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DNC Chair Tom Perez On Democrats' Georgia Runoff Strategy And Defeating Trumpism

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez speaks in February in Charlotte, N.C. Democrats are arguing over the future of the party after it lost some seats in the House of Representatives.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez speaks in February in Charlotte, N.C. Democrats are arguing over the future of the party after it lost some seats in the House of Representatives.

Despite Joe Biden's victory, congressional Democrats are upset.

Bolstered by President Trump's unpopularity and the pandemic, polls had showed Democrats possibly taking control of the Senate, expanding their majority in the House of Representatives and Biden winning convincingly in several swing states.

But Democrats didn't gain a majority in the Senate. They lost a handful of seats in the House. And though Biden won the popular vote, it was a close contest in several battleground states.

Tom Perez, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, calls the 2020 elections "a historic, decisive victory" for Democrats overall. He argues the situation should be compared with late 2017 when 15 states had Democratic governors and Republicans controlled the House. Democrats are now governors in 24 states, and they took the House in 2019.

"We're always disappointed when we lose seats," Perez told Steve Inskeep on NPR's Morning Edition. But "when you look at the six or seven seats that we've lost, they were all in very red territories."

Democrats did make different gains this year in the traditionally red states of Georgia and Arizona, where Biden leads.

It presages a fight between the party's centrists and those on the left over how to win elections: Appeal to moderate independents who might vote Republican, or try to get progressive nonvoters to vote.

Now attention shifts to Georgia, which is holding two Senate runoff elections in January. Unless there's an upset, Republicans will keep control of the Senate in 2021.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

On the Republican side, there was something north of 70 million votes. Is the country sending you something of a mixed message here?

Well, I often said when I was out on the campaign stump, Steve, that our goals are to defeat Trump and to defeat Trumpism. Defeating Trump required 270 electoral votes or more, and we succeeded in that. Defeating Trumpism is a longer-term challenge because Trumpism predates Trump. And I would argue that Trumpism and some of the underlying challenges there in no small measure may date back 400 years. And we need to understand that. And I can think of no better person to lead that challenge than the president-elect. He is a uniter.

What is the strategy for Democrats in these upcoming Georgia runoff races, which could decide control of the Senate?

To expand the electorate. And Stacey Abrams has led that effort dating back to her race for [Georgia] governor in 2018. You look at the number of first-time voters in Georgia in 2020. It's a remarkable fusion coalition. We are organizing all over that state, making sure that people register to vote. And you can bet your bottom dollar that we will continue to do that.

The disappointments in the House of Representatives have sparked a lively debate:one lawmaker blaming "defund the police" and the socialism label for hurting Democrats; Jim Clyburn of South Carolina saying people in different districts need to run different campaigns; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, democratic socialist, pushing back on that. What do you make of all that?

Well, we are a Democratic Party that is a big tent, and I welcome that. And I look at the platform of the Democratic Party and it reflects, I think, the bold level of inclusion across America. It's a platform that stands for the notion that every person matters, that we should trust science over fiction, that we can expand access to health care, that health care should be a right for all, not a privilege for a few.

And this was the platform that won for Joe Biden. It's a very ambitious platform. It's a bold platform. It's a platform that we can all embrace as Democrats.

And the discussions that we're having now, again, the challenges were born out of our success in 2018. We won so many seats in areas that were beet-red districts. And so it was going to be difficult when Donald Trump was on the ballot to sustain some of those victories because you had people coming out in force. Again, I think it's really important to look at the broader contexts of where we are now electorally versus where we were at the end of 2016.

Bo Hamby, Arezou Rezvani and Phil Harrell produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.