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The House Elections in Review: Moderates Resurgence?

Photo from CNBC Mandel Ngan Getty Images

The 2020 Elections went just about as no one expected. Sure, President Trump lost, but elections for the House, Senate and state legislatures completely bucked the predictions of pollsters and media pundits. Going over all of this in one piece would be a rather large undertaking, so for the purposes of this article we will be examining the House elections, what they told us about the electorate, and what we might be in store for going into this next chapter in American history.

Starting with a look at the forest rather than the trees, one thing is clear upon initial analysis. It was a good election for House Republicans, and not so much for House Democrats. Republicans will be picking up a number of seats ranging approximately between seven and twelve in total. This doesn’t exactly constitute a red wave label, but it is a very solid showing to say the least. Considering that most projections had Republicans losing seats instead of gaining them, this should be taken as a win despite the party not gaining a majority. Pinpointing the reason for this success is a bit tricky. Some are quick to say that Trump voters simply outperformed expectations, and that this was felt down ballot. I find this a bit hard to believe. Trump did outperform expectations, but he also lost in the end, and by a margin that turned out to be not as close as we initially thought. A more likely explanation for Republican successes in House elections is moderate fear of the progressive left. The majority if not all of the flipped seats are in traditionally tight districts where moderates have historically done well. The idea of a Biden presidency in conjunction with a unified democratic Congress was likely too much for many moderate voters to stomach, resulting in a fair number of split tickets. This is compounded by fears of moderates pertaining specifically to rhetoric of the progressive left, regarding calls to defund the police and increase socialist policies on a national scale. Moderate districts, especially those in the suburbs, often have very positive relations with local law enforcement. Such a district is NY-11, which encompasses Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. This district is one of those who are replacing a democratic moderate with a Republican moderate. It is a district where pride and trust in law enforcement runs deep, and calls to disturb this relationship were evidently ill met.

So what will this mean for how the House actually looks and operates moving forward? For Republicans, not a whole lot has changed. Holding a larger minority status will increase Republican presence in legislative affairs, but the party is still in the minority. In terms of policy, there will be something of a void left by Trump’s absence, but much of House Republican policy was the same as it was before Trump as it was during his presidency, and not much is likely to change after it. More moderate views regarding healthcare are likely to continue, although this stance was already being slowly adopted before the election. Defense policy may shift away from talk of “forever wars” and back towards a more traditional Republican stance as foreign affairs becomes a more prevalent policy matter once COVID-19 begins to subside. Concerns over China, Russia and Iran will eventually surface again in the mainstream and drive away some of the more isolationist veins of the party. Economic policy will likely remain much as it has been, although the level to which the Biden administration is willing to compromise may also affect this. Overall, Republican policy may be refined and updated in certain areas, but it is unlikely to see radical overhauls in the near future.

In truth, the House Democrats currently pose a far more interesting and difficult puzzle to figure out in terms of leadership and policy. In the aftermath of the election, moderate democrats and progressives have not been shy about laying blame at the other side’s feet. Rep. Cherri Bustos has already stepped down as chair of the campaign committee. In a three hour conference call, moderate democrats scorned their progressive colleagues for messaging regarding defunding the police. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded by claiming that moderate Democrats who lost their seats should have done a better job of digitally advertising, an oddly specific criticism. Rep. Rashida Tlaib also went after moderates in her party saying “We are not interested in unity that asks people to sacrifice their freedoms and their rights any longer.”. Rep.-elect Mondaire Jones has publicly called out Joe Biden for considering Republicans in high ranking administration positions. New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs attacked AOC, saying “AOC has no standing on how to run a general election in the suburbs and upstate.”. The list of quotes regarding Democratic party infighting goes on but we will stop here. While it might be accurate to say that progressives cost Democrats in this election, the actual election results will only strengthen the progressive faction in the Democratic caucus. Moderate Democrats were the ones who paid the price for extreme rhetoric in the general election, and a series of successful primaries beforehand have resulted in a substantially smaller moderate Democratic faction that has been forced to defend itself on two different fronts. That being said, the progressive wing of the party is still not large enough to truly take hold of policy, although their influence will certainly be felt. With such a slim majority, progressives could attempt to hold moderate Democrats hostage on key legislative issues, withholding key votes if more progressive ideas are not included. On the other hand, moderate Democrats could also potentially seek to work across the aisle on more bi-partisan legislation. This would be especially likely if Biden keeps to his word on seeking a more moderate policy agenda and the senate remains in Republican hands. This path would essentially defang the progressive faction in terms of their ability to influence legislation, although I’m sure their social media accounts would be as loud as ever. Predicting which direction the party takes is incredibly difficult, and there are still factors left to be decided, but it sure would be nice to see some bipartisanship in Washington.

If there is one broader take away that we can decipher from the House elections, it is that moderates in the US still comprise a large part of the electorate, and that the loudest voices in politics are not always the most numerous or compelling. Far left rhetoric hurt Democrats in a visible and tangible way. It remains to be seen exactly how the US government will proceed moving into this next chapter, but I sincerely hope that both sides take this opportunity as a refresh to come together and solve some very pressing issues facing our nation. Who knows, a crisis has been a force for unity and cooperation in the past, maybe it can be again.

Author: Ken Frank

The views expressed are the author's alone and are not an official statement of GWCRs

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