For the third time in a row, Democrats have won a Senate election in Georgia. Raphael Warnock’s victory makes it clear that the party’s gains in the state in 2020 were not an anomaly. Although far from being a so-called blue state, Georgia is positioned well to remain competitive in 2024 and beyond. But in order for that to happen – and to build on their victories elsewhere – Democrats have to make the right choices.
Taken as a whole, the midterms have provided a ringing endorsement of the approach to politics favored by President Joe Biden. From the first moment it looked like he would enter the 2020 Democratic primary, Biden was maligned and mocked for suggesting that the path to a Democratic victory lay through gains with independent and suburban voters. Critics argued that the country was so deeply polarized that swing voters no longer existed, and that appeals for bipartisanship would fall on deaf ears. In their view, the only viable strategy was to mobilize the Democratic base with leftwing appeals, even at the cost of losing voters in the center.
Over two election cycles, however, Joe Biden has proven to have a much firmer grasp on American politics than some of his critics. His victory in 2020 was driven by flipping suburban and independent voters, as well as staunching Democratic losses among the non-college-educated white voters who make up Trump’s base. And even though commentators worried that this coalition was “precariously thin” and lacked durability, a broadly similar coalition came together in key midterm races to produce one of the best results for an incumbent president in modern American politics.
Warnock’s victory in Georgia is just one of many examples. To be clear, Warnock is a formidable individual and campaigner in his own right and should take primary credit for his own victory. But he and many other candidates nationwide benefited from the way that Biden has shaped the Democratic party’s brand in more moderate directions and worked to rack up an impressive checklist of bipartisan legislative accomplishments.
These moves have been met with hostility or indifference on the party’s left, but they give permission to disaffected Republican and independent voters to cross the aisle. This permission was gratefully received in Georgia, where Warnock’s opponent was the Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker, and a Democratic victory followed.
As they look forward to 2024, Democrats should stick with Biden’s approach. One of the president’s key insights into today’s politics is that the flagrant extremism of the Republican party creates the space for precisely this sort of centrist approach to work. In 2020, naysayers charged that Biden hadn’t really created a durable new coalition, but merely capitalized on opposition to Trump. But with Trump still defining the Republican party, it will remain important for Democrats to continue to give right-leaning voters an excuse to defect.
Even choosing an alternative presidential candidate would not soothe Republican woes or invalidate Biden’s approach. Any such candidate will have to win a primary in a Maga-fied party, which means saying and doing things that a substantial portion of the general electorate finds abhorrent.
Nor is the party’s extremism just some new feature of the Trump era. Take its stance on abortion. Trump has tended to shy away from making abortion a central issue in his politics, and any replacement is more likely to represent the hardline restrictionism that is mainstream in the Republican party but anathema to the public. Dumping Trump would be extraordinarily hard for the party – and actually changing tack on abortion, rather than quietly deciding to publicly talk about it less, close to impossible.
For their part, the main question Democrats face is whether or not Biden continues to be the best person to put at the top of their ticket. This highlights a paradox, which is that Bidenism is more popular than Biden himself. Despite the key role that independents have played in Biden’s victories, three-quarters of them do not want Biden to run again in 2024, and the group as a whole views Biden only somewhat more favorably than Trump. This is a red flag for many Democrats, who worry that questions about Biden’s age and verbal gaffes could drag them down in 2024.
But concerns about Biden as a candidate should not lead to concerns about Bidenism – if anything, the case for the latter is only strengthened by the weaknesses of the former. Biden’s coalition is not held together by a charismatic individual who will eventually pass from the scene, but by the structural forces shaping American politics today. It represents a path available to Democrats for as long as they continue to face a radicalized Republican party – something they are likely to do for a long time yet.
Nor should the hidden strengths of the president himself be dismissed. Biden has long been dismissed by people who imagine themselves to be more politically sophisticated. Over the past few years, he has left their predictions in the dust again and again. Most crucially of all, he is the only Democrat who has beaten Trump in a one-on-one contest, the sort which allows him to highlight the contrast between Bidenism and the radicalized opposition most convincingly.
As 2024 approaches, Biden’s message to doubters in his party should be simple: I’ve done it before. Now watch me do it again.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a historian of the United States at Leiden University and host of the podcast America Explained