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Hill Democrats vent over struggles in congressional races as calls grow for shift in tactics

Bullish Democrats went into Election Day with the hope of padding their House majority while taking back the Senate for the first time in six years. But they've now been left with a smaller House majority, and the likelihood of a Republican-led Senate, dooming their hopes for an ambitious agenda aimed at pushing through their party's vision for America.

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Manu Raju
Lauren Fox, CNN
CNN — Bullish Democrats went into Election Day with the hope of padding their House majority while taking back the Senate for the first time in six years. But they've now been left with a smaller House majority, and the likelihood of a Republican-led Senate, dooming their hopes for an ambitious agenda aimed at pushing through their party's vision for America.

Privately, Democrats are venting, with moderate Democrats accusing liberals for pushing policies easily demonized by Republicans that made it harder to win their races. Liberals argue that it's the progressive policies that are turning out the base -- not incremental approaches favored by centrist members. And many are second-guessing decisions by party leaders, including the failure of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to cut a big-ticket stimulus deal in the weeks before the election.

Democratic leaders are blaming bad polling for their miscalculation in races that leaves their hand in the House weaker, even with the prospects of a Democratic President.

On a tense call Thursday, Pelosi tried to rally her troops by making the argument that Joe Biden, on the brink of the Presidency, had achieved a "mandate" for Democrats -- and that House Democratic losses had more to do with lawmakers running in conservative districts where Trump's base turned out in droves to help reelect the President, according to sources on the call.

"We did not win every battle but we won the war," Pelosi told her colleagues, sources said.

But some Democrats were angry.

"She never takes any responsibility," one House Democratic member, asking for anonymity to candidly discuss the powerful speaker, told CNN. "We blew it."

A centrist Democratic member added: "I think the issue is that Democrats are not hanging out with working class voters enough."

The frustration is shared between the House and the Senate.

If current vote tallies hold, Democrats could still achieve a 50-50 Senate majority with a vice president, Kamala Harris, breaking the tie -- if they win two Georgia Senate races that appear on track for January 5 runoffs in a state that hasn't elected a Democratic senator in 20 years.

But even a split Senate would present an array of challenges for Democrats and make it extraordinarily difficult to achieve far-reaching legislative goals on climate change, overhauling the Supreme Court, approving new voting rights measures, imposing new gun control restrictions and other top Democratic priorities.

"I think we should assume everything is going to be difficult," said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, referring to the narrowly divided Senate.

And Democrats now say they need to reassess what went wrong on Election Day down-ticket to avoid similar pitfalls in the future -- even with the likelihood that Biden is on the cusp of becoming President.

"Obviously money isn't everything," Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told CNN. "I think we hoped to be more competitive in some of these Senate races than we ended up being. I think we would be fools not to stand back and ask ourselves questions on how we change the way we talk and the way we organize in order to be able to be win Senate races throughout the Midwest, Southwest and the South."

Murphy said Democrats need to focus on pouring more money into organizing on the ground to registering and turning out voters in key states.

"Should all this money be going to candidates? Or should all this money be going to build permanent organizations in these states that activate volunteers and voters and get Democrats elected to local offices?" Murphy said. "We obviously have so much grassroots donor interests -- and we need to be smart on where we channel it."

Indeed, Democrats are beginning to wring their hands about what went wrong -- as they debate how to avoid the same issues next time. They had a practically endless amount of money, shattering records and swamping GOP senators across the airwaves. The suburbs, polls indicated, were turning sharply against Donald Trump, giving Democrats a new sense of optimism they would pad their 35-seat House majority.

But Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Democrats on the Thursday call that she is "furious" about the polling problems they had, according to sources on the call. And Pelosi argued that 2020 was different for some Democrats in GOP districts, who won in 2018 when Trump wasn't on the ticket but faced more conservative voters this time with the President up for reelection, sources said.

"Something went wrong here across the entire political world," Bustos told her caucus, according to sources. "Our polls, Senate polls, (governor) polls, presidential polls, Republican polls, public polls, turnout modeling, and prognosticators all pointed to one political environment -- that environment never materialized. In fact, the voters who turned out look a lot more like 2016 than to what was projected."

Some Democrats took little comfort in those remarks, especially since they saw their colleagues trailing in races across the country -- from California to New York to Florida -- and Republicans hang onto seats targeted in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Arkansas and elsewhere. The final numbers are still being counted, but operatives in both parties believe that Republicans may achieve a five-seat net gain.

"Find better pollsters," Rep. Harley Rouda, a freshman Democrat from California who was trailing his opponent as of Thursday afternoon, said in an interview. "Seriously, I don't think it is a question of leadership or misapplication of resources. Everyone on both sides of the aisle expected a very different outcome in numerous places around the country."

Some want Bustos out of the job.

"Certainly polling was bad, but that begs the question: Who chose the pollsters?" said Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat of Texas. "Nonetheless, now is not the time for excuses but it's the time for a new path forward. That requires a new leader at the DCCC."

A number of Democrats, in particular, said that the GOP attacks that Democrats were socialists and the contention that they wanted to "defund the police" were potent hits that many in their party struggled to combat.

During the Thursday call, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who is narrowly leading in the latest tally for her bid for a second term in central Virginia, was yelling as she told colleagues: "Don't say 'socialism.' Don't say 'defund the police' when that's not what we mean."

Pelosi later responded, saying: "It may be in some people's DNA but it doesn't mean it has to be in our talking points," according to a source.

Democrats were shell-shocked when they saw the GOP make big gains in Florida's Miami-Dade County, something they attributed to the persistent messaging from Republicans accusing them of being socialists.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who along with fellow freshman Rep. Donna Shalala lost in South Florida, told her colleagues during the Thursday call that Democrats needed to reassess their message and veer away from letting the progressive wing of the caucus define their party.

And Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas, who won his race, complained that he repeatedly saw campaign commercials that used the words of liberal members of the caucus as a hammer against Democrats in tough races. He argued Democrats should not be talking about defunding the police or banning fracking because it insults people's livelihoods, a source said.

Some Democrats complained about Pelosi's handling this summer of police reform and the latest round of economic stimulus, which has stalled amid broken-down talks between the speaker and the Treasury secretary. In particular, one Democrat argued that their party's push to make it easier to sue police officers in civil court -- known as qualified immunity -- allowed Republicans to demonize Democrats on the issue and make them appear soft on law enforcement.

"She made everyone walk the plank on qualified immunity, didn't cut a deal on Covid," said the first Democratic member. "Thank God for Biden or we would have gotten wiped out."

Other Democrats, however, argued to their colleagues that it's the progressive base that saved Biden's chances -- and several Democrats defended the speaker.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who co-chairs the progressive caucus, argued that it was the Democratic base that helped put Biden on the cusp of winning the White House. She contended that the $15 minimum wage approved by voters in Florida shows policies labeled "progressive" are widely popular, while saying that Democrats succeeded in turning out minority voters and younger people to the polls. Jayapal said Democrats will be labeled by their foes as "socialists" no matter what they propose, arguing that years of activists organizing on major issues, such as immigration in Arizona, helped turn the tide for Biden.

"I think the sort of blame any progressive or make it seem as if that is why we lost those seats is missing the larger point: We need to find way to turn out our base" and not just narrow segments of voters, Jayapal told CNN. "We have to be very careful in just generalizing what the problem is across the board, when it is extremely different in different places."

Some centrists House Democrats in conservative districts ran into problems fending off GOP attacks they backed a far-left agenda, including in South Carolina and Oklahoma, where Reps. Joe Cunningham and Kendra Horn, respectively, lost their races. Those races always presented challenges, but some Democrats said more could have been done to protect such Democrats in tight races, including Pelosi being more willing to accept a major stimulus deal with Mnuchin.

"There needs to be an attitude in leadership in getting legislation passed -- and not messaging bills. I keep telling people you know how much money the Heroes Act got to my district? Zero," the second Democratic member said, referring to the $3 trillion-plus Democratic bill passed in May that Republicans refused to take up in the Senate.

One Democratic House member said that Pelosi is "strategically and tactically unmatchable," but added: "She knows the sports playbook but we cannot understand what play she is calling."

Yet, Democrats in both chambers said that the party needs to retool their messaging if they want to avoid a wipeout in the 2022 midterms.

"In politics, perception is reality and fear is more motivating than hope," said Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota freshman who won his race. "The right is very experienced at creating narratives to generate fear, while left is experienced at being unable to allay those fears."

Phillips added: "Thus, if we hope to earn the support of more Americans, it's time to reintroduce the strong Democratic brand that stands for safety, justice and opportunity for all."

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