Are Democrats Unlearning the Lesson of 2020’s Senate Races?

Even with a power-sharing agreement coming into place, the fate of the Senate is never really decided. The filibuster remains unresolved and will hang over the Chamber until it’s extinguished, with the ultimate fate of things like D.C. statehood or democracy reform or dozens of other laws hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, this term will play out with an eye toward the spate of Senate seats up for grabs in 2022. That the Chamber’s Democratic majority could be easily reversed in next year’s elections will affect voting patterns all year long.

The 2022 cycle has effectively already begun, with a handful of seats in play in states where Joe Biden’s success would have Democrats believe they can compete. Critical Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and elusively purple North Carolina, are all on the ballot. In the latter three, Republican incumbents have retired, creating open-seat races.

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The nice thing about the 2020 election cycle, ceaseless though it was, is that it offered a tidy comparison of two different Democratic approaches. Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s preferred strategy elevated pre-anointed moderates with few policy commitments or convictions of any sort, shepherded them through primaries, and helped them raise gargantuan sums of money. This led to North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham and Maine’s Sara Gideon, who ran on things like “decency” without ever touching hard issues like the economy. Both, of course, went on to squander extremely winnable races in spectacularly expensive form. Cunningham hadn’t won elected office since 2000; Gideon wasn’t even from Maine.

In the Georgia Senate races, meanwhile, two relative long shots featured a very different approach. Both Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff ran functionally populist campaigns. They inveighed against the corruption of their opponents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both prodigious insider traders. They vocally backed $2,000 checks, among other progressive issues. And even though Ossoff was young, he grew up in Georgia and worked for the legendary John Lewis; Warnock, as pastor of the legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church, was a pillar of the local community. These were not carpetbaggers.

One strategy worked, one didn’t. So which will Democrats choose going forward? There are troubling signs, already, that party leadership might return to the losing option.

In Wisconsin, Democrats feel like they have a real shot to oust Republican Ron Johnson. The party’s primary is shaping up as a contest between fifth-generation Wisconsinite Tom Nelson, a well-known progressive and former majority leader of the Wisconsin Assembly, and two rich, recently relocated, and potentially self-funded moderates, Alex Lasry and Sarah Godlewski, who are expected to enter the race shortly.

Nelson is a former Bernie Sanders delegate and 2016 Sanders endorsee.

Lasry is an executive with the Milwaukee Bucks; his father Marc owns the franchise. But he’s been teasing a possible Senate run, and there’s every expectation that he’ll enter the race. Coming from a billion-dollar family, he’d be able to stake himself in a fashion similar to that which Michael Bloomberg pioneered in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, though on a statewide scale. That has become an increasingly popular profile in the party—newly elected California Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, also the scion of a billionaire family, won national election in November in the very same way.

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Sarah Godlewski, meanwhile, is already an enemy of local environmental groups for her proximity to fossil fuel and corruption. During her 2018 run for state treasurer, Godlewski was dogged by a national scandal involving her husband, energy trader Maxim Duckworth, which resulted in a $245 million fine from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for market manipulation, and resulted in Duckworth being barred from trading at his firm Constellation Energy. It was, at that point, the largest penalty FERC had ever doled out. If she does announce, Godlewski is expected to have the backing of Democratic Party extension EMILY’s List.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, state Sen. Erica Smith, a progressive woman of color who ran in 2020’s primary, has announced she’ll be running again, this time to replace retiring Republican Richard Burr. Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Jackson just announced he’d be running as well. Jackson’s biography is shockingly similar to Cunningham’s: white, youngish family man with a military background. In his campaign announcement video, he makes zero policy commitments whatsoever, before pledging to hold 100 town halls, which some have championed as a major step forward. At least, unlike Cunningham, he has won an election within the past decade (the bar really is that low). Jackson was rumored to be the DSCC candidate of choice last cycle before he chose not to run, and he may well get their formal backing now that he’s in.

One strategy worked, one didn’t. So which will Democrats choose going forward?

Compare that to Pennsylvania’s incipient Senate race, where another Republican incumbent, Pat Toomey, is stepping down. Pennsylvania’s GOP is still deeply in hock to Trumpism and will likely put up a Trump-aligned candidate. But right now, the front-runner on the Democratic side is extremely popular Democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman. Fetterman has yet to even officially announce his candidacy, but has already raised more than $1 million from 33,000 grassroots contributions. And he’s done so as a progressive champion of weed legalization and a $15 minimum wage. Fetterman, in fact, may already be too popular and prominent for the DSCC to openly oppose him.

The races in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania will likely be decisive for Democrats. If they don’t win, it’s nearly impossible to conceive of them holding a Senate majority at any point in the near future (it would be nice to win in Ohio’s vacant seat, too, although the Democratic bench is so shallow there and the state has turned so hard to the right in recent years that the situation is not the same).

While it’s still early, the crucial question will be whether Schumer and the DSCC have learned the obvious and undeniable lessons of this most recent cycle. Their 2020 strategy was a catastrophe; the narrow losses of Gideon, Cunningham, and Theresa Greenfield, and the super-expensive blowouts of Amy McGrath and (new DNC chair) Jaime Harrison, prove that their strategy is a failed one. Yet those responsible for that failure were let off the hook by an even worse debacle in the House and the reversal of course in Georgia. That means that there were no major changes to DSCC leadership, and after the victory, no public self-reflection.

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Chuck Schumer just announced that he was tapping Michigander Gary Peters as the new head of the DSCC, presumably in part because of his own experience winning elections in the Rust Belt. Progressive groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee signaled optimism about Peters’s willingness to embrace more left-leaning policies and messaging: “Gary Peters has seen up close in Michigan that economic populism wins,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green.

It’s clear that Schumer, now majority leader, is willing to change his approach on some things. He held firm on the filibuster in negotiations with McConnell, and he’s boldly called on Biden to forgive large amounts of student debt and declare a climate emergency. This all reveals a newfound openness to using the rules for progressive ends. But the real test of this new awakening will come on the campaign trail, where Democrats desperately cannot afford to keep making old mistakes.

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