only talked about three words: Defund the police,” Webb told a group of House Democrats on a private call this week, according to several sources on the line.
But it’s clear the GOP’s weaponization of left-wing slogans like “defund the police,” while important, was not the only reason that the party is on track to lose at least seven seats in the House.
Interviews with nearly three dozen lawmakers, aides and consultants reveal a growing acknowledgment that the party’s campaign arm made several key strategic errors: it underestimated Donald Trump’s popularity, relied too much on polls and failed to heed the warnings of its most vulnerable members.
A dozen races remain uncalled, and Democrats caution they won’t have all the answers for months. But many in the party are warning that the biggest priority for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must be overhauling its message. They say it needs to craft a proactive campaign that counters GOP attacks on everything from Medicare for All to fracking — if they have any hopes of keeping their majority in 2022.
"There were ads being run all over the country about socialism and about the Green New Deal and in some parts of the country that didn’t help,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said in an interview. "I think it would be irresponsible for a person in our family — in the Democratic Caucus family — who is concerned about it not to mention it."
Others were more blunt: "From my standpoint, as a moderate Democrat … it’s crystal clear we need a different message than what we’ve been having,” added Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.).
The fight over policing
Top Democrats had braced for the GOP police-focused ads. DCCC polled the issue over the summer as nationwide protests over social justice began dominating the headlines, finding it “incredibly damaging,” according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the data.
Shortly after, DCCC partnered with the Congressional Black Caucus’ political arm to attempt to produce a campaign message that addressed the systemic inequalities without handing the GOP a win on the policing debate. They created some ads, including ones focused on policing reform that aired in the Black community in seats held by vulnerable Democrats.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Black caucuses’ campaign arm, CBC PAC, said it’s clear the party came up short. He added that it’s urgent for the party to quickly recalibrate if Democrats want any hope of winning two longshot Senate runoffs in Georgia in January, their only chance at taking control of the upper chamber.
“We want the caucus to be accurately depicted. And if you look at the Democratic Caucus, if you’re going to accurately depict it — unlike what Republicans did — we’re not for defunding the police and we’re not socialists,” Meeks said. “We’re going to be doing all that we can to make sure that we win in Georgia.”
He added that he worked closely with DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos on the issue and has no complaints about her leadership despite the campaign arm failing to counter Republicans in several key races.
Most endangered Democrats struggled to counter the flood of GOP ads on the issue: Republicans aired roughly 70 different broadcast ads that mentioned “defund the police,” according to data from Advertising Analytics, a media tracking firm.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a top GOP super PAC, said they saw the early potential of those hits, making them at least somewhat confident they could help overcome the sheer amount of campaign cash that Democrats had.
“Democrat advertising barely uttered a word besides Donald Trump and preexisting conditions and these were messages that just did not move voters down-ticket,” said CLF President Dan Conston. “We spent the better part of a year testing the most effective ways to lay out the Democrats’ economic agenda as well as their most radical ideas, when ‘defund the police’ came up as a core issue.”
In a Staten Island-based seat with a large population of cops and firefighters, CLF saw Democratic Rep. Max Rose’s image rating drop 21 points in the months after they began airing “defund the police” spots.
Republicans were relentless as they aired 30-second attack ads that swarmed vulnerable incumbents. In red-leaning districts, such as Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s (D-N.Y.) in upstate New York, the “defund the police” ads emphasized violent protestors and looters. In a purple suburban Philadelphia seat held by GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who won reelection, the ads featured a mom who worried a smaller police budget would make her family less safe from robbers.
Democrats tried repeatedly to combat these law-and-order attacks. Some, like Rose, an Army veteran, vowed in a TV ad never to defund law enforcement. And money was not the issue — Democratic candidates were outspending their GOP opponents by a nearly 2:1 ratio in the final weeks. Yet they struggled to overcome the hits.
Rose — who conceded on Thursday — is among the nine Democratic incumbents who lost so far. As of Thursday, the House GOP was poised to gain seven seats.
Misplaced faith in polling
Republicans’ unexpected surge also exposed polling weaknesses in unexpected places, like districts in south Florida and Orange County in California that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. It also sabotaged Democratic hopes of flipping as many as 10 seats in Texas, where the campaign arm had invested heavily and even opened an outpost in Austin.
Bustos, who announced this week she would not seek reelection as chair, has defended the campaign arm in the days since the election. Several of her allies have argued that the polling flub was impossible to predict.
Bustos said DCCC did spot some trouble spots for their incumbents before it was too late. The committee helped Reps. Haley Stevens in Michigan, Susie Lee of Nevada and Peter DeFazio in Oregon, and all three won reelection.
“When we saw a race slipping late, we made quick, aggressive investments in the final stretch that helped us win some very tight races,” Bustos told members on a call this week.
Warnings from incumbents
Still, some Democrats said there were signs from vulnerable districts that the party did ignore.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said her biggest takeaway from the GOP’s upset in South Florida, where two incumbents were unseated, is that Democrats failed to take her warning seriously in early 2019 that GOP attacks on “socialism” were resonating with her home state’s expat community, including many Cubans and Venezuelans who fled communist regimes decades earlier.
“I was constantly ringing the bell on this,” said Murphy, whose family was rescued by the U.S. Navy as they fled communist-led Vietnam in the late 1970s. Trump too outperformed among Latinos in Southern Florida.
“I’m not sure that as a party we took that attack head on, and provided our counter narrative,” Murphy said. “It’s not enough to say what you’re not, you have to define what you are. And we have to define it in a way that doesn’t scare the American people.”
But other Democrats argue that the overall strategy and message mattered less than the GOP’s turnout. Vulnerable incumbents were suddenly — and unexpectedly — forced to outperform Biden by double-digits, and many simply couldn’t, showing the strength and popularity of Trump.
“Expectations did get high. But if we’re being honest, it wasn’t just expectations. We all missed something in our analytics and our polling data, and we really have to take a deep objective look at what we’re missing,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the moderate New Dems Action Fund. “We’ve got to break the party down and rebuild what our brand is.”