November 3, 2020 was supposed to be the Democrats’ moment of glory: Polls predicted a comfortable victory for former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as gains in both the House and Senate. Instead, Biden seems set to eke out a narrow win while his party loses House seats and fails to gain control of the upper chamber. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Texas Democratic House candidate Mike Siegel discuss what happened.
President Donald J. Trump: If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.
Ryan Grim: I’m Ryan Grim, and this is Deconstructed.
At the time that we’re sending this episode out to the podcast machines, the presidential Election appears all but over, with enough votes outstanding in Atlanta and Philadelphia to give Biden both Georgia and Pennsylvania, which is more than he needs to win, now that Michigan and Wisconsin have already been called for him. Trump isn’t happy.
DJT: There’s tremendous corruption and fraud going on. There’s been a lot of shenanigans, and we can’t stand for that in our country.
RG: Fittingly, this might be how the Trump presidency ends — at least, the first one. But it opens a new era of uncertainty.
As of now, Mitch McConnell is well positioned to hold on to the Senate, though Democrats will still have a chance to snatch it in January thanks to runoffs in Georgia. Still, the pollsters and the polling aggregators expected they’d already be in control of the upper chamber, and also predicted Democrats would pick up a bunch of seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, they’re on track to lose seats.
On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi huddled with her Democratic colleagues on a three-hour conference call that steadily leaked to the press while it was still going on. Centrists attacked both the party leadership for the failure, and also the leftist members of the caucus, saying that their calls to defund the police and ban fracking cost them big time. The Squad pushed back, saying that they are only representing the demands of their communities, and that a deeper look at what went wrong is needed.
Coming into this election, I had the disorienting feeling of having no idea how it would turn out. Now, that’s not to say that I’m always right or I always know how things will go — quite the opposite. But I always have some idea of what I think is going to happen, and I have some reasons I can point to to explain why. Maybe that’s the gift or the curse of being a guy in America — I don’t know. But I do know that this time I really had no clue.
The polls weren’t leaving much room for doubt, though: Biden was up by about 8 points on average nationally — and he was up by around the same in key battleground states. But something felt off.
Sifting through the results of this campaign, there are no obvious narratives that smack you in the face. Last week, we talked to two progressive Democrats trying to flip suburban Republican seats in Texas. Both were given solid chances to win by the conventional wisdom, and both lost. In fact, nearly every Democratic challenger across the country lost, whether they ran as far to the right, or as far to the left, as they could. We’ll talk to one of those later in the show, Mike Siegel, who tried to run a populist progressive campaign in Texas against an entrenched incumbent and did everything right. He got the number of votes he set out to win; in fact, he got more. But his opponent got even more than that. A lot more. He’ll share with us why he thinks he lost, and what fundamental changes the party needs to make to keep it from happening over and over.
Yet while the members of the Squad are getting trashed by their colleagues, there’s an argument that they played a significant role in delivering the rust belt to Biden. Once the pandemic hit, Biden shut down his ground game — not that he was running much of one before that. Yet Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in Detroit and Minneapolis bucked the party advice, and kept on canvassing door to door, working to drag out the vote for Biden. They took public health precautions, but they didn’t stop campaigning the way most Democrats did.
Trump had hoped that suburban voters in Michigan and Minneapolis would be so scared by Ilhan and Rashida that they would come running his way for safety. Instead, Democrats expanded their margins in the suburbs, and turnout exploded in Detroit and Michigan. The same thing happened in Philadelphia, which has gradually been taken over by Democratic Socialist insurgents the past four years. So while progressives lost House races around the country, and while Democratic leaders want to blame them for what happened, they also delivered big in the most crucial states. It’s complicated, and joining us now to talk about that is Minneapolis Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Congresswoman, how’s your week going?
Rep. Ilhan Omar: It’s going!
RG: Well, I mean, thanks so much for joining us on Deconstructed. I really appreciate it.
IO: Well, great to be here. Congratulations, by the way!
RG: Oh, thank you. Filling Mehdi’s very big shoes.
IO: I was on it right after I won my state house race like — which now seems like forever ago, but right after Trump and I both got elected into office.
RG: So yeah, so speaking of Trump, you know, he was really convinced that your presence in Minnesota — the fact of your existence — was going to drive people in Minnesota to flip the state red.
DJT: And you know, one of the reasons we’re gonna win Minnesota? Ilhan Omar. Ilhan!
RG: He said it, basically, at every single rally.
DJT: This woman is crazy. She’s a horrible woman who hates our country.
DJT: That’s why I’m gonna win Minnesota. Because of her. [Cheers.]
RG: That didn’t happen. Why do you think that is? What do you make of the Minnesota results?
IO: He effed around and found out, I guess.
You know, I’ve always said this: You get what you organize for. And we’ve been massively organizing our state, our district, for this turnout. I told my colleagues and counterparts here in our state, and in our caucus, that the reason so many Republicans were donating and investing in me having a primary challenger was to put a damper on our organizing ability, and that they had this long-term strategy to either wear us out, to rid us of the resources, and to give themselves the chance to win without the machine here in the 5th being fully mobilized.
IO: And so as we started our primary election, I want to make sure every single resource we were using wasn’t just for our primary win, but that it would last throughout the general election. TKTKTKTKT
RG: Yes. And Biden, you know, not long after the pandemic really struck said he was canceling all in-person canvassing. You went a different direction. Why was that? And when did you fully get back into hitting the streets?
IO: Yeah, I mean, our canvassing team was out early — very early. And, you know, I think, to our party, and the presidential campaign, I think they believed work could get done without it. And, you know, as an organizer, I know that districts like ours don’t magically turn out without people being at the doors and investing in building that trust and engaging with them to do so. And so I kind of said: You all don’t have to be involved, I can do it all alone, you just have to trust that, you know, we can get it done here. And I’m really just proud of the fact that they allowed us to do that and didn’t interfere with our work and our ability to organize our district in the ways in which we knew how to.
RG: And what I kind of found interesting is that you had a general election opponent, you had somebody that was spending a lot of money against you —
IO: $10 million.
RG: Right. And so they could smear you on television, but there wasn’t somebody who — they could have $100 million a Republican’s not gonna win that seat. So you didn’t really have to do anything, but you did it anyway. What kind of operation did you run? Was it kind of perfunctory — like, let’s check these boxes — or were you running as if you were kind of at the top of the ticket?
IO: Yeah, I mean, we built a program in the primary that was uniquely designed to address the challenges of Covid, that really incorporated some of the things that we’ve done in 2018 that had to just sort of adapt to the new normal.
And so we developed a Covid-safe canvassing program, with nearly 100 people involved in that program, and then we did a buildings captain to sort of absorb our building program that we normally would do, where we would go into buildings and door knock and that kind of stuff that, because of Covid, buildings have restrictions, so we designed it so that, you know, we would reach and find people who lived in all of the high-concentration buildings where they would be responsible for their own buildings — that’s similar to the block captain programs that we have, which we also mobilized.
And I think after the primary we shifted in making Biden top of the ticket because I think there was a lot of exhaustion with people and having a conversation about coming out to vote for me again, it was always like, “We gotta go do this again?” And because you know, a lot of the ballots for people were ordered for the primary, it was easy for us to just transition our scripts and our conversations just to talk to people about why the presidential election was important and why Minnesota was being picked on, and how the best way we can respond was through the ballot box.
RG: And how did those numbers look, now that you’re a couple days removed from Election Day? What are you finding when it comes to turnout compared to previous years, and compared to your own expectations?
IO: Yeah, I mean, we here in Minnesota have the highest national turnout so far — we’re still counting — in the country, in the last 10 years, I think. And, you know, our district is making history again. We have, I think since 2006, have broken turnout records here. And we’re breaking another turnout record — over 400,000 people who came out and cast their ballot, which is 88-plus-percent participation in our democracy.
RG: So, Biden ended up doing better than you at the top of the ticket by double digits and people online are starting to make some of that. How do you explain the discrepancy?
IO: I mean, there’s always discrepancies. You know, those discrepancies existed in 2016 for Keith and Hillary. You know, those kinds of discrepancies always exist, they exist for all of the other congressional candidates — whether it is Betty McCollum or Dean Phillips, or, you know, any of the other people, Biden performed better in their districts. And I think that speaks really to the focus being in getting rid of the villain.
RG: I saw somewhere that there was a party on the ballot, called Legalize Marijuana Now!, and that in a lot of working class districts, they got double-digit support. And I’m trying to think if I went into the ballot box, and I knew 100 percent, Ilhan Omar is going to win. And then you look down and you see Legalize Marijuana Now!, I can kind of see like, what the heck, why not just send a signal there. Were you surprised to see double-digit support for what is a kind of gimmicky third party there?
IO: No, no, again, you know, the last time that they were on the ticket with Keith, we’ve seen similar numbers. I mean, I remember someone talking to me about kind of what you were just saying. I don’t think they thought that that was actually going to happen. But I think oftentimes that is something that happens. And for us, it was less than 10 percent that voted. It is fascinating, because you all I was thinking about was: Oh, I wonder if they know we support legalizing marijuana?
RG: Right. It’s just kind of more fun to vote for that, then.
IO: I figured! I mean, I’m sure I probably might have done that myself.
RG: So Democrats were expected to pick up at least 10 seats around the country. Instead, it looks like you guys are going to lose seats. Some key Senate races that Democrats thought they were going to win there, they’re going to lose. What’s your read on what went wrong?
IO: Yeah, I mean there is an autopsy that clearly has to get done. You know, you’ll hear from people who will say, “Oh, it was the talk of socialism, and it was this, and it was that.” But many of the places that we lost seats in or Biden didn’t do so well in were places where Obama won, and they threw so much at him. I mean, he was a secret Muslim, who was a socialist, who was going to destroy this country. But he went places like Florida — did really well. And that was because he believed as an organizer in investing in a ground game, having conversations, not shying away from the power of relational building.
And we’ve seen that with candidates like Katie Porter, who were in that swing district. Katie’s race was the last to be called in 2018, and she’s done really well this time, because she understands her district, she puts in work, she has real conversations with real people about what’s really important to them. And so, I don’t know, I think people will make excuses about why we lost. But I think it always comes down to building trust, building relationships, and having conversations about what really matters to people and not buying into the narratives about what people care about, but actually asking them.
RG: The Biden campaign, seemed like they did a few events with your neighboring Congresswoman Betty McCollum, visited St. Paul, but stayed pretty far away from Minneapolis. Did people notice that? And do you think it mattered? And what do you think the campaign thinking was there?
IO: They didn’t. Hillary spent a significant amount of time in our district. And, you know, I don’t believe it made a difference. We were pretty clear with the campaign that we believed if we ran our program with their sort of blessing, and belief in us that our district was going to outperform every other district, and they’ve been clear partners in supplementing us with resources when we needed it. And, I think that sort of trust in our ability to organize, allowed for us to be creative and do our own thing.
RG: If we do have a divided government next year, and Mitch McConnell is running the Senate, how do you think that Democrats and the Biden administration ought to confront that situation?
IO: Yeah, I mean, it’s gonna depend on what the House looks like, and how much we contribute to that division. I think, to me, it matters that we don’t allow the Senate, if it remains in the hands of the Republicans, to dictate what our agenda should be, in the ways that they haven’t allowed us to dictate what their agenda should be. I think when the results are fully done, and come out, we will see that the majority of the country has voted to allow for the Democrats to lead in the White House. And we should take advantage of that trust and that belief in our ability to govern better than the Republicans have.
RG: Well, Congresswoman Omar, congratulations on your primary win and your re-election. And thank you for joining me on Deconstructed.
IO: Thank you. It’s great to chat with you.
RG: That was Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, just re-elected to her second term in Congress.
Next we’re going to talk to civil rights attorney Mike Siegel, who’s fresh off his second run for Congress in suburban Austin. Siegel bucked conventional wisdom and ran on an unapologetic populist, progressive message and, by the end, he had convinced Cook Political Report that his long-shot bid had made a tossup of the race. But he fell short, and we’re going to talk to him now about why.
Mike. Welcome to Deconstructed.
Mike Siegel: Well, thank you, Ryan. Great to talk to you today.
RG: So tell us a little bit about this race as compared to the last race.
So you first ran in in 2018, and you kind of stunned Washington by making it as close an Election as you did. What was the difference between 2018 and 2020? And, obviously, the number of differences is hard to limit — but what were the key differences to you between 2018 and 2020?
MS: Sure, well, I mean, big picture, the context is different and the campaigns are different, right?
And so in terms of the context in 2018, you know, we’re part of this wave election, fighting Trump on healthcare, running with Beto O’Rourke at the top of the ticket, this kind of transformational campaign across Texas, organizing in every county. And for me, it was like playing with House money. Nobody thought I had a chance in hell of even coming close. And so there wasn’t a lot of attention on what we were doing. And we just did a ton of grassroots organizing across the counties. And that’s what helped us get as close as we did.
In 2020, I came back, you know, with a much different context. We had changed the perception of this district from being a safe Republican seat to a battleground race. I had to endure a really tough primary.
MS: You know, $3.6 million was spent against me in the primary from moderate Democrats who wanted to take the nomination. And that was ultimately one of the things that hurt me, right, because I wasn’t able to emerge from a delayed runoff until July 14, and really only had three months to pivot and run a really strong congressional campaign.
But I was able to raise over $3.5 million dollars for my campaign — compare that to about $400,000 and change in 2018. We did win national support, everyone from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, I was even a DCCC red-to-blue candidate, got support from Speaker Pelosi, but also from all these progressive forces. We made millions of voter contacts. We had, I would suggest, the strongest field program of any congressional race in Texas. And it was because of our organizing, because of this deep coalition work we had done; you know, the Muslim community doing relational outreach, the labor community, the environmental community, Sunrise, all these groups coming in. So we really built a powerful coalition, and did everything — I think everything you can be expected to do in the electoral context we did. You know? Millions on TV, organizing, all that kind of stuff. I mean, just ultimately, there were just a lot more Republicans who voted and you know, that’s something that you maybe can’t address in a short-term electoral context.
RG: Right. So, and to drill down one layer below that, in campaigning, every campaign has what they call a win number. They look at previous elections and they kind of project what turnout is going to be in their upcoming election, and they say we need to win X number of votes in order to beat our opponent. Did you guys hit that number of votes?
MS: Yes. Over 186,000, you know, the highest model we are working with, from the DCCC in my own campaign, you know, we got the win number for the highest turnout model. And we still lost by over 20,000 votes. It’s like all the Republicans came out. They really — they wanted to protect their guy.
RG: Yeah, it’s, that’s something that I think Democrats need to think about as they’re analyzing the selection. Because what you’re saying here is that it wasn’t really an inability of Democrats to turn out their supporters. You know, you tried to turn out what — I guess you were aiming for about 180,000-185,000 votes.
RG: It’s over that. And you look at that and you think: OK, I’m going to win this. But then he comes out with well over 200,000 voters, so, to your mind, where did he find all of these Republicans who hadn’t come out in the past?
MS: I mean, first of all, you have to acknowledge that gerrymandering works, right? This district was drawn to be permanent Republican, and includes the small enough portion of Austin, a conservative enough portion of Harris County, and then the seven rural counties — that it’s built to be Republican. And in Harris County in particular, we were so excited about turnout, but it turns out that a lot of the people there, that voted for the first time, were Republicans. And I don’t know if they’re motivated by Trump in particular, the opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-communist messaging, I mean, I don’t know exactly what it was that motivated each one of those people, but in our minds, a first-time voter, or very rare voter, we couldn’t imagine them turning out this time just to protect Trump. But it turns out they did.
RG: And — so you know, one of the reasons people were so interested in your race and Julie Oliver’s, and Carrie Eastman’s, and some others were to make the argument or to answer the question of: Do you have to run as a kind of centrist or moderate in some of these districts, or can a progressive message win in a swing district in Texas? And the answer, at least this cycle, seems to be that it didn’t matter. And I wonder what you can draw from that.
You know, I remember some previous cycles, where it also didn’t matter — 2010, for instance. The blue dogs, New Dems, and progressives, they all kind of lost the same amount of support, there was this kind of just national wave that was pushing against Democrats, and it didn’t matter if it was a corrupt, ancient blue dog Democrat, or it was a progressive Democrat who stood with organized labor and stood with environmentalists and was able to bring out a space, there was something about the national electorate, or the national mood, that just swamped it. What do you think a House candidate can do? How much can a House candidate change the game?
MS: That’s right. I mean, I think it’s marginal, especially in a Presidential cycle how much we can change how people perceive the Election. I outperformed — Sri Kulkarni in TX-22 got support from the New Dems, I think he had four or five or six times as much money being spent, including the outside groups. And we outperformed him. I mean, his being more conservative than me didn’t benefit him. I mean, because we were able to motivate lots of forces that he wasn’t able to motivate.
And so to me, what I would have liked to have tested is if we had an entire progressive ticket. You know, it could be that the most consequential decisions about my campaign were made March 3, Super Tuesday, when we decided that Bernie Sanders wasn’t gonna be the presidential nominee and, in Texas, we decided that Christina Tzintzún Ramirez wasn’t going to be our Senate nominee.
So with my analysis that I’m doing now with our team and many others in Texas is what would it take to really get out more poor voters? I mean, I’m talking about poor people. Like, when you canvass in rural Texas, in a town like Eagle Lake, or Brenham, in the summer, you meet people who are in these rundown, double-wide kind of houses, basically falling apart at the seams — people who have to survive three months of 100-degree weather with no air conditioning at all, people who have very marginal employment. What’s it going to take to get those folks to care about an election? You know, whether you’re talking about black folks and Latinx voters in a city, or poor rural voters — black, Latino, and white — what’s it gonna take for them to really care about an election?
And to me, Bernie Sanders would have helped us make that populous case. You know, Texas has this tradition of populism; it goes back 100 years or more. But like, if we were really talking about farm policy, if we were really talking about water policy, if we were talking about rural jobs programs, things that really affect their lives. I mean, as a congressional candidate, I was talking about these things, but it’s hard to really break through.
Same thing with Christina. You know, statewide in Texas, we’re not going to flip Texas if we don’t win the RGV, the Rio Grande Valley. And, you know, if you haven’t been to Texas, you might not realize there are communities along the border called colonias, where they don’t even have running water and municipal sewage in some of these developments. I mean, these are like, you know, sometimes undocumented residents, sometimes U.S. citizens who are living in abject poverty. What’s it gonna take to get those folks to care? And it’s not some slick TV ads, it’s not a poll-tested message. Even for me, I got some DCCC support, and some of my messaging was about prescription drug prices and protecting pre-existing conditions. But I feel like that’s too nuanced for these folks. I mean, it has to be more direct.
You know, this, this might be a little off-topic, but one of the things I’m thinking about is, think about the movements in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez or Bolivia under Evo Morales. Evo Morales is supported by the poorest indigenous farmers from the high plains of Bolivia. Those people are engaged in the electoral process. In this country, poor people are not engaged in the electoral process.
And so, for me, on a gerrymandered map, I don’t know if I could have gotten more than 210,000 votes, like McCaul got, unless we were really doing organizing with poor people. And I think that’s a longer-term investment. That’s where it’s this question, these people who gave me $2800, when I called them and spoke to them for a minute, would they give me $1,000 if I was gonna say: We’re going to invest in a five-year project to do deep organizing these communities? Is the donor class willing to invest in changing the fundamental conditions in areas like mine that would really enable progressive change in the long term?
RG: For listeners who don’t know, Christina, who we also covered at The Intercept, came from an organizing background. She founded an organization that had registered hundreds of thousands of Texans trying to shift the battlefield, and she ran for senate and was wiped out by the DSCC’s choice.
And then what you saw is that the Hispanic vote shifted toward Trump, which shocked a lot of people in Washington. But did that surprise you, when you saw that? And did it hurt you in your race? And how do you think that would have been different if you had Christina and Bernie at the top of the ticket?
MS: You know, I think the Republicans got out every single person they might get out. And so, you know, when we talk about Hispanic voters in Texas, you’re talking about a fair number of white, conservative, racist voters. Like, if you’re in California and LA, you don’t think of Latino voters as being white and racist. You know? Well, let’s just call it out. I’m not saying that we’re going to flip those people, although I’m sure there’s some in the middle that we could flip if we really worked. But I’m saying the non-voters, that’s who we need to get out. And that’s why we need the transformational agenda, and also the transformational tactics.
Even Beto O’Rourke, when he ran for Senate, didn’t do well in the RGV, in the Rio Grande Valley. And so that’s where the investment is needed, also in Black communities, Asian communities, you know, white, rural communities — we need diverse strategies that really reach out to folks. And they can’t think of Democrats as being the establishment. And, I mean, if they do think of us that way, that’s not motivation to get out and vote. You know?
And so Joe Biden didn’t campaign down here; MJ Hegar raised a ton of money, didn’t have a field program. And so it really was, I was the most powerful field program in the nine counties where I was running. And given that I was only the nominee for three and a half months, you know, I didn’t have the capacity to do that deep work to change the fundamental conditions of who’s voting.
RG: Right, so — let me see if I get what you’re saying here. You’re a congressional candidate, and to some people on the outside that might sound like that’s a pretty influential position. You know, you’re going to go to Washington as a member of Congress. But to people that you’re meeting on the street, particularly in these poor neighborhoods, they might agree with everything you’re saying, but just not believe that you alone are going to get this done, but that if you have somebody who’s bringing a real populist message with credibility at the top, that you think that you might have been able to be heard?
And you know, one of the things I’ve been preaching on the campaign trail, you know, and I got to do some events with Bernie and he absolutely loved it — you know, this is our New Deal moment, American history: crumbling U.S. infrastructure, massive wealth inequality, unemployment — major crises we need to confront. In the 30s it was fascism rising in Western Europe; now, it’s climate change.
And how did we enact a New Deal in this country? You know, a 15-year program, the Works Progress Administration, massively investing in infrastructure, putting people to work in all sorts of jobs. It was FDR, when he ran for president the first time, talking about the New Deal every chance he gets: We’re gonna give you a New Deal. Whatever the question was — economic policy, jobs, health care, you name it, we’re gonna give you a New Deal.
Imagine we had a candidate for president who for 10-12 months is talking nonstop about fundamental economic change. That’s what it takes. And that’s where the Democratic establishment, which to some extent supported me, although not as strongly as they could have, they’re not talking about that, because we’re too invested in conservative donors who don’t want us to say that.
And so we’re caught in between. You know, half the Democratic Party is still taking the corporate PAC money, moderating the message, saying: OK, we’re only going to talk about this extremely narrow issue, you know, protecting pre-existing conditions or negotiating prescription drug prices downwards, whereas like people don’t have AC and it’s 100 degrees every day, they don’t have gas in the car, they’re making $10 an hour and getting 20 hours a week. I mean, they are struggling to survive. They’re completely cynical about democracy as something that’s even real in the world. And we’re not speaking clearly to them about why it matters to vote.
RG: Yeah. Can you walk through the logic that consultants use to get you to the place where lower prescription drug prices and protecting people with pre-existing conditions is the message that you should kind of organize your healthcare argument around?
MS: Sure. So consultants, and the DCCC, they’re built around: What can we propose to you that we can actually execute, right? And so it’s these people that know how to produce TV ads in a quick time frame and get them placed on TV. And they can basically quote you: If you give me this many million dollars, we will run this many ads, and we can expect this percent shift in the polling — so it relates to polling.
And so the DCCC comes on board and they say: We made 2000 calls in your district, these are the issues that matter, this is the universe of people you should contact. And it’s relatively conservative. I mean, we contacted a big bigger number of people, but they’re like, OK, you need to win this many more voters than last time, here’s 60,000 people you should contact with all your resources, and do your poll, but most likely, it’s gonna be a healthcare message, and these are the talking points for healthcare.
And every time you push back: Well, should we poll different issues? Should we run ads on different things? They’re like, well, you really need to hammer your message home, so if you’re going to run two TV ads, you need to put 1000 points behind each one, which in Houston translates to $1 million behind each one.
And so they completely narrow what they think you can accomplish. And whenever you push back, it’s really swimming upstream. You know, I’m like: OK, I want to talk more about jobs, because I’ve got all these unemployed people. Well, that doesn’t poll quite as well as healthcare.
I want to push back against Michael McCaul’s racism, him buying an ad with this constable who’s completely racist, anti-Muslim? Well, the racist messaging — there’s all these moderates who are concerned about riots.
It’s like, at every point they push back against you. And so, of course, as the candidate, I do have final say. Although, if I go against them, maybe they’ll pull some of my funding. But it’s hard to build consensus. There’s not like an alternate framework or ecosystem of pollsters, and consultants who are like: No, this is how you can win with a populist message. Like there’s not people I can hire — I asked — who know how to run a real left campaign.
And I think part of the fundamental problem is that the whole framework is: How can you raise and spend x million dollars in two or three months in a way that moves voters? Because that’s not how political change happens. All you are doing is playing with the margins; you’re not affecting the foundation.
I’ve basically been on the campaign trail non-stop for three years. I’ve exceeded what anyone expected was possible in this particular district, against one of the wealthiest members of Congress. I won 186,000 votes, and labor support, Sunrise, DCCC, Cheri Bustos, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, all these people backed me, you know? And we came up short. And other than redrawing the map itself, my only answer is that we need to do deep organizing. And my question is: Who’s willing to invest in that work?
RG: I also wanted to ask you about the politics of Covid in your district, and this is kind of a verboten topic among a lot of media because people feel like if you even approach this conversation in the wrong way, you’re going to be accused of being pro-death and in favor of of people dying. Like, if you question the Democratic approach to coronavirus, the reaction is kind of swift and furious.
But there’s also a significant amount of anger among the population out there around how the lockdowns were rolled out and around some of the other kinds of what they would call Democratic overreaction to coronavirus. Now again, this is a deadly pathogen, more than 200,000 people have died from it.
But there is an inequality around it. You know, people who have college degrees and have professional jobs have been able to weather the lockdowns in a much safer — both economically and in a public health way — than working-class people and poor people who don’t have those same luxuries. And so I’m wondering, you’ve talked to so many people and your campaign interacted with, with so many people, I’m wondering if you have a more textured sense of how the politics of Covid and coronavirus played out in your race or nationally and whether that might account for some of the underperformance that Democrats saw on Election Day.
MS: I mean, I certainly am shocked that so many Republicans were enthusiastic to return Trump after he’s basically facilitated the death of so many people.
You know, the primary way I experienced it was tactical on the campaign side. Austin was very serious about how we treated Covid. You know, we had strong leadership from our mayor and county leaders. We shut down in a big way. Even when the governor was trying to reopen the state, we lagged behind; we’ve opened schools later. And, you know, I got 70 percent of the vote in Austin. It’s hard to complain about that.
You know, in suburban Harris County where over 40 percent of the vote came, I got like 35 percent of the vote and I don’t really have a sense of how Covid in particular influence voting, or whether it was just this broad Republican suburban surge of people that wanted to protect Trump, stand up against Black Lives Matter, stand up against what they perceive to be socialism. I don’t really have, you know, an analysis on that.
But on the tactical side, it did feel like we were fighting with one hand tied behind our back. The idea that the Republicans never stopped canvassing in person. And we did. I mean, my campaign, before a lot of campaigns, we actually started in-person canvassing again. We knocked, you know, 60,000-80,000 doors towards the end. You know, I had some money coming late, we just hired canvassers to hit more doors. Even then compared to other campaigns, I did a lot more in-person canvassing than others. But I continue to be amazed how we have basically two countries, right? One country that’s following Dr. Fauci, and saying: OK, can we all buckle down, stop the spread, get out of this. And the other side is like: Let’s open up and a few people die, so be it. I still haven’t wrapped my head around how we’re just living in two different worlds on that issue.
RG: And lastly, among, among people running to flip Republican districts, you were one of the few that really prioritized climate change. And I’m curious what your sense is of how that would resonate with those poorer voters that you talked about if it was also at the top of the ticket — I understand the limitations that you’re dealing with just as a congressional candidate — but for people who, like you said, it’s 100-plus degrees out, they don’t have air conditioning, they don’t even have sewage hooked up, they don’t have running water in some of these towns, how do you make climate change resonate? Would you lead with the economic argument that you’re going to transform the economy by addressing climate change? Or is that something that the working poor and the poor are going to have a hard time connecting with until some of their material needs are met?
MS: I think it’s definitely the latter, Ryan. I mean, essentially, we’re gonna give you a Green New Deal, or we’re gonna give you a New Deal, and that means we’re gonna bring in this money to hire you to do XYZ — you know, to help people really envision that.
And one of the things I’d like to work on, you know, the original New Deal had a project in every single congressional district in the country. And so, to me, that’s the way to sell this idea, is to show in each area — OK, in Fayette County, we’ve got this coal plant, these piles of coal ash, all this wastewater that’s been piling up, we’re gonna hire you to clean that up, and we’re gonna hire you to build something where the coal plant is that will keep people working. You know, it could be your groundwater, we need clean groundwater, we’re gonna figure out a way to get the toxins out of the water and get you fresh water.
I mean, it has to be very concrete like that to build the motivation. Because as it is right now, my sense of it, is that these folks, you know, the people that shop at Walmart or work at Walmart, or work at Dairy Queen, or whatever the local low-wage job is, they don’t see much help coming from either side. You know? And even Joe Biden, you know, messaging that maybe he’s gonna hire these people for his administration, who are conservative economically, who favor austerity programs; he’s not saying he’s gonna invest in poor people.
So the Democratic Party is set up to be the party that fights for poor people. But all our messaging is about winning over moderate, middle-class voters. And we’re kind of caught in this trap. I mean, we’re able to win the White House, but we’re not transforming politics in this country.
RG: Seems like something they need to figure out.
MS: That’s the idea. And to me, to the extent we can build a working class populist movement in the South, fighting climate change, fighting for racial justice and economic justice, that’s what I’d like to be a part of.
RG: Well, Mike, thank you so much for joining us.
MS: Thank you Ryan. Have a good one. Take care.
RG: That was Mike Siegel, and that’s our show.
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