Who won the 2020 election?
If your answer is simply “Joe Biden,” that’s fair. The race for president rightly dominated the media coverage. But down-ballot, and in Washington state, the answer gets more complicated.
Nationally, Democrats lost seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and an expected Democratic takeover in the Senate didn’t materialize (yet — Georgia’s two Senate seats will be decided in January).
Here in the other Washington, the most compelling races were not Democrat versus Republican. Washington is a blue state, and none of those high-profile races generated any surprises.
The interesting races were Democrat versus Democrat.
These races — both nationally and in Washington — are a bellwether for the future of the party. Will Democrats force ideological purity, as promoted by Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota? Or will moderate and center-left Democrats, represented by the New Democrat Coalition chaired by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, continue to build a bigger-tent party?
The election results last week were a clear victory for moderates.
1) This election was a rejection of extremes on both sides. Most notably, and thankfully, it was a rejection of President Donald Trump, and four years of his fomenting hate, weakening American institutions, and making us numb to the daily barrage of crazy. But Americans didn’t swing from one extreme to another. Just the opposite.
We elected Joe Biden, arguably the most moderate of the candidates who sought the Democratic nomination, with his 40-year history of working across the aisle to find common ground. And that was made possible because Democrats earlier rejected the agendas of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — extreme in a different way.
2) Down-ballot election losses — and a likely Republican-controlled Senate — should push Democrats to carefully assess their priorities. Activists like Rep. Omar are lobbying Biden to embrace their agenda. But look carefully at down-ballot races. Omar underperformed Biden in her district by 70,000 votes.
Michigan’s democratic governor had the opposite advice: focus on “dinner table issues.” Similarly, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn warned, if “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we’re not going to win.” But the most direct message came from Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., who scolded her liberal colleagues: “We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again … We lost good members because of that.”
Democrats came together to defeat Trump. But a one-party town would have forced a reckoning. A GOP Senate — or even a 50-50 Senate if Democrats can win Georgia — may push off the fight. And, as it turns out, Biden is well-positioned to work with Republicans on issues that can get bipartisan support: COVID-19 relief, infrastructure, workforce training, universal preschool, renewable energy.
3) In Washington state, moderates carried the day. Also, Seattle politics remain in a political bubble. Closer to home, the political outcome looks very different than a year ago, when the activist left surprisingly won most Seattle City Council races. This year, moderates took on liberals in three key races across the state. Two won overwhelmingly, and the third appears to be winning.
In the race for state lieutenant governor, outgoing U.S. Rep. Denny Heck trounced state Sen. Marko Liias.
In the race to replace Heck in the 10th Congressional District, state Sen. Beth Doglio took on Marilyn Strickland, the former Tacoma mayor and past head of the Seattle Chamber. Endorsements in this race looked like a who’s who list. For Strickland: former Govs. Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, and U.S. Reps. Kilmer, Suzan DelBene, and Rick Larsen, all members of the New Democrat Coalition. For Doglio: Sens. Warren and Sanders, along with U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle.
Jayapal, the only Democrat in the Washington delegation who has not joined the moderate coalition, mobilized more than $800,000 of support for Doglio from the Congressional Progressive PAC and the Medicare for All PAC. Despite that, Strickland won by 14 points.
In one of the most contentious races, incumbent state Sen. Mark Mullet has been leading union leader Ingrid Anderson, by 101 votes on Tuesday’s count. The Service Employees International Union and teachers’ unions spent nearly $2 million to unseat Mullet. But Mullet’s center-left views reflect those of his politically diverse district, which includes Issaquah, Carnation and Black Diamond. Mullet was able not only to garner endorsements from the majority of his Senate Democratic colleagues and many Democratic mayors in his district — but also moderate Republicans.
4) Republicans can win in Washington state. But they need to redefine what winning looks like. Washington voted for Biden by 20 points. Right-wing politics doesn’t win here.
But voters who lean independent or center-right have an opportunity in our top-two primary system. They can keep supporting unelectable candidates, or they can get behind a winning moderate. The Mullet-Anderson race is instructive. There were nearly 1,500 write-ins in a race that will likely be settled by about 100 votes. Republicans who sat this race out would have kicked themselves if Anderson had won, only to discover that her views aligned more with Ballard than Black Diamond.
At the end of the day, Most Americans reject extremist politicians who play more to Twitter and cable news, but ultimately pass no laws. Rather, they want government to get things done. A big-tent Democratic Party has an opportunity to lead that effort. Let’s hope we seize the opportunity.