President Barack Obama hands over the White House to Republican Donald Trump in 71 days, leaving the Democratic Party leaderless and with few up-and-coming stars among its aging cast of stalwarts.
In what appeared to be a wave election, Republicans also secured majorities they already enjoyed in the Senate and the House and in governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the country. Democrats were all but wiped out in places like Iowa and Kentucky.
The defeat of Hillary Clinton, an experienced Washington politician who sought common ground with Republicans, could make it more likely that the party will turn to its liberal wing as it grapples with its future. That’s best represented by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whom Clinton defeated in a long primary, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“The Democratic Party needs to remold itself in the image of them and offer a systemic critique of the rigged economy that shows the voters who put Trump over the top that they understand why they are angry,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Green said Democrats must make a “conscious decision to separate themselves from the corporate villains who are to a large extent funding their campaigns.”
Trump’s open warfare with Republican leaders over the past year and a half obscured the extent of the Democrats’ crisis, and they are only now beginning to contend with it.
“This is painful, and it will be for a long time,” Clinton said in her concession speech Wednesday in New York. She implored those who want to fight for Democratic values — particularly young voters — to participate every day, not just every four years.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz urged careful deliberation as the Democratic reckoning begins. He said the “rush to recalibrate” strategy and messaging concerns him.
“Democrats need to take, not forever, but weeks and months to diagnose what just happened to us and why,” he said. Democratic leaders are already in touch with each other and party strategists, he said, but added that that alone will not provide answers. “Obviously talking to just each other didn’t work. We need to open our minds and expand our Rolodexes beyond the people who live and breathe Washington politics. That’s what got us here.”
But the outlook for Democrats may well get worse before it improves.
In two years, they will be defending about two dozen Senate seats, including at least five in deep-red states. That election could hand Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a filibuster-proof majority, further clearing the way for a conservative policy agenda.
“We have to ask ourselves what is wrong with our party,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, arguing that it’s at least in part a failure to connect with working-class people who are hurting.
One small Democratic bright spot this year was the election of three women of color to the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Kamala Harris in California and Tammy Duckworth in Illinois. At the same time, the party’s marquee names are far older than the core Democratic coalition.
Sanders is 75, Warren 67, and soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer turns 66 this month. Across the Capitol, Democrats are led by 76-year-old Nancy Pelosi. In a statement Wednesday, Sanders said Trump had “tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.”
Democratic woes ripple into their party’s infrastructure, as the Democratic National Committee in Washington struggles. Both the chairwoman who stepped down this summer and the interim woman who succeeded her have been dinged by embarrassing emails published by WikiLeaks.
Democrats emphasized their party’s diversity, and some argued that Trump’s singular appeal as a plain-spoken celebrity businessman does not translate into a wholesale voter rejection of Democratic policies.
Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina party chairman, downplayed the idea that Trump’s nationalistic populism should necessarily push the Democratic Party leftward. “That might be overthinking what happened,” he said.
Harrison argued it’s more about finding the right messengers to take the Democratic platform to the pockets of the electorate that have drifted away from the party, naming New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker among others as potential role models for other Democrats.
Yet Walsh warned Democrats not to fall into the same trap as they did eight years ago, after an inspiring 47-year-old first-term senator with a powerful stage presence was elected president.
“Every now and then you get a shining star, and that person takes over the party,” Walsh said. “And during that time you sort of lose the bench.”