One of the biggest stories surrounding the 2020 election was the massive surge in fundraising. ActBlue donations enabled long-shot red state Democrats like Jaime Harrison (~$109 million) and Amy McGrath (~$90 million) to create seemingly competitive contests. Despite favorable polling and Joe Biden’s victory, however, none of them came close to winning on Election Day.
Despite high hopes, Democrats flipped none of the “big three” red state races in Alaska, Kansas, and South Carolina. In fact, none of the three are even within 10%. Even Montana’s much-hyped Democrat Steve Bullock – the sitting Governor – is behind by that margin. How did strong fundraising numbers fail to make a dent in these competitive red state Senate races? There’s many reasons.
On a purely ideological level, Alaska, Kansas, and South Carolina are reliably Republican states. Since 1974, Alaska has only elected one Democratic Senator; South Carolina hasn’t elected one since 1998, and Kansas hasn’t elected one since 1932. These states simply aren’t amenable to most national Democrats.
It takes a special type of Democrat to be competitive in these states. Simply put, none of the candidates running were that type of Democrat. In Alaska, Democratic-endorsed Independent Al Gross hoped to overcome party stigmatization by eschewing a label. However, his past advocacy for single-payer and public comments regarding his left-leaning values undermined his message. In Kansas, Bollier had been to the left of the average Kansas Democrat even when she was a Republican. And in South Carolina, a state where only 15% of voters identify as liberal, Harrison couldn’t name a single policy position he differed from the national party on.
These candidates proved to be excellent fundraisers, hauling in record quarter after record quarter. However, donors don’t decide elections – voters do. By focusing mostly on the desires of donors, these candidates set themselves up to fail. In contrast, New Mexico Republican Mark Ronchetti ran a lower-profile race focusing on local issues: energy, economic development, the military, and even healthcare. This helped Ronchetti outperform President Trump; while Trump lost the state by nearly 11 points, Ronchetti only lost by around six.
In an article for The State, Maayan Schechter talked with Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina. Both agreed that Harrison’s money failed to build any infrastructure for state Democrats. Instead, it nationalized almost every race in the state. As a result, three out of every five Republicans voted straight-ticket. This proved disastrous for the numerous red-seat Democrats that still existed in South Carolina. Most shocking were the losses of Mandy Powers Norrell, the 2018 Lieutenant Governor nominee, and two-time gubernatorial nominee Vincent Sheehan. While both had long held office on virtue of their bipartisan records, a nationalized race was impossible to overcome.
Things hardly fared better for Gross and Bollier. Unlike successful strategic independent Angus King, Gross made no secret his plans to caucus with the Democrats. This unnecessarily nationalized the race; a vote for Al Gross became a vote for Chuck Schumer. And in Kansas, Bollier made a crucial blunder when she was caught on camera praising Australia’s gun control laws. This, combined with a weak debate performance in the closing weeks, severely hampered her ability to distance herself from the national party in any meaningful way. This is especially odd given she is a former Republican; it shouldn’t have been that hard to avoid nationalizing the race.
The final factor to consider is polarization. In the 2016 elections, every state voted for the same party for President and Senate. In the 2020 elections, it appears only one state, Maine, split its ticket. While the Georgia runoffs might prove to be an exception, it remains clear that polarization is heavily affecting races.
In the past, it wouldn’t have been unusual for a state to vote for one party for president and another for Senate. This often resulted in unusual coalitions; it’s hard today to imagine a Gore/Santorum voter, for example. But that’s the exact sort of voter that existed in Pennsylvania in 2000. Today, it’s hard to picture a voter that splits their tickets period – especially one in red states. Even if Bollier, Gross, and Harrison had run perfect campaigns, it probably wouldn’t have been enough to overcome the partisan lean of their states.
The Harrison campaign seemed to recognize this and aggressively advertised on behalf of Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe. The idea was that even if Harrison could only win 46-48% of votes, Bledsoe might peel off enough Republicans to allow a Harrison win. This also proved fruitless as Bledsoe received less than 1.5% of the vote. Even if they didn’t like Lindsey Graham, the vast majority of Republicans voted for him.
Polarization doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to compete in unfavorable states. It also doesn’t mean elections are outright impossible to win. But it does provide a realistic perspective on how voters actually behave. To many voters, the prospect of a Biden presidency made voting for any Democrat impossible. Similarly, many Democrats felt the same about voting for any Republican.
The Democratic failures in these red states provide a sobering outlook on their prospects. Despite massive financial advantages, strong national attention, and a fired-up based, none were able to come close to victory. But these races also provide teachable moments in how to handle campaigns in difficult states.
By avoiding nationalizing their races and prioritizing local issues, it may be possible to diverge from polarization somewhat. Mark Ronchetti’s campaign in New Mexico didn’t receive a tenth of the cash or attention that Bollier, Gross, or Harrison did, but it came far closer to winning. In the future, red state Democrats may be wise to look at his model rather than the one of Harrison.