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Apple ’21: Lessons from the Senate

2020 was supposed to be a banner year for Democrats. Not only were they predicted to defeat Trump, but they were favored to take the Senate and hold the House. For the first time since 2009, Democrats could have had a trifecta in the federal government, which would have given Joe Biden a mandate to enact popular and common sense policy, including election reform, environmental regulations, a public healthcare option and other pressing actions. Instead, depending on the results of both Georgia runoffs, Democrats are poised to sit between 48 and 50 senators, and the first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency will likely be a story of gridlock and minute change, if any. 

There are several reasons why Democrats underperformed significantly down ballot; the Democratic Party misallocated its funds and support to non-competitive candidates, thereby propping up weak candidates, and failed to remember that congressional races are more about local than national politics. Biden ran ahead of almost every Democratic Senate candidate, with the exception of a few like Mark Kelly of Arizona and Steve Bullock of Montana, two rather remarkable candidates. This suggests that not only was Biden an ideal candidate as the Democratic presidential nominee, but that even Republicans who oppose Trump do not, for the most part, oppose the Republican Party. Democrats attempted to connect people like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins to Trump, yet it is clear these attempts failed; Trump did not drag them down with him. While a Biden victory certainly indicates wide enough dissatisfaction with the Trump administration, it is apparent that many Republicans in fact still view Democratic policies as dangerous, and intentionally voted Republican down the ballot to put a check on them. The messaging used by Democrats to portray Republican senators as enablers of Trump either failed or simply wasn’t enough. 

In addition, the nationalization of politics in competitive Senate races seems to have generally backfired on Democrats. It appears that Democrats, by not localizing issues in the Senate, left themselves open to counterattacks, which often amounted to fear-mongering about socialism from the Republican Party. A notable exception was the Iowa Senate election, in which Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield slightly outperformed Biden. Her recent viral moment, in which she recalled the exact price of corn, while her opponent failed to remember the price of soybeans, illustrated that she was running a more local race. Yet she was an exception, not a rule, as most other Democrats were too focused on Trump and Washington.

Another significant reason Democrats did poorly last week is that Democratic candidates across the board were simply not that qualified, and were in some cases chosen more for their celebrity-like status than actual ability or political prowess. The most obvious example is Amy McGrath, a fighter pilot who ran and lost in a competitive district in 2018, and was then elevated to the Kentucky Senate choice by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2020, even though she was outperformed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear by 17 points in her district. McGrath gained ire from Democrats for flip-flopping within hours on whether she would have confirmed Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but far more importantly, she was a candidate with no political experience, and that inexperience showed. McGrath was not endorsed by any prominent Kentucky state legislators in the primary, and it was obvious she was Washington’s pick for Senate, not Kentucky’s. She was also unable to run a campaign and ended up losing by 20 points — a greater margin than McConnell had won by in 2014. 

Yet in far more competitive seats than Kentucky, Democratic candidates showed similarly poor performance. Cal Cunningham, who lost his race to the very unpopular Thom Tillis, was a one-term state senator in North Carolina from 2001 to 2003 who lost in the 2010 Democratic Senate primary. Even as Cunningham was polling ahead of Tillis (and outperforming Biden) most of the time, there were warning signs, with high numbers of undecided voters in the race. He was also certainly hurt by recent news that he was having an affair with a consultant on his campaign. In Texas, MJ Hegar was a near carbon copy of McGrath, a 2018 failed House candidate who received major donations from out of state. Democrats had many avenues to gaining the necessary three seats in the Senate, but they failed to do so, in part because they recruited candidates who were not up to the task.

Another significant factor was a misallocation of money, mostly from Democratic donors. Voters, driven by hatred of specific politicians, particularly Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, dumped millions upon millions of dollars into races that were not remotely attainable. Amy McGrath, who raised $90 million, was the most egregious example. Of the $60 million tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, only $1.8 million were from in-state donors. Jaime Harrison in South Carolina was another example, raising 93 percent of his $108 million out of state. Candidates in actual competitive races, like Kelly, Cunningham and Colorado’s John Hickenlooper, raised a lot of in-state money, as their donors were more strategic. In contrast to the wasteful spending in Kentucky and South Carolina, donors gave far less money to incumbent Senator Gary Peters (who was outraised by his opponent and only narrowly won reelection) and Greenfield in Iowa. 

Republicans were far more tactical about their spending, and it paid off. I’m all for a 50-state strategy and building the party in places we have no chance of winning in the immediate term (it’s already paid dividends in Georgia), but when Democrats are so close to winning a majority, we must be more strategic and pinpoint a few key “must-win” races in which to heavily invest. Democratic donors didn’t get the memo, and mistakenly believed that it was better to try and beat McConnell in an unwinnable race than invest in other candidates to make McConnell obsolete as the leader of the minority party.

On Thursday, Virginia Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger sounded the alarm bells after the Tuesday election, attacking progressives for making it more difficult for those in swing districts to win elections, and particularly for using terms such as “defund the police” and “socialism.” These broad strokes painting progressivism and winning as incompatible are not correct. Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown are both very progressive senators in battleground states who routinely win election by sizable margins. However, the election did show us that in many places, the threat of socialism and the rhetoric used by progressives is easily spun by Republicans. Now, Republicans will always call Democrats socialists, as they did with Biden, but it does land a lot easier when Democrats anoint themselves as such. It hurt in Miami-Dade (although Biden’s lack of outreach didn’t help either) and even Republicans who hated Trump responded by not voting for Democrats down-ballot, as every single one of them was tied to charged buzzwords. On the whole, I think Spanberger makes a good point. There’s a reason that “defund the police” is supported by 27 percent of Americans, but 44 percent support reallocating funds from the police to other service providers. They’re the exact same thing, but because Democrats (both progressives and moderates) cannot message effectively, their proposals (which are usually supported by a majority of the country) are demonized. 

This is a post-mortem, but it’s also a learning experience. The 2022 midterm elections are going to be key, as Democrats have another chance to take the Senate (and hold the House). Having the Presidency will likely work against them (as it nearly always tends to), but the map is quite favorable, meaning Democrats should be able to take it back if they employ a better approach. Democrats have pickup opportunities in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — as well as Georgia if Raphael Warnock loses in the January runoff — and will really only have to hold Arizona and Nevada, both states that Biden won. The dangers lie in Democrats replicating this election’s failed strategy all over again by investing substantial money into ousting particularly odious Republicans like Rand Paul of Kentucky, at the expense of actually winning a majority. Democrats would do better to focus on these six pickup opportunities at most, and must nominate the best candidates who will focus on running more local races that appeal to their actual constituents’ needs. Instead of pitting their platforms against Mitch McConnell, they should focus on running against their actual opponents..

In some of those states, the choice seems rather obvious. North Carolina’s Jeff Jackson is a young, charismatic and popular current state senator whose position allows him to spend a lot of time attacking the North Carolina GOP for its corruption and antidemocratic practices. This positions him well for taking on Richard Burr, who used Senate intelligence to engage in insider trading during the pandemic. In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor, is a progressive in a similar vein as senators Baldwin and Brown, and is already being talked about as an early favorite for retiring Republican Pat Toomey’s open seat. The other states are more difficult, although runs from Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler, Congressman Mark Pocan or Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin would be unsurprising, and would bode well. The most important thing that the Senate election has taught us, however, is that before anointing a single candidate, we need to do a better job at letting primaries play out for themselves, at least until we get a sense of the direction of the race. Democrats dropped the ball once already; they cannot afford to do so again in 2022.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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