House Democrats in some of the most competitive districts are growing increasingly anxious about their ability to hold on to their seats, with party leaders warning that they could sustain deep losses if they don’t sharpen their message and retool their strategy in the battle for control of the chamber in next year’s midterms.
The concerns, voiced by several moderate Democrats in swing districts, center on fears that their economic messages – and some of their party’s biggest accomplishments like an expanded child tax credit – have not broken through.
And the sharp warning some endangered Democrats are delivering to their leaders: They are not willing to take messaging votes on hot-button issues with little chance of becoming law, a dynamic that was on full display as moderate Democrats revolted against a plan to extend the federal eviction moratorium through the end of the year or mid-fall before it expired last week.
“There is a lot of anxiety,” said one vulnerable House Democrat. “I think that’s why there’s such a negative reaction to the eviction moratorium.”
Rep. Susan Wild, a Democrat who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said voters “feel like” her party is delivering for them.
“I think in many ways we are letting our results speak for themselves,” Wild said. But she added, “Now, obviously we need to talk about those results so that people don’t forget them.”
That was the stark assessment delivered last week to vulnerable Democrats at a closed-door meeting with senior officials of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the caucus’ main campaign arm.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the DCCC, discussed new polling of 1,000 likely 2022 voters in more than 48 battleground districts and areas. And Maloney told his colleagues: “If the election were held today, we would lose,” according to multiple sources and confirmed by the DCCC.
The message – intended to give their most vulnerable Democrats a wake-up call as they returned home for a seven-week recess – was also meant to give their members a clear sense that they can hang on to their seats if they emphasize a message they believe will break through to voters.
“We are not afraid of these polling numbers,” Tim Persico, the DCCC executive director, told CNN on Tuesday. “They are not gloom and doom; they show a clear pathway to keeping the House. We have to be very clear about what the numbers say: We have incredible strengths. The Republicans have incredible weaknesses.”
Persico added, “We need to be more focused on what we are talking about and how we are talking about it. … It’s not a question of alteration, it’s a question of emphasis.”
But for some of the party’s most vulnerable members, the fresh batch of polling had another effect: It crystallized their resolve to push back on votes that could make them more vulnerable back home — foreshadowing a potential intraparty clash to come as Democrats haggle over the price and scope of a massive spending bill for social programs that they want to pass this fall.
“It reaffirmed our belief, and our urging of the DCCC, to make sure that leadership understands that they need to really listen to us … They’ve got to trust us,” said one Democrat in a key battleground district. “Ignore us at your peril.”
Persico said that there are multiple ways to help the party keep the House, including approving the Biden agenda, which he argued was popular with voters, and the massive infrastructure package, along with touting their record on economic issues like middle-class tax cuts. Persico added that Democrats need to contrast that with House GOP efforts to overturn the electoral results in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 insurrection – in addition to comments that some Republicans have made questioning the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.
“It’s great to know where you stand. … Information is valuable,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former intelligence officer who represents a frontline district. The Virginia Democrat went on to argue that it’s beneficial to have “any sort of awareness that, ‘Hey, there might be attacks that are problematic’” — especially after House Democrats were caught off guard last November and barely ended up holding the majority.
Democrats say that their polling shows that clear majorities of battleground voters have “serious doubts” about Republicans after hearing about anti-vaccine views and their January 6 positions.
“It’s still resonant,” Persico said of the Republican response to the Capitol Hill insurrection. “And the vaccine (concerns) are new.”
Politico reported on the Maloney warning earlier Tuesday.
Republicans have history — and redistricting — on their side in the battle for the House, as the President’s party typically loses 26 seats in his first midterm. And the GOP only needs to flip five seats to seize back power next year.
But Democrats are hoping to learn some of the hard lessons from 2010, particularly when it comes to better communicating their accomplishments.
“Obamacare had a lot of promise back in 2009 … and did Democrats do a good enough job of explaining that? Obviously, they didn’t, because the House majority was lost that year in 2010,” said Wild, who noted that the health care law has only increased in popularity. “Democrats generally learned a lot from past midterms.”
Challenges ahead for the Democratic agenda
Democratic sources say that the White House and Democratic leaders are trying to impress on their members that their policies – including higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners – are popular with voters. But some moderate Democrats are extremely wary, portending challenges that they face in getting their agenda through.
And some Democrats fear that Republicans are successfully painting them as tax-and-spend liberals as they attempt to push through roughly $4 trillion of Biden’s agenda after enacting a $1.9 trillion Covid-relief plan earlier this year.
One moderate Democrat with knowledge of the conversations told CNN that “there’s lot of anxiety about doing more tax and spending” right now. While the Democratic source believes the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal could be helpful for their electoral prospects, the source says that liberals’ hopes of passing a $3.5 trillion plan to expand the social safety net will have to be pared back substantially, something that would enrage the left.
The failure of Congress to extend the eviction moratorium was a clear indication of the challenges facing Democratic leaders.
Despite calls from some liberals in her caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted not to force her chamber to hold a roll-call vote that would put all members on the record about where they stood – and would have led moderate Democrats to vote against it and invite backlash from the left.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents a Florida swing district, was among the members privately urging her leaders not to go ahead with the vote, saying it made little sense to go ahead with the extension vote when it had virtually no chance of passing Congress, according to multiple sources.
“She believes the votes were not going to be there,” said one source familiar with moderate Democrats’ thinking, indicating that Murphy wanted the focus to instead be on pressuring local governments to dole out rental assistance already enacted by Congress.