After President Biden signed into law the coronavirus relief package earlier this month, a Republican friend facetiously said, “I thought Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both lost the Democratic nomination race last year, but apparently not.”
In fact, the Democratic Party went with Biden over Bernie Sanders at a time when the Vermont senator had beaten back a challenge from Warren and consolidated the party’s progressive wing. Meanwhile, the less ideological side of the party was still badly split between a dozen or so other candidates. This was rightly interpreted at the time as a move away from a very liberal agenda.
Republicans are going to scream that the Democratic agenda this year is nothing short of radical, left-wing, or socialist. My policy is not to sling such highly subjective terms around. But what we are seeing may be the greatest expansion of federal programs and spending in over a half century, and it may have to be at least partially accompanied by major tax increases. This is likely to send the GOP and conservatives into an apoplectic state if not a low orbit.
Over the last 30 years, really since the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency, we have seen a consistent escalation of partisanship, and with it, nationalized elections. The smallest shifts result in the electorate swinging from one direction and party to the other with dramatic electoral consequences. Four consecutive presidents have now seen their party’s House and Senate majorities go up in smoke on their watch, a record unprecedented in American history.
The agenda that is being pushed by Biden and congressional Democrats, as well as the Republican reaction to that agenda, will only pour more gasoline on this already raging partisan inferno and make our congressional elections even more parliamentary. Voters are going to be pulling the lever for the red team or blue team. The individual candidates—their strengths and weaknesses, and whether their campaigns are world-class or bush league—become less relevant all the time.
Back in the 1970s when Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill would say that “all politics is local,” he was mostly correct. Politics was driven more by issues and circumstances at the local, congressional-district, and state level, and less by the ebb and flow of national politics.
From time to time, elections would be “nationalized,” as if an invisible hand was pushing one party forward or holding back the other. But many elected officials or other candidates had their own brands, their own identities, such that they could often win elections even in somewhat hostile territory or particularly challenging political environments for their party, because they were seen as hard-working and dedicated to their constituents. They’d built up a bond with at least enough swing voters who, when added to their own party’s base, would enable them to win in tough circumstances.
Last November, 96 percent of House-race victors were of the same party as the winning presidential candidate in that district. Indeed, ticket-splitting is largely a thing of the past. We used to hear plenty of voters say, “I vote the person, not the party.” Rarely do we hear it anymore.
With the Census Bureau now not scheduled to report the detailed data needed for remapping districts until Sept. 30, we won’t know for at least six months how boundaries are going to be drawn and which members will end up with districts behind enemy lines. Right now, however, there are just 16 such members, according to Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman.
Only nine GOP House members currently hold districts that Biden won last November: Reps. David Valadao (California-21), Mike Garcia (California-25), Young Kim (California-39), Michelle Steel (California-48), Maria Elvira Salazar (Florida-27), Don Bacon (Nebraska-02), John Katko (New York-24), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania-01), and Beth Van Duyne (Texas-24).
Meanwhile, just seven Democrats are sitting in districts where Donald Trump prevailed: Reps. Cheri Bustos (Illinois-17), Cindy Axne (Iowa-03), Jared Golden (Maine-02), Elissa Slotkin (Michigan-08), Andy Kim (New Jersey-03), Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania-08), and Ron Kind (Wisconsin-03).
While Republicans will not be in quite as dominating a position as they were when they drew a majority of state maps a decade ago, they still are in the far better position than Democrats. Wasserman points out that Republicans will have the final say in redistricting in states with 188 congressional districts, down from 219 10 years ago. Democrats have the upper hand in states with just 73 districts, up from 44. Another 122 districts will be drawn by independent commissions, up from 88, and 45 states have split control, down from 77. Both this decade and last, seven states will have at-large seats with no remapping necessary.
The point of all of this is that with so many people voting on a partisan basis, the framing of Biden's and the Democrats' agenda—and the Republican response to it—is pretty close to the whole ball game. One side is likely to do a better job of selling than the other, and the House (and to a lesser extent, Senate) seats will simply flow from that. For both sides, this is risky business.