Running against Washington is nothing new. Running against Washington while your party controls the White House, Senate and House is something significantly more complicated.
That is the knotty path Senate Democratic incumbents are attempting to walk as they run for reelection while their party controls most every lever of an unpopular federal government. How these Democrats – Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada – handle dealing with and talking about President Joe Biden and Senate leadership will illustrate how Democrats view their own party’s control of Washington.
They are not the only Democrats running against Biden’s Washington, either. A slew of non-incumbents, from North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Ohio, are challenging the effectiveness of Democratic-controlled Washington at a time when Congress’s approval rating is in the low 20s and more than 50% of registered voters disapprove of the job Biden is doing.
The clearest distancing came this month when Warnock released an ad admitting the obvious: In his first year in Washington, he could not fix the dysfunction.
“I’m Raphael Warnock. I’m a dad. A senator. A pastor. But a magician, I’m not. So, in just a year in the Senate, did I think I could fix Washington? Of course not,” Warnock says straight to camera.
Kelly made a similar case in an ad titled “Upside Down.”
“Compared to Congress, the way NASA operates may seem kind of upside down: Putting the mission first, working as a team, and getting the job done – not matter what,” Kelly says in the ad that features images of the retired astronaut in space. “But really, isn’t it Washington that has things upside down?”
Kelly goes on to claim he is “doing things differently,” noting publishing his schedule online and not taking corporate PAC money.
Warnock and Kelly are in unique positions. Both were elected in special elections during the 2020 cycle, meaning they are required to run for full terms just two years later. That’s a quick turnaround for a legislative body not known for speed, forcing each incumbent to note just how long they have been in Washington and, in a way, admitting that they couldn’t do as much as they would like.
“In the Senate, he’s seen up close how party politics and corporate influence get in the way of delivering results for Arizona,” spokesperson Sarah Guggenheimer said of Kelly’s time in the Senate.
Cortez Masto and Hassan, both first-term incumbents seeking six more years in office, are also putting distance between their candidacy and Democratic-controlled Washington.
Earlier this month, Hassan traveled to the US-Mexico border to bolster her call for Biden and his administration to hold off scrapping a pandemic-era rule that allows the government to rapidly deport migrants.
“I’m going to keep pushing the administration to develop a really strong strategic plan for how we will secure our border when Title 42 is lifted,” Hassan said in a nearly two-minute-long tweeted video in front of a border wall. “And I am going to keep pushing them to delay lifting Title 42 until that plan is in place.”
The trip earned her contempt from activists in New Hampshire – but distanced her from the Biden administration at a time when the Democratic President’s approval in the state is weakening.
Cortez Masto has also urged the Biden administration to not end Title 42, calling it the “wrong way to do this” and warning that it will “leave the administration unprepared for a surge at the border.”
A Cortez Masto campaign aide said if Republicans were in control, like they were in 2018 when Democrats in the House saw significant gains, it would be easier to run against Republican leadership, but that the senator’s focus is trying to make her campaign focused on Nevada, not Democrat controlled Washington.
“When is the last time anyone has wanted to run with Washington,” the aide said. “That is always going to be a rough sell.”
Nora Keefe, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, defended the way Senate incumbents are running, arguing they are all “focusing on issues that matter most to their state’s working families” and will “always put the interests of their states first that’s what they will continue to do.”
‘Voters hold politicians accountable’
Both parties have faced this predicament in the last dozen years.
Democrats, two years after then-President Barack Obama’s historic win, had unified control during the 2010 midterms and ended up losing Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
Eric Schultz, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time, acknowledged the difficulty Democratic candidates had in running against Washington and recalled that there are “two ingredients” to those who were successful.
“One is having your own story to tell and two is being better than the alternative,” he said. “If you look at the candidates in 2010 who prevailed, it was because they were relentless in telling their own story and they had spent years telling a story back home.”
Republicans won unified control when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the White House in 2016. During the 2018 midterms, Republican candidates in blue and purple states were tied directly to then-President Trump and Republican domination of Washington. Although the party found success in red states like Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, they lost incumbents in Nevada and Arizona.
An aide at the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the time said candidates in those two states found out it is “very difficult to run against Washington when you are a sitting member of the party in power.”
“Voters hold politicians accountable for what happens at the top of the party, and Senate races, more so than other elections, are nationalized affairs,” the aide said, adding that Democrats in Nevada were successful because they tied then-Sen. Dean Heller to Trump, had a standard Democratic candidate in then-Rep. Jacky Rosen and had a nationalized message with health care.
The aide added: “Fast forward to 2022, the inverse is at play, where Republicans have a message in inflation and rising costs that Democrats are going to be unable to escape.”
‘They get caught up in political games’
It is not just the incumbents running against a Washington-controlled by Democrats. Multiple Democrats seeking their first terms in the Senate are also criticizing Washington to appeal to voters who may currently hold Biden and the federal government in low regard.
Rep. Tim Ryan, who has been in Washington for nearly a decade, released an ad recently that featured him arguing “both parties need to stop wasting time on stupid fights.”
“We can’t afford to be Democrats and Republicans,” said Ryan, who is seeking to represent a state that backed Trump by more than 7% in 2020.
Ryan said earlier this year that it was time for Biden to “hit the reset button” and refocus on economic issues.
A Ryan aide said it is no secret that the candidate is “frustrated with people across the political spectrum,” including those in his own party,” who are “getting caught up in culture wars” and are less focused on “cutting taxes and bringing down costs.”
Cheri Beasley, the presumptive Democratic nominee in the open Senate race in North Carolina, released an ad on Monday in which the former state Supreme Court chief justice said, “Looking at Washington, I think both parties are doing the job wrong.”
“Instead of focusing on what people care about,” she said, “they get caught up in political games.”
And Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the frontrunner in the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania, has cast himself as the opposite of Washington, both a nod to some disdain for the federal government and the fact that he is facing a congressman, Conor Lamb, in the contentious primary.
“John ain’t perfect, but he is real,” says a narrator in one of Fetterman’s latest ads. “He is Pennsylvania and a heck of a lot more than all these politicians running.”
Flashing on screen in a notably blunt message: “John will take on Washington.”