Democrats are losing elections because they’re fighting with both arms tied behind their backs
President Trump and national Republicans have poured over the tea leaves of recent congressional special elections and declared victory. More pensive Republicans are probably less inclined to spike the football, understanding that all five of these recent special elections were safe GOP seats.
These losses for Democrats across the country are part of a long-term trend. Despite winning the popular vote in the 2012 and 2016 elections, Democrats did not significantly alter the Republican majority in Congress. The Democratic Party has two major factors working against them: redistricting and reality.
After a landslide during the midterm elections in 2010, Republicans gained control of the map-drawing process in an overwhelming majority of the states. Maximizing party gains and protecting incumbents is not new in American politics, but advances in technology, increased partisanship, and national coordination led to political maps that heavily favored Republicans across the country. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, those gerrymandered maps led to “ as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected” for the Republicans in 2016. If maps were drawn fairly in every state, the House of Representatives would be almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, much like the current 52–46 split (with two left-leaning Independents) in the Senate.
The other major challenge for Democrats is their reality-based message. They have continued to stick to their traditional ideals — healthcare, social safety nets, protecting the environment — while Republicans have completely abandoned reality. Democrats are seeing the forest, while Republicans are focusing on the trees — and thinking of ways to burn them to produce energy and jobs.
Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act? Sure, that sounds like something a Republican would support. But to also promise that “everybody” will still have insurance and it will be better and cheaper? Not based in reality. 5 percent GDP growth? Bringing back jobs that are obsolete? Huge tax cuts that will pay for themselves? None of this matches up with the free-market fiscal conservatism that was the bedrock of Republican principles. At least in decades past, Republicans would have the courage to propose tough spending cuts to offset their tax giveaways.
That’s not to say Democrats are perfect. They make plenty of promises on the campaign trail that they know they won’t be able to keep. But they also admit that climate change is a very real threat, they understand that poor people need healthcare and education, and undocumented immigrants are human beings that have many positive effects on our economy. These are hard truths, the kind that Republicans abandoned in their quest to win elections at any cost, and those subsequent victories have been protected from direct democracy by maps drawn by Republican hands.