In January, Abby Finkenauer, the freshman representative from Iowa’s First Congressional District, endorsed Joe Biden’s bid to become the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee. It seemed like a magnanimous act on her part. Finkenauer, a Democrat, had flipped her eastern Iowa district two years earlier, at the age of twenty-nine, and helped Democrats to retake the House. She was the first member of Congress from Iowa to endorse a campaign, back when a pack of Presidential hopefuls were still criss-crossing the state. Biden, meanwhile, was heading for an embarrassing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, and his entire campaign, at that point, was teetering. Finkenauer endorsed him, anyway, and stumped for him, emphasizing their connection as children of working-class, pro-union families. “He’s somebody who really gets it,” she told voters.

When Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, a few weeks later, her endorsement looked prescient—the latest canny move from one of the Party’s rising stars. Part of Biden’s pitch to primary voters was that, come November, his moderate brand of politics would help Democrats like Finkenauer in competitive districts like Iowa’s First. The plan appeared to be working, right up until Tuesday, when Biden lost Iowa, and Finkenauer lost her reëlection bid. “Turnout was unbelievably high on both sides,” one Iowa Democrat told me. “We expected that was going to happen for us—we were really surprised that that happened for them, too.”

In recent weeks, many Democrats had begun to predict that their Party was on the cusp of a landslide. “Tonight, House Democrats are poised to further strengthen our majority—the biggest, most diverse, most dynamic, women-led House majority in history,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, on Election Day. There was talk of Democrats flipping legislatures in Republican-controlled states such as Texas. On the Senate side, more than a half-dozen Democratic challengers, the beneficiaries of a historic surge of donations, had mounted campaigns that put them at least within range of knocking off Republican incumbents, even in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where Democrats rarely win statewide races. Ending Donald Trump’s Presidency was the Democratic Party’s top priority this year, but candidates and voters alike were nearly as eager to end Mitch McConnell’s tenure as Senate Majority Leader.

What happened instead was a kind of duelling landslide: Biden received more votes than any Presidential candidate in U.S. history, which marks the seventh time in the past eight Presidential elections that Democrats have won the popular vote. But Donald Trump may well end up receiving the second-most votes of any candidate in history. Because of the way that congressional seats are carved up, and the fact that Senate seats dilute the electoral power of the country’s big cities, Republicans got enough votes to stymie Democratic gains. The result is that, even as Biden is poised to expel Trump from the White House, extinguishing one crisis facing the country, Congress remains up for grabs.

In the House, Democrats will retain their majority, but it may well be smaller than the one they’ve held these past two years. Although progressive newcomers, such as Jamaal Bowman, in New York, and Cori Bush, in Missouri, won their progressive districts (and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other three original members of the Squad won emphatic reëlection victories), many of the first-term Democrats who stitched together winning coalitions in competitive districts in 2018—including Finkenauer, Kendra Horn, in Oklahoma, Xochitl Torres Small, in New Mexico, and Joe Cunningham, in South Carolina—lost on Tuesday. Notably, given that Democrats gained their majority running a historic number of women two years ago, many of the Republicans who reclaimed these districts are newly recruited female candidates themselves: Finkenauer lost to Ashley Hinson, an Iowa state representative, and Horn lost to Stephanie Bice, an Oklahoma state senator.

For the immediate prospects of a potential Biden Presidency, the battle for the Senate is even more consequential. The Democratic Party’s hopes there rested on Trump’s unpopularity and an outpouring of giving from both large and small donors which allowed its candidates to amass giant campaign war chests. ActBlue, a progressive online payment processor, funnelled more than three billion dollars to candidates and groups this cycle, much of it to Senate candidates. Jaime Harrison, the Democrat who challenged Lindsey Graham, in South Carolina, raised more than a hundred million dollars. Sara Gideon, who challenged Susan Collins, in Maine, raised more than sixty-eight million dollars. Theresa Greenfield, who challenged Joni Ernst, in Iowa, raised more than forty-seven million dollars. Going into Tuesday, the polls showed all three of them as competitive. They all lost handily. “Here’s the message I got: people like what I’m doing, and I’m going to keep doing it,” Graham, who had tied himself ever closer to Trump in recent weeks, said, in his victory speech.

Democratic activists and Party members may ultimately reassure themselves that many of these Senate races took place in tough states for Democrats. The losses in House races, however, present more complicated questions. In general, since Tuesday, the map that Democrats hold in their minds has shifted. Is Florida simply a Republican state now? Is Texas just a dream that Democrats keep chasing? And yet the results in Arizona—and perhaps in Georgia, too—are real breakthroughs for the Party. On Tuesday morning, Representative Jim Clyburn, the hard-nosed South Carolina elder statesman, who gave Biden a pivotal endorsement in February, appeared on MSNBC to discuss Jaime Harrison’s campaign. The race had not yet been decided, but Clyburn was already speaking in terms of what it had accomplished. “Jaime has demonstrated himself to be a winner—he is a winner,” Clyburn said. “He has shown young people that he has brought into this effort how to do it. Lay the foundation, build upon that foundation.”

Democrats did pick up two Senate seats, in Arizona and Colorado, but they lost one in Alabama, where Doug Jones, who won a special election in 2017, lost a reëlection bid that had never seemed within reach. As of Thursday, it appeared possible that both parties would end the week with forty-eight senators, with control of the chamber turning on an unprecedented development: January runoff elections for both of Georgia’s seats. At stake would be whether Democrats get a thin but clear margin to set an agenda in Washington next year—for passing pandemic relief, climate-change legislation, and so on, down the list—or whether the country will have a federal government defined by the narrow spaces where the interests of Biden, Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell overlap. Will McConnell, who has been almost singularly focussed on filling the federal judiciary with conservative judges, even allow Biden-selected judges to move through a Senate that he controls? Already, there are hints of an answer to such questions. “Republicans’ likely hold on the Senate is forcing Joe Biden’s transition team to consider limiting its prospective Cabinet nominees to those who Mitch McConnell can live with,” Axios reported, on Thursday. A source told the news outlet, “It’s going to be armed camps.”



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