Why Democrats Should Stop Obsessing Over the Presidency and Focus on Congress Instead

By Liat Olenick

I don’t know about you, but I’m already worn out by the 2020 Democratic primary for president. With almost two years left till Election Day, presidential candidates are consuming an excessive amount of attention in the media and my personal life. Democratic candidates have raised millions of dollars, launched aggressive ad campaigns and are organizing in early primary states. Friends and family keep asking me what I think and speculating about their dream ticket. My email inbox is full of fundraising pleas from every Democratic candidate and the national party. Liberals and progressives are battling on social media over candidates, and headlines are full of presidential candidate announcements, fundraising statistics, and strategy.

This excitement over the presidential race this early is understandable. But it’s not strategic.

With such a robust and diverse field of qualified candidates, Democrats would be much better served by shifting their focus to the House and Senate until the primaries are actually imminent.

Here’s why:

First of all, if we don’t win the Senate and keep our House majority, our new president will be able to do next to nothing to repair the deep damage that Trump and the GOP have wrought on our Democracy. Mitch McConnell has already laid out his intent to obstruct HR1, House Democrats’ voting rights agenda. If he helms a GOP majority in the Senate in 2021, enacting basic, essential reforms to counter voter suppression and corruption would be near impossible. Similarly, without Democratic control of the the Senate, no matter how wonderful the new President may be, his or her hands will be tied when it comes to urgently needed anti-corruption measures, climate policy, healthcare fixes, and lifetime judicial nominees.

Moreover, there are several qualified, progressive candidates in the race already. Exactly which candidate has the absolute best policy platform may be less important than we think. Indeed, in order to enact transformative progressive policies, perhaps what we really need is more fiery, progressive senators and members of Congress — more Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes who will build momentum and shift the overton window on issues— not necessarily a progressive President.

Take New York in 2018, where leftist gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon lost to pro-corporate centrist Andrew Cuomo. Despite her loss, Albany has already enacted a range of reforms that she championed, thanks to the primary defeats of IDC members by young progressives and a strong Democratic supermajority in Albany. If groups like Justice Democrats, Indivisible, and Sunrise Movement can follow New York’s lead elect a few more dynamic progressives to Congress, either by flipping seats or challenging incumbents, Congress will be able to get to work on voting and campaign finance reform, a Green New Deal, and Medicare for all under almost all of the current presidential candidates.

Another reason we should focus on Congress at this early date is that we can’t count on presidential turnout alone to win the Senate for us. For Democratic Senate candidates without name recognition who will be facing popular Republican incumbents, a vote for a Democrat at the top of the ticket will not necessarily ensure a vote against the Republican incumbent. In Maine, for instance, incumbent Susan Collins could still win re-election even if the state votes for a Democrat for president. On the flip side, strong early organizing on behalf of Democratic Senate challengers would likely help the blue presidential candidate while also flipping the seat.

It’s not just the senate we need to pay attention to early. Democrats should also be mobilizing to hold on to their House majority. Democratic congressional victories in 2018 depended on record amounts of fundraising, organizing, and activism. The presidential race will turnout lots of conservatives, especially in states that use voter suppression to keep people of color from casting ballots. We can’t risk losing newly Democratic seats thanks to lackluster organizing or fundraising because of a singular focus on the presidency. Democrats should work on flipping even more seats, because a larger majority means a stronger mandate for legislative change. Many seats came within just a few percentage points of turning blue in 2018. Now is the time to start organizing to win those seats and grow the Democratic majority in 2020.

Finally, if the public gets too caught up in the presidential horse race this early, there’s a risk of dampening enthusiasm for whoever wins the primary. A year and a half of volunteer requests, fundraising pitches and round-the-clock media scrutiny runs the risk of tainting the eventual victor in the eyes of the public, especially with a Republican strategy built on sowing doubt and fear.

Make no mistake, Democrats must defeat Trump. (And to be clear, Howard Schultz is not a Democrat and should be ridiculed into the shadows.) But expending lots of energy on a pre-presidential primary battle does not necessarily ensure that whoever emerges from the fray can even win the general election. Nor does it ensure that a new Democratic President could actually roll back the damage done by Trump, confirm a Supreme Court nominee or enact a progressive policy agenda. Putting early energy into flippable House and Senate races instead of the Democratic primary, however, will pay off for whichever Democrat wins the nomination and most important, will set the stage for implementing the actual policies we urgently need to repair our Democracy and heal our planet.