MONROE, Iowa – This swath of southeast Iowa isn't supposed to be a nailbiter for Democrats.
For more than a decade, voters in the college town of Iowa City powered Democratic candidates to Congress. But that changed this month when conservatives who dominate the more rural parts of the district turned out in droves, eager to support President Donald Trump and other Republicans on the ballot.
Nearly three weeks after Election Day, a winner hasn't been declared in Iowa's 2nd Congressional District. That's a sign of the unexpected strength Republicans demonstrated in House races across the country, taking down at least 10 Democratic incumbents and dashing Speaker Nancy Pelosi's bold prediction of expanding her majority by double digits.
Instead, it appears Democrats made a serious miscalculation in assuming their antipathy toward Trump would fuel victories across the country. They failed to anticipate that Trump's supporters would show up, too, with even greater force than before in rural areas.
“It’s the Trump factor,” Jasper County Republican Chairman Thad Nearmyer said on his farm outside Monroe. “People were super excited to vote for the president.”
Of course, Trump lost the presidency and Democrat Joe Biden will move into the White House in January after winning nearly 80 million votes nationwide, a historic high. But the enthusiasm for Biden — or for defeating Trump — didn't trickle to other Democrats down ballot.
That leaves the party confronting a reckoning over how to move forward. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports the party's House candidates, is beginning a “deep dive” examination into what happened.
Early interpretations blame a series of missteps. Chief among them was allowing Republicans to portray Democrats as radical, which overtook the party's messaging in some cases on guaranteeing health insurance during a pandemic and rebuilding the economy. Democrats also failed to grow their appeal among some Latinos, particularly Cuban Americans in south Florida.
Other strategic decisions are coming under scrutiny. Democrats scaled back in-person campaigning and canvassing because of the novel coronavirus, seeking to protect their candidates and staff, and to model good behavior during a public health crisis.
But that gave Trump an opportunity to rally his supporters. The president's nearly 74 million votes is the second-highest in history and fed massive turnout that helped reshape House races, especially in rural areas.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Iowa was seen as competitive. But Trump's visit to the capital of Des Moines two weeks before the election is credited with helping him build momentum to carry the state by 9 percentage points.
That dominance lifted downballot Republicans, including Mariannette Miller-Meeks in the 2nd Congressional District. Miller-Meeks' vote total was 15 percentage points higher than the Republican who ran for the seat in 2016, when Trump also won Iowa.
The same dynamic helped Republican Ashley Hinson beat first-term Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer in northeast Iowa and, perhaps most notably, lifted Republican Michelle Fischbach to unseat 30-year Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson in rural southern Minnesota.
“The poison of Trump was deeper into the bloodstream of the electorate than anyone noticed,” said Bradley Beychok, who ran an advertising program for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge targeting Trump in northern swing states.
There were few bright Democratic spots beyond rural areas, as the party's congressional candidates around the country fell short.
Democrats gave up seats in south Florida and California, and failed to gain any in Texas, despite targeting 10. Rep. Max Rose lost on New York's Staten Island and Rep. Joe Cunningham couldn't win reelection in South Carolina territory that includes Charleston, nor did Utah's only congressional Democrat, Rep. Ben McAdams.
That's fueling an intense round of finger-pointing among Democrats. Some say the enthusiasm for Trump was compounded by unease among voters about some of the most progressive ideas that were debated during the Democratic presidential primary, including the Medicare for All health care plan and the Green New Deal to combat climate change.
When demonstrations over institutional racism swept the country, many Democrats also struggled to respond to false Republican attacks that they supported “defunding” the police. Voters for months watched Republican ads featuring unrest with narrators ominously attacking Democrats as anti-police, often with little response.
“The defund-the-police thing was not helpful at all,” said Democratic strategist James Carville, an architect of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, countered “there is just no way forward” for Democrats unless they confront the central challenges in American life, including systemic racism and inequity. She urged the party to embrace a national truth commission to probe racism in the U.S. along with a group to study reparations.
“Running away from these things is never going to work. We have to actually do bold things, brave things,” Jayapal said. “Anybody who thinks that elected officials at any level, especially the congressional level, can or should control the messages and the demands and the urgency of movements that erupt on the street for justice are really fooling themselves about their power and their role."
Still, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from the Texas-Mexico border city of Laredo, said the combination of suggestions that his party opposed police, embraced socialized medicine and would sacrifice jobs in key industries like oil and gas to combat climate change gelled into a narrative that doomed candidates.
“The progressives, I admire their passion, their commitment, their energy,” said Cuellar, who beat back a primary challenger from the left. “Nobody’s trying to silence anybody. All we’re saying is, within the Democratic Party, there will be different thoughts on ways of doing things.”
Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, one of the House’s more conservative Democrats, was more blunt. He called the debate over defunding the police “toxic.”
“Our national brand, with the exception of the president-elect, is in really tough shape,” Schrader said.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC which spent $140 million promoting general election Republican House candidates, claimed success tailoring broader attacks on Democrats on issues like defunding the police to individual races.
In Rose’s Staten Island district, for instance, ads focused on how his support for demonstrations against systemic racism insulted local police.
To help defeat Democratic challenger Christina Finello in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania, meanwhile, an ad featured a mom speaking about how funding cuts to police could jeopardize her ability to “pick up the phone and know that a police officer could be there at a moment’s notice.”
“We needed to move out of the national, charged language and make this about peoples’ individual lives and how this would affect them,” said CLF President Dan Conston, who also praised GOP efforts to recruit more women and people of color to run.
Ads criticizing the Green New Deal warned of tax increases in many areas, but highlighted the potential impact on the oil and gas industry in energy-rich places where Republicans ousted Democratic House incumbents, including New Mexico and Oklahoma.
By contrast, Democrats' focus on health care proved less influential than during the 2018 midterms, after Republicans had unsuccessfully sought the repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act. According to the AP's VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate, voters' top concern was the pandemic, followed closely by the economy, which favored Republicans.
Democrats needed to further embrace major reforms and “counter messages from the opposition," said Wendell Potter, a former health care industry executive who leads the progressive Center for Health and Democracy, which supports Medicare for All.
“You’ve got to make sure people understand that what we’re talking about here ain’t anywhere close to socialism," Potter said.
Though Democrats have soul searching ahead, Jasper County Republican Nearmyer notes one GOP advantage will be gone in 2022 — Trump's name on the ballot.
“That's one thing that makes me nervous," he said.
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.