Democrats Riled By House Losses : The NPR Politics Podcast Democrats are regrouping after they saw their House majority shrink on election day. Their slim majority could heighten the stakes of the party's progressive-moderate divide.

This episode: correspondent Scott Detrow, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and congressional editor Deirdre Walsh.

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Democrats Riled By House Losses

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Democrats Riled By House Losses

Democrats Riled By House Losses

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NIA: Hi, everyone. This is Nia (ph) from the Bronx, N.Y., and I am excitedly awaiting for my NPR merchandise to come in the mail. My husband bought me an NPR T-shirt and coffee mug that I've been wanting for a long time, and it was a congratulatory gift because I also finished paying off all my credit cards. Yay. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It is 2:09 Eastern on Tuesday, November 17.

NIA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That deserves a big congratulations. We also have face masks that I hear are really great.

DETROW: I saw the face masks. Congratulations. And we can vouch for these mugs. They are big. You get a big amount of coffee or tea in them. They are solid, solid mugs, and you will feel congratulatory when you drink from them.

SNELL: (Laughter).

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: And I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

DETROW: Hello, guys. It is nice talking to...

SNELL: Hi.

DETROW: ...Both of you. I've missed you both.

WALSH: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: So I'm glad you're here because we had a conversation last week about what Republicans were making of this election, and now we're going to do the flip side. We're going to talk about Democrats. And they lost seats in this election despite Joe Biden's victory. They have one of the slimmest House majorities in decades. And progressives and moderates are at odds over what exactly went wrong because, Kelsey, let's remember; Democrats and Republicans expected big Democratic gains this year. And that just did not happen.

SNELL: Yeah, it was really interesting because going into the election, we were hearing from both parties, like you said, that they were expecting that Democrats were going to gain seats. I had a Republican say to me that they thought a really good night on election night would be if Republicans were able to hold Democrats to single-digit gains. That is the opposite of what happened. They've had some significant losses, and a lot of the losses happened in these majority-maker districts, which is what we call those districts that Democrats won in 2018 by defeating Republicans.

You know, and the argument now is, why? Why were they losing in these districts in the first place? And some people say that it's about progressive policies. Some people are saying, well, it was because we were polling incorrectly and didn't spend our money right. There's a lot of finger-pointing, and it's mostly Democrats pointing their fingers at one another.

DETROW: And, Deirdre, we now have very different theses for what went wrong. You know, moderates like Abigail Spanberger and Conor Lamb have been pretty outspoken about what they say is the problem.

ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: People know what the verb defund means. And I have had people just across the spectrum say that they don't want to see our local police departments defunded.

WALSH: I think it's a combination of policy differences and messaging differences. The progressives who were pushing some of their policies in terms of reforming police or were, as activists said, defunding the police have sort of a national profile, a national ID that the moderates in a lot of these competitive swing districts just didn't have and had to contend with and had to continually answer for when Republican opponents linked them directly to these ideas in ads, you know, with pictures of people like AOC and members of the squad, contending that they are part of the socialist left that wants to defund the police. And they just didn't have enough time and enough sort of leeway to respond to those attacks in a way that was effective. And I think that they were worried that their constituents or independent voters were more focused on the coronavirus and the economy. And instead, they were bombarded by messages about Democrats wanting to essentially defund local police departments.

SNELL: One of the things that Spanberger said specifically after she was saying this is - after she was talking about, you know, people knowing what defund means - she was really frustrated, she said, because these national slogans don't really speak to the policies that Democrats have been passing. And her frustration is that, you know, Democrats are using a term like defund when they've actually passed a comprehensive policing bill that did not defund the police and did a whole lot of other things. And she wants Democrats to be focusing not on catchy slogans but on talking about what they actually do when they vote, when they write policy. And if they want to have a catchy slogan, she thinks that they should actually be reflective of the policies that they passed.

DETROW: So this is a - is this a messaging conversation? Is this a policy conversation? And what is the response from progressive lawmakers from big cities who are effectively being told not to say the things they believe out loud?

SNELL: As you can imagine, they don't really love being told that (laughter).

DETROW: Yeah.

SNELL: Progressives that I was talking to have said that, you know, it wasn't progressive policies that were the problem and that candidates that ran on progressive things like "Medicare for All" won. They leave out the part that a lot of the people who won on those messages won in pretty heavily Democratic districts. But they do say that there are some populist things that Democrats are pushing and are voting on that are popular in the country, though there are limits to that.

WALSH: They also leave out the fact that their party's standard bearer, Joe Biden, didn't run on those progressive ideas and explicitly said he opposed defunding the police, and he's opposed to Medicare for All.

DETROW: Yeah, I guess this is one thing that's kind of confused me as I have read and listened to your reporting on this and seen these conversations play out. Like, this seems to be an argument about the way that Republicans effectively framed Democrats in attack ads. Like, what can Democrats do about that?

SNELL: Well, one of the things that progressives said is that, you know, Republicans were able to frame Democrats in a particularly unhelpful light in districts where Democrats just aren't popular. And Pramila Jayapal, who runs the progressive caucus in the House, said to me that the people who lost more or less were people who were going to lose, that they lost in districts where President Trump was popular and is popular and that, you know, that some of those losses should have been expected.

WALSH: You know, in the short run up to the election, the focus was on the coronavirus and sort of the economic fallout. And as Kelsey's reporting shows, there wasn't enough - Democrats sort of took it for granted that they were doing the right thing by focusing on health care. And that has always been an effective message for them, as it was in 2018. But I think they were sort of overconfident that that was going to carry them over the finish line in 2020.

DETROW: All right. I think that's a good place to take a quick break. When we come back, we will talk a lot more about this and how it's going to play out next year when Democrats are trying to pass bills with this very narrow majority.

We are back. And I just want to spend a moment on this because I think you've both hinted at it. I really think one reason Democrats are so upset and so caught off guard is because polling up and down - public polls, private polls, district-level polls - every single polling indicator pointed to Democrats having a really good night on the House level. And, you know, we talk so much more about how ticket-splitting is a thing of the past. I feel like it's especially confusing for them given the fact that Biden won handily.

SNELL: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the things that has been the just kind of overwhelming theme in conversations that I have with staff and with members is, like, how did we get that so wrong? And I should be clear. When I say staff and members, I'm not talking about just Democrats. Republicans are not totally sure how they got it so wrong. You know, they are happy that it worked out the way it did, but I will say that most Republicans I talked to were not predicting that they were going to be picking up House seats. One of the things that some people speculate might have been a problem is that the coronavirus really changed the way that people were sampling in polls. I'm still figuring out exactly what that means and how that worked, but it may be that historically bad sampling just got worse because, you know, it's really hard to reach people. And it's just hard to do some of the deeper polling and some of the issue-level questions that campaigns would normally do.

WALSH: On top of that, you had, you know, one of the fundamentals of campaigns kind of missing for Democrats in the sense that they didn't have much of a ground game. They relied on their base voting by mail, and they sort of missed opportunities in a lot of places. Kelsey and I were looking at some of these races that they haven't called, and those are places where Republicans were out, you know, door-knocking and canvassing in the final weeks of the campaign. And that made those sort of toss-up competitive races - you know, it gave the Republicans the edge.

DETROW: So let's look forward. Democrats have a very narrow House majority. They're actually going to temporarily lose one more seat because Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond, who's a longtime ally of Joe Biden, is going to be leaving the House in order to join the Biden administration. How is this going to play out governing? And let's start first with leadership elections that are coming up. Any sense of whether this frustration and different views of what went wrong plays out in which Democrats are elected to lead their party?

WALSH: In terms of leadership elections, we don't expect the top slots to change. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to be reelected to what will be her fourth term as speaker on Wednesday. And we do expect, you know, her top lieutenants to also be reelected to their positions. There is still an effort to try to bring in more diverse and younger Democrats to the leadership table at some of the lower rungs on the leadership ladder, and those races - some of those races are competitive. But I do think that there is some - still some leftover angst about the election results. And the fact that the top three leaders in the House Democratic lineup are, you know - Pelosi, you know, being 80. And does this mean that Pelosi will stick to her pledge that this would be her last term as speaker? And what does that mean in terms of opening up opportunities?

I mean, I think the fact that Richmond is leaving is a sign of what's happened to a lot of sort of young, up-and-coming House Democrats - or younger - that they've chosen to seek higher office or seek other positions outside of the House Democratic caucus as a way to move up in their political careers as opposed to sort of waiting around to see if they could launch a competitive challenge to a top leader.

DETROW: Yeah, and you've both covered Congress for a long time. Can you just explain what it really means to have a really narrow majority compared to a big majority? Obviously, Democrats are still going to control the floor, what votes come up when. And that's really important - but just the different dynamics that Nancy Pelosi and other leaders are going to be dealing with as they try to get controversial items across the line in tight votes.

SNELL: It means that it's probably harder for them to pursue controversial things on, I mean, really, on either side of the ideological spectrum because if you don't have the majority there - like, say, if progressives say that they don't want to vote for a bill that they don't think goes far enough on climate change, they can vote no along with Republicans for completely different reasons. It doesn't matter why they're voting no, it just matters that they did.

And, you know, one of the things that I've heard from a number of members is that they think that this narrow majority will be helped in a lot of ways by the fact that it won't really be framed as Nancy Pelosi's agenda being enacted, and it won't be about Nancy Pelosi making all of the decisions; that for the first time, since we had a President Obama, there will be a president who is a Democrat who will be the, you know, the top Democrat in the country. The top Democrat in the country isn't Nancy Pelosi. And that is meaningful for people who feel like she's maybe not making great strategic choices or people who feel like her name is...

DETROW: Yeah.

SNELL: ...Something that alienates voters in their district.

DETROW: That's a good point. This is now the - Deirdre, you mentioned this would be her fourth term as speaker, given the fact that she was speaker, went back to being minority leader and came back to speaker. This is, interestingly, the second time now that Nancy Pelosi will make a turn from being the main figure of opposition to a president to suddenly working with a president from her own party to try to get a lot of stuff passed.

WALSH: It is. And I covered her when she was speaker under then-President Barack Obama, and she dealt with internal tensions inside her caucus just like the ones she's facing now. And then it was - the big fight was over health care, and she had a bigger margin then. I mean, as Kelsey mentioned, it's just going to be so much harder for her to try to get through any sort of major policy changes that President-elect Biden wants to get through. They're just going to have to dial back expectations within their own ranks and for the public.

DETROW: Yeah.

WALSH: I mean, they promised a lot of big things, but in a narrowly divided House and, you know, likely divided Congress, you know, there's just a limit to what they're going to really be able to get done.

DETROW: Yeah. And it looks like that first big legislative fight will be over another round of coronavirus relief, which, of course, continues to be stuck in the current Congress. All right. And again, we had a very similar conversation about the Republican side of things in the podcast last week if you want to check that out.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the Biden transition.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

WALSH: I'm Deirdre Walsh, congressional editor.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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