NYT wonders: Do Dem setbacks in California portend disaster in 2022?

Short answer: yes, although disaster might already be the default whether Democrats learn any lessons or not. The New York Times warns Democrats today that their losses in several House races in California last month could mean that they have lost their momentum in the suburbs, where they took back control of the lower chamber in 2018. The NYT’s Adam Nagourney chalks that up in part to Republican “false or exaggerated” attacks on socialism and defunding the police, but concedes that Democrats’ messaging played right into those attacks:

The Democrats’ losses came for a number of reasons, including forces particular to California and the complications of campaigning during a pandemic. But as much as anything, they reflected the potency of Republican attacks, some false or exaggerated, that Democrats were the party of socialism, defunding the police and abolishing private health insurance.

The attacks — led in no small part by Mr. Trump as a central part of his re-election strategy — came at a time when parts of California were swept by street protests against police abuses and racial injustice, some of which turned into glass-shattering bouts of looting and confrontations with law enforcement that were heavily covered on local television.

“Republicans hung around Democrats’ necks that we are all socialist or communist and we all wanted to defund the police,” said Harley Rouda, a Democrat from Orange County who was defeated by Michelle Steel, a Republican member of the Orange County board of supervisors. “In my opinion, we as a party did a less than adequate job in refuting that narrative. We won in 2018 and took the House back because of people like me — moderates — flipping radical Republican seats.”

The GOP hung that around the Democrats’ necks because Democrats were quick to grasp that mantle — at first, anyway, especially in cities controlled entirely by Democrats. At the state and federal levels, Democrats spoke out in favor of defunding or abolishing police, and many others played footsie with the radicals by endorsing a “reimagining” of police. As for socialism and abolishing private health insurance, the GOP didn’t need to exaggerate that at all — party leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez drove those messages nationally. In fact, of the score of Democrats who vied for the presidential nomination, only Joe Biden explicitly opposed eliminating private health insurance.

That’s why Republicans scoffed at that explanation:

Republicans said that attempts by Democrats to portray themselves as moderates were undercut by a shift of the party to the left and by the demonstrations.

“It was incredibly easy for us to draw contrasts,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, the leader of the California Republican Party. She said the protests “were happening all over. It looked like a war zone.”

Democrats also complained that they couldn’t canvass, thanks to decisions made by the party’s national leadership, as too dangerous in a pandemic. This turned out to be less of an issue than it might otherwise have been, however, although it was a gap we highlighted repeatedly here, too. Thanks to a widespread (and in some cases ill-advised) adoption of mail-in balloting and the fact that the pandemic and riots kept voters hyper-engaged, the 2020 election became a high-turnout contest. In 2016, just under 129 million ballots were cast, while the latest count from November shows 155 million ballots cast. It seems unlikely that there were any potential voters left out because of a lack of personal contact, at least not in numbers that would have moved the needle significantly enough except in two or three contests decided by fewer than a hundred votes.

It’s that turnout that points to the real problem for Democrats in 2022. Republicans usually lose high-turnout elections all the way down the ballot, thanks to Democratic voter-registration advantages. In November, however, the GOP won at every level except the presidential contest. That means Republicans carried more voters despite those registration disadvantages, which signals that the Democrats lost significant ground in the political center — and largely that means the suburbs.

That brings us to the problem for Democrats between now and the midterms. If Republicans manage to keep control of the Senate, the incoming Biden administration will have two broad choices for its agenda in the first two years. Either they go big to gain favor among progressives and resign themselves to two years of gridlock, or Biden offers a narrow policy agenda that can gain traction with Republicans. The latter might help Democrats gain back a little trust in the suburbs, but it will alienate the progressives and the media that love them and depress turnout elsewhere. If Biden goes big on a progressive agenda, Democrats will continue to alienate the center and the suburbs, especially with Republicans playing I Told You So on repeat cycles all during the 2022 elections.

Even aside from agendas, Democrats have another problem regardless of which tack Biden takes. First-term presidents lose seats in midterm elections, after the reality of empty campaign promises become clearer. House Democrats are making this even more likely by pushing their sclerotic leadership team back in charge, a group of progressives that are practically the GOP’s poster children for imperious derision of middle America. Is Nancy “Ice Cream” Pelosi really the image Democrats want to leverage in 2022?

Finally, Democrats managed to limit their losses in 2020 by successfully leveraging anti-Trump sentiment and mail-in balloting. Neither of those will apply in 2022, at least not in the same potent forms they did this year. Without Trump as a bête noire, their turnout will suffer — while Pelosi will remain potent enough for GOP turnout efforts in the suburbs, along with Biden and Kamala Harris. One hardly needs to be Carnac to predict disaster for House Democrats in the next midterms, and maybe Senate Democrats as well.