By now, everyone knows that Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 did not break the highest of glass ceilings last night by winning the United States presidential election. Just as shockingly, Democrats in down-ballot races across the country floundered as the Republican Party maintained control of both the House and Senate.
Polling shows that FBI Director Jim Comey’s recent letter about Clinton’s email server not only damaged her own campaign but also harmed Democratic candidates in other races. Perhaps GOP strategists just planned better — but I believe that had the Clinton campaign stepped in to aid down-ballot Democrats sooner, we would be looking at a bluer legislature now.
Yes, Clinton didn’t win, and she thereby needed every dollar that she spent and more. But when she was leading handily in the late summer, she could have spared plenty of tangible and intangible resources — from campaign dollars to campaign shoutouts — to help House and Senate Democrats. In many visits to battleground states, Clinton and her surrogates rarely mentioned the importance of these down-ballot races. That early exposure would have been crucial to improving the name recognition of Democratic candidates.
Now, I’ve been a wholehearted Clinton supporter for years, but her campaign’s lack of attention to down-ballot races suggests voters’ wider apathy towards the state of the House and Senate. The presidency may be important, but large shifts in policy often require congressional approval, which Democrats have now surrendered to the GOP.
Granted, few objective observers would have ever said that Democrats had a chance of taking the House. Following the release of Donald Trump’s disgusting interview with Billy Bush in mid-October, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi optimistically claimed that her party could retake the chamber. Yet odds were never in the Democrats’ favor there. Republicans simply had too many members already in the House.
At the same time, the situation seemed perfect for Senate Democrats. Not only were GOP senators defending more than twice the number of states, but Trump was also one of the most divisive presidential candidates of a generation, a factor that would no doubt affect down-ballot races. By tying these Republicans to Trump’s controversial rhetoric, Democrats expected to easily advance their party’s narrative of widespread GOP bigotry.
Furthermore, Senate Democrats were able to recruit some of their most dynamic candidates in years. In the past few election cycles, the GOP ran youthful newcomers like Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ariz. and Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Meanwhile, Democrats ran candidates like Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., white men no different than those already in the chamber. Though open to many liberal values, individuals like Peters and Donnelly simply did not advance the intellectual and racial diversity of the Democratic Party’s ranks.
This year, though, Senate Democratic candidates defied the odds. Former state Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., proved to be a formidable fundraiser who still brought a more personal side to campaigning. U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., took on five-term U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by proposing a two-term limit for the Senate. And Missouri Secretary of State and Afghan war veteran Jason Kander stunned Washington with a powerful TV ad that promoted common sense gun legislation in red Missouri.
Yet none of these candidates prevailed over their 60-plus-year-old, white, male Republican counterparts. Neither did others like former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge or 39-year-old former U.S. Attorney Connor Eldridge of Arkansas. Only U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto defeated their GOP opponents.
Ross, Kander, Judge and others were incredibly promising Democratic candidates. But the top of the ticket abandoned them, and as a result, the legislative branch is now just as red as the executive one. This is the unsung tragedy of this election. It’s not just Trump; it’s the House, the Senate and the presidency combined. Add to that the impending death of liberal Supreme Court justices, and there go Obama’s promises for hope and change.
That said, the Democratic Party shouldn’t give up on the diversity of its field. In 2018, the electoral tables will turn as Democrats instead defend almost three times as many seats as Republicans. The GOP will simultaneously try to keep its dominance of the House. But Democrats should show the Republican Party that it represents all Americans — and not just a select few— by working its hardest to elect minority candidates across the ballot.
Congress is nowhere near as representative of the country as it should be, and while correcting this disparity shouldn’t come down to one party, it unfortunately has. Democrats had a chance to make huge strides in this process during the 2016 elections but fell short. Let’s be sure that we don’t forget the importance of the House and Senate in two years. Our future as a progressive nation depends on it.
Christopher Bowman is a junior in Saybrook College. He worked as a research intern at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.