McAdams and Shalala, in defeat, illustrate Democrats’ challenge

For lawmakers who win seats in districts that lean toward the other party, there’s no foolproof strategy to repeat the feat

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who caught coronavirus in the spring, was defeated for reelection. He is shown in April.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, who caught coronavirus in the spring, was defeated for reelection. He is shown in April. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 23, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — Elected in the 2018 Democratic wave by a mere 694 votes over a Republican incumbent, Ben McAdams always faced an uphill climb to reelection in his Salt Lake City district. To buttress his case, he established a reputation from the start for bucking his party more than almost anyone else in the House.

Donna E. Shalala rode the anti-Trump wave of two years ago too, winning a Miami seat held by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was retiring after nearly three decades. Shalala took a different approach than McAdams, sticking with fellow Democrats on 627 of the 631 party-splitting votes she’s participated in.

Both lost on Nov. 3, and their plights show that for lawmakers skillful enough to win seats in districts that lean toward the opposite party, there’s no foolproof strategy to repeat the feat. Loyalty to fellow partisans might yield more help from the party apparatus and from Democratic donors, but it opens up other political vulnerabilities. Tack to the center and an opponent will still hang your party affiliation around your neck.

For House Democrats looking to strengthen their position in Congress, consensus on how to govern and how to run for office is no closer, as they regroup for January with a majority that could be as small as four seats, and with at least nine colleagues departing at year’s end.

Both McAdams and Shalala are leaving convinced that the way forward for Democrats is the path they each chose as legislators. “I think that the caucus needs to decide if they want to be a pragmatic and effective majority that works with the Biden administration to move forward centrist policies, or do they want to be a loud and vocal minority?” says McAdams. “They will make that decision now and over the next two years, but it will be cemented in the 2022 election.”

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Shalala sees Democratic success in overcoming Republican opposition. She favors eliminating the Senate filibuster, the requirement that most legislation receive 60 votes, “just to get things moving again.”

“We’ve passed bills repeatedly only to see them die in the Senate," she says. "They just won’t take them up."

McAdams, a former Salt Lake County mayor and Utah state senator, came up in politics having to work with Republicans in order to get anything done. He looks back with pride on bipartisan efforts to combat opioid addiction back home.

“We had disagreements. Republicans and Democrats had different ideas about how to approach it. But we worked together until we could agree on a common path forward,” he recalls. “And we moved forward and I think a lot of people’s lives are better off. Some of these people who were homeless heroin addicts in 2017 when we launched this effort are now personal friends of mine. One of them just got approved to buy a home.”

McAdams ran for Congress with the idea of bringing those problem-solving skills to Washington. He was disconcerted by what he found.

“What was disappointing to me is how few opportunities there are, organically, to work alongside somebody from the opposite party,” he says. “Unless you are willing to deliberately and assertively build that into your schedule, which I did, it doesn’t happen organically. It is easy to go throughout your entire day and never have a conversation with someone from the other side.”

And McAdams saw no progress on that during his one term. “I think that people seem to be just as far apart as they ever were,” he says. “Instead the focus has been placed on winning elections, not overcoming our challenges.”

Too many of his colleagues view politics as warfare, McAdams says: “If you come here believing that the other side is the enemy, you won’t have experiences to change that perception unless you seek them out.”

'They will not move'

Shalala could have easily rested on her laurels rather than run for Congress, as she did in 2018 at age 77. She had already served eight years as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary and witnessed the dawn of a new era of partisan polarization, then went on to lead the University of Miami.

But she “got pissed off about what was happening in Washington.” Republicans had failed the prior year in their bid to repeal the 2010 health care law but seemed hell bent on undermining it. When the coronavirus struck, it only reconfirmed for Shalala the importance of expanding access to insurance, lowering drug prices and facing the disparities in the system harming racial minorities.

She worked with Republicans where she could, on localized issues, teaming for instance with Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents a neighboring Florida district, to advocate for temporary protected status for Venezuelans fleeing that country.

But she was dismayed by the gridlock. The Venezuela bill is among the House bills that didn't go anywhere in the Republican-led Senate.

She saw a level of fealty by Republican senators to President Donald Trump that made compromise nearly impossible. “They will not move unless they know he’s for it,” she says.

Asked how she sees the future, Shalala says she’s “hopeful if we win the two seats,” referring to two runoff Senate races in Georgia in January that will determine if Democrats gain full control of government next year.

That won’t matter much, so far as McAdams is concerned, if it means Democrats try to pass bills without GOP support. “Washington has failed the American people in working to advance bipartisan solutions,” he says. To move past that, policy solutions must meet centrist specifications, in his view: “They call us the majority makers, but I don’t think there was enough effort put into listening to our perspectives.”

In the debate between progressives, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and moderates like Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, over the party’s messaging this year, McAdams comes down squarely with Spanberger.

He blames his loss on progressive ideas coming to be seen by many Americans as official Democratic Party positions: “I heard from a lot of people who said they were voting for Biden because they were not happy with Trump, but they were uncomfortable voting for any Democrat down the ticket because of issues like defund the police and 'Medicare for All' and the Green New Deal. Even people who know me and my track record as a centrist and independent were concerned about the broader message of the Democratic Party.”

Those ideas will never prevail, he argues, even if Democrats gain control of both the legislative and executive branches: “I disagree with a lot of the progressive policies, not just because of bad politics, but I think it’s bad policy.”

Both McAdams and Shalala agree that Democrats are united on the end results they want: better and more affordable health care, a cleaner environment, greater access to higher education.

The way to those goals is where the disagreements lie. Shalala does not see that debate as negatively as McAdams does. “We have disagreement about how you get to universal health care. That’s a disagreement about tactics and about strategy. Some of us believe we should build on the Affordable Care Act and expand it till we have better coverage. I don’t consider that a fundamental ideological split.”

In Shalala’s opinion, districts are different and require different messaging, but the party’s big tent is big enough. She blames her own loss on a campaign by her Republican opponent, Maria Elvira Salazar, and GOP groups that vilified her as a socialist, and on Trump's successful outreach in Florida.

“They were vicious. It wasn’t just socialism. It was communism they accused us of. But it was more than that. Donald Trump had coattails,” Shalala says. “He had worked the district for four years. He had been in and out of, not just of my district, but the whole county. For years, he was in and out of South Florida.”

The anti-socialist messaging resonated among Latin American immigrants who'd fled repressive regimes.

“It wasn’t just Cubans, it was Venezuelans and Nicaraguans," Shalala says. "And then [the Republicans] did a huge registration. In the last 60 days, they registered 5,000 people and they had ground game. They went door to door when we were so concerned about COVID.”

For his part, McAdams, even as he stands by bipartisanship as the best long-term approach to politics, admits that it was a tough sell in the year when Trump sought reelection.

“There was a moment in my debate with my opponent where I talked about healing what’s broken in Washington and I said we need to elect ambassadors who are going to negotiate the peace,” he recalls. “My opponent said — I’m paraphrasing — ‘This is not a time for ambassadors, this is a time for warriors.’"

That, says McAdams, is “what Republicans and Democrats need to decide over the next few years.”