Democrats’ near-term opportunities shouldn’t obscure the longer-term problems the party faces.
First, from the time of his likely election in November and his inauguration in January, President Joe Biden will find himself under attack not only from the GOP but also from elements within his own party.
It isn’t that the Democrats’ “AOC wing,” under the leadership of Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will dictate the party’s positions to Biden. That’s just ridiculous. Biden isn’t an amateur who just fell off a rutabaga truck.
But progressives are sure to complain (no matter what Biden does) that he hasn’t done enough, almost guaranteeing a fissure in the Democratic Party.
After eight years of Barack Obama and four years of Donald Trump, progressives are impatient and want dramatic change sooner rather than later. Recent events obviously have played into their hands, which will be stronger in 2021.
Second, a Biden victory will almost immediately draw attention to the 2022 midterms.
Reapportionment and redistricting could help House Democrats, as could initiatives to make voting easier nationally. But even with that, the House could well be in play in 2022. That’s what tends to happen to the president’s party. The angry, disappointed and frustrated turn out during midterm balloting to express their displeasure.
With Trump out of the picture, swing voters, college-educated whites and suburbanites could easily move back to the GOP if the economy is weak or if Biden appears ineffective. Minority voters could lose enthusiasm. That would create a noticeably different national political dynamic from the one we see now.
Third, while the Senate class of 2022 looks like a juicy target for Democrats, that could also change with their party controlling the White House.
Three Democratic senators might well see their seats in play: Michael Bennet in Colorado, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and quite possibly Mark Kelly in Arizona (assuming he wins a special election this year).
At least seven GOP Senate seats would start off as vulnerable, but Democratic control of the White House, and normal midterm trends, might undermine that party’s takeover prospects in all or most of those states: Florida (Marco Rubio), Georgia (whoever wins the 2020 special), Iowa (Charles E. Grassley), North Carolina (Richard M. Burr), Ohio (Rob Portman), Pennsylvania (Patrick J. Toomey) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson).
Retirements could improve Democratic chances, of course, depending on how strong the political current will be for one party or the other.
Most or all of those GOP Senate seats would be at risk if Donald Trump were still in the White House and Republican incumbents were on the ballot during a second Trump midterm election. But with Biden as the sitting president, the dynamics would be much more favorable for the GOP.
That isn’t to say that Democrats couldn’t win some (or even many) of those seats. But the challenge for them would be much greater with a Democrat in the White House, particularly if they control the presidency and both chambers of Congress.
Obviously, Democrats could benefit during the midterms from a changing electorate. The country is becoming less white and more diverse, and younger voters seem to have new priorities. At the same time, the GOP has shown little ability to broaden its coalition or appeal to voters of color.
Changing demographics in a handful of key states, including Texas and Georgia, could also change the arithmetic of the House and Senate, once again helping Democrats.
Finally, it is difficult to see Trump, or other members of the Trump family, simply slinking away after a 2020 defeat. His continued presence — and inevitably controversial tweets — could give Democrats a target and a way to make the midterm election more about Trump and Republican allegiance to him than about Biden.
Obviously, Democrats can’t be too concerned about 2022 at this point. Biden leads Trump comfortably right now, but it is almost four months until November.
Still, it’s worth noting that in the rash of articles about the GOP’s fundamental problems, the 2022 dynamic could be dramatically different. Democrats can’t assume that winning this November would mean smooth sailing ahead.
Indeed, a stinging defeat in November might well convince Republicans that a change in course is in order.
Stuart Rothenberg is a columnist for CQ-Roll Call.