Even after the the presidential call was finally made on Saturday morning, and we knew more or less definitively that Donald Trump would be kicked out of office, I didn’t realize how good it would feel, or how liberating. I didn’t vote for Joe Biden in the primary, and I have doubts about what his presidency can achieve, but getting rid of the man who was trying to blow up our democracy from the inside? The high lingers.
Still, we can’t let the Biden victory overshadow the miserable results for Democrats on the whole. In most of the critical Senate races, in the House, and across the country in state and local elections, it was a party-wide disaster. Everywhere you looked, Republicans gained seats, and their success goes deeper than simple gerrymandering; although, as a result of the losses Democrats sustained, that gerrymandering is about to get a lot worse. The dream of a Democratic Senate, and unseating Mitch McConnell, did not materialize. The dream of gaining House seats was actually flipped, and now Democrats are barely holding on to a majority. Two things are crystal clear: first, that a massive amount of Democratic and Republican voters turned out because of Trump. Second, that the Democrats didn’t vote for their down-ballot candidates in the same numbers that Republicans did. Hence, Biden succeeding and the party largely failing.
Part of this is down, in my opinion, to Democrats resolutely failing to offer a compelling vision for the country, and putting their hopes on the current president being so reviled that the anti-Trump vote would sweep them into every office. That did not happen, and when you see evidence of policies like a $15 minimum wage passing in Florida, and moderates getting swamped while progressives win, it’s evident at least to me that campaigning on economic initiatives that will actually help people, rather than half-measures meant to stop the bleeding, is the only way forward.
But that’s a complex issue, and a post for a different day. I want to talk about turnout. Under the current paradigm, 2020 confirmed something that should have been abundantly clear already: to win elections in America as it exists today, you must increase the turnout among your sympathetic base. The idea of winning Republicans to your side just doesn’t fly, as Trump’s massive support showed. In the electoral college, where a handful of critical states seem destined to be ridiculously close in all future presidential elections, it’s imperative for Democrats to exploit their numerical advantage by getting their people, in every demographic, to actually vote.
Which brings me to Georgia. There were a handful of traditionally red or reddish states that were supposed to flip blue on election night, but Georgia was the only state where it happened. Democrats failed in North Carolina, in Florida, in Ohio, in Texas, despite polls that put them in with a lead or at least a fighting chance. The only except was Georgia, which saw a razor-thin victory for Joe Biden and where the hope of a 50/50 Senate split was kept alive by both races moving to a run-off. What worked in Georgia that failed elsewhere? The difference appears to be a genuinely remarkable turnout operation, spearheaded by Stacey Abrams. Here’s what she managed, per The Guardian:
Prior to her gubernatorial campaign, Abrams had launched the New Georgia Project, a non-partisan group dedicated to broadening the electorate by registering voters. After the 2018 race she went one step further: she launched Fair Fight, an organisation that helped train voter protection teams in states across the country. It also tried to educate and empower young voters of color and encouraged them to register.
The combined efforts of Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, are credited with registering a staggering 800,000 new voters in the state…It worked. From the primary election to the presidential election, Georgia turnout skyrocketed by at least 1 million people since 2016, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who runs the US Elections Project.
That’s incredible, but Abrams’ influence didn’t stop there.
Wikler is the chair of the Democratic party in Wisconsin, so he knows of what he speaks. The fact that he credits Abrams with influencing elections as far away as the Midwest is striking, and shows the national impact she and her team had on this race.
As far as I can tell, Abrams’ personal politics aren’t quite as progressive as I’d like, though when she ran for governor in 2018, she was obviously operating under certain perceived limits. However, none of that matters. What matters is that she is extremely good at getting people to vote, even under the constraints of the voter suppression era, and even under the constraints of gerrymandering. Plus, progressives know where her heart is. Bernie Sanders endorsed her gubernatorial run in 2018, and Pramila Jayapal praised her this past week. She is an engine for a change, and a strong engine at that.
Which makes her eminently qualified to lead the DNC, the organization whose goal is to win elections across the country. She would be a great fit in good times, even with competent leadership. But in these times? We need her, and we need her badly. From Terry McAuliffe to Howard Dean to Tim Kaine to Debbie Wasserman Schultz to Tom Perez, the DNC has been led by a chain of ineffectual stiffs. They are beholden to a centrist vision, and with absolutely no vision for how to change the status quo, in which Republicans have a vice grip on our national discourse. In the rare times the Democrats win, it’s because people are genuinely afraid of Republicans and vote in reaction to that fear, and even in those cases it’s typically close, as we saw last week. When they lose, which happens far more often, they lose because they’re good at fundraising and nothing else…and the emerging secret in modern politics is that money only goes so far.
Look at 2020. How many millions did Perez throw at no-chance candidates like Amy McGrath in Kentucky or Jaime Harrison in South Carolina that could have been spent more wisely? How many progressives has he stifled in favor of moderates who just continue, time after time, to lose? How often, and how comprehensively, do Democrats have to flounder before we conclude that he has no vision and should be unceremoniously dumped?
This party needs vision, it needs enthusiasm, and it needs a robust approach not just to winning elections and registering voters, but to changing the entire playing field so that Democrats are not perpetually on the defensive. Perez is a feckless apparatchik, and he’s never going to be the person to turn this around. You can be forgiven for wondering if he actually likes losing—if he’s so institutionalized that it’s become second nature—and whether he and his team are incapable of dreaming up a different reality. Stacey Abrams could inspire something new; she’s already shown she has the chops. It will be an outrage if, after the down-ballot nightmares of 2020, the status quo within the party prevails.
Here’s a simpler way to put it: Stacey Abrams has proven herself in the cauldron of a tough election, and delivered an enormous result. What the hell has anyone at the DNC done? It’s long past time for a change, and there’s no time like the present.