As the countdown to November’s midterm congressional elections enters its final 100 days, Democrats face broad and persistent headwinds driven by widespread gloom over the economy and President Joe Biden’s consistently low approval ratings.
Though recent polling has provided the party glimmers of hope, those fundamental weaknesses have been compounded by what many accept as a political fact of life: that the president’s party is doomed to a poor showing in his first midterm after taking office in all but the most exceptionally advantageous circumstances.
The first nationwide election since Biden defeated former President Donald Trump in 2020 will not provide Democrats that unique boost. Instead, the vote will take place amid economic uncertainty, an ongoing pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans the rupture created by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federally protected abortion rights.
For Democratic voters, the additional specter of a Trump revival – he is widely expected to run for president a third time in 2024 – and the further ascent of the anti-democratic movement around him has deepened the sense of foreboding.
“My sense is that voters are looking for a level of independence that they aren’t seeing on either side of the aisle,” said Greg Landsman, the Democratic Cincinnati councilman who is challenging Republican Rep. Steve Chabot in November.
Landsman’s calculation is that any backlash over his relationship with Biden will be outweighed by the Trump’s unpopularity.
“(Trump) is way more involved in these races than just about anyone else,” Landsman said. “Trump endorsed Chabot. Chabot obviously tried to overturn an election for the guy. I think that is way more inescapable than me and the President.”
Republican strategists, meanwhile, view the contest for the House majority as close to a done-deal as possible. A dismal economy mixed with complete Democratic control in Washington, they believe, makes this a straightforward “change” election.
“The Republicans are going to win the House. Period. End of discussion,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist. “If there’s an election in November, Republicans will win control of the House.”
None of the non-economic developments over the past few months – the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a wave of high-profile mass shootings or the progression of the investigation by the House select committee into the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot have shifted the GOP assessment that voters’ top priorities remain inflation and a higher cost of living.
And while Republicans admit that while the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe has energized Democratic donors, it’s done little to blunt the sense that a GOP wave in the House is approaching.
In fact, outside GOP groups are pressing their apparent advantage into more Democratic districts. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the leading super PAC associated with House Republican leadership, has begun to spend money in multiple Democratic-held districts that were not initially on the group’s list of possible targets, including in Indiana (against Rep. Frank Mrvan), Connecticut (against Rep. Jahana Hayes), and California (an open seat in the San Joaquin Valley after Rep. Josh Harder switched races following redistricting).
CLF president Dan Conston told CNN that the group will also start spending in Rhode Island’s 2nd District, whose longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin is retiring.
“Biden’s deep unpopularity and Democrats’ mishandling of the economy has created opportunities in some districts once thought unwinnable,” Conston said. “We haven’t found a single district in America where the President has a favorable image.”
Democrats search for a unified message
Four years ago, as anger at Trump raged, Democrats enjoyed a fired-up base and a clearly crafted national message that centered on health care and Republican attempts to gut the Affordable Care Act. From California to Texas to Michigan, candidates hammered Republicans over their efforts to repeal a law that helps provide and protect health insurance for millions. Republicans – unable or unwilling to divorce themselves from Trump – didn’t have a straight answer. In the end, Democrats picked up 41 House seats and the majority.
This year, however, the message is far less consistent, with Democratic House candidates attempting to personalize their campaigns – betting that their personal brands or emphasis on specific hot-button issues can help them duck below and evade what appears to be a coming wave. There are overarching themes across their campaigns – including Republican extremism, support for Trump’s 2020 election lies and a host of other policy positions – but four years after singing from a shared hymn sheet, Democrats in 2022 are often seen crafting their own tunes.
“When the national environment is good for you, you can do that,” a Democratic strategist working on House races said of the strategy that worked for Democrats in 2018. “When it is a bit of a challenge, you got to personalize these races.”
The strategist added: “With Republicans, who they are nominating really matters,” specifically noting a race like Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, where longtime but vulnerable Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur is facing Trump-backed Republican J.R. Majewski, a veteran who was outside the US Capitol during the January 6 insurrection.
Democrats argue that if Republicans had nominated a more traditional candidate in this race, Kaptur – who has served in Congress since 1983 – would be almost a lost cause. But because Republican primary voters backed Majewski, who might struggle with independents and moderate GOP voters, Democrats have a chance to hold a seat they would have had no business otherwise keeping.
If enough races unfold in that way, multiple Democrats said, the majority could be saved.
“There is a clear contrast in this race,” said North Carolina state Sen. Donald Davis, who is running against Sandy Smith, a Republican who tweeted on January 6 that she had just “marched from the Monument to the Capitol.” To Davis and other Democrats running against Republicans with ties to the insurrection, it would be foolish not to talk about their opponents’ links to the deadly day.
In some ways, however, Democrats in 2022 find themselves confronted with a similar problem to Republicans in 2018: How do you deal with an unpopular president? The depth of the challenge is even clearer looking further back to 2010, when then-President Barack Obama’s popularity was dipping and the economy reeling in the aftermath of the financial collapse and Great Recession. Republicans picked up 63 seats that fall.
Even the most upbeat Democrats acknowledge Biden’s popularity is an issue they must address, but few in the party have yet to significantly distance themselves from the President.
One reason: It’s nearly impossible for a single House candidate to do.
“The person in the White House has a notable impact on down ballot races in the midterms – good and bad,” said Meredith Kelly, the top spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018 and now a partner at Declaration Media. “And there is also very little that a single House Democrat can do about that in their races. So, ultimately embracing the good things that have gotten done is the best move.”
Kelly said she is more upbeat now about the prospect of keeping the House than she was a few months ago, arguing that there is an opportunity to charge Republicans with attempting to take away a long held right – the right to an abortion.
“Republicans are on the wrong side of history but also on the wrong side of the country, particularly persuadable voters in these midterms,” she said.
Still, many Democrats acknowledge that Biden looms over the midterms – causing some to seek distance.
Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota told a radio interviewer on Thursday that he doesn’t want Biden to run for reelection in 2024.
“I think the country would be well served by a new generation of compelling, well-prepared, dynamic Democrats to step up,” said Phillips, who represents a relatively safe seat in Minneapolis.
According to recent CNN polling, not only is Biden’s overall approval rating hovering below 40%, but a remarkable 75% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters want the party to nominate someone else for the presidency in 2024.
Some Democrats, however, are happy to stand with Biden, especially when he visits to talk about a bill or promise he plans to deliver on – a number that could grow if Democrats in Congress pass a climate funding and tax bill that was recently revived in the Senate. Landsman has been one of the candidates who’s stood by the President.
“An event about jobs and bringing jobs to the region, it’s a no-brainer,” said Landsman, who attended an event in May with Biden to rally support for semiconductor legislation. “It is a huge win for Ohio. … It is also a big contrast to Chabot, who voted against it.”
As for whether he would attend a strictly political event with Biden, Landsman was less committal, saying it’s “just not something we talk about,” instead choosing to focus on “extreme Republicans” and Chabot’s work to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Former Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat elected to a traditionally Republican district in 2008, then swept out by the tea party wave of 2010, agreed that the increasing nationalization of politics – spurred on by a decline in local media – has made it not only difficult, but politically unwise for candidates to divorce themselves from party leadership.
But Perriello sees 2022 as unusually distinct from past midterms, in large part because Republicans, even without one of their own in the White House, have, in Trump, their own widely unpopular party leader.
“If Trump had stayed quiet, if the moderates in the (Republican) party had regained control, this would’ve been a natural year for Republicans to run the tables,” Perriello said. “But instead, it’s the moderates that are largely in charge of the Democratic Party and being run out of the Republican Party.”
Democrats are also attempting to upend conventional wisdom by arguing that, rather than a rebuke in 2022, what it – and the country – needs to claw out of the current malaise is a more robust Democratic majority to help jumpstart the stalled parts Biden’s popular-on-paper agenda. Larger margins in the Senate, where Democrats need every member onboard to move most legislation, and House would give leadership more leeway to advance big ticket items.
“Obviously you need to run through the tape and minimize variables, but you can’t look at how things are shaping up from issues, to candidates, to fundraising and say Republicans aren’t well-positioned,” Republican strategist Matt Gorman said.
The ‘Roe’ factor
The landscape is, indeed, more friendly to Republicans. But over the past few months, the number of “variables” have increased, and despite GOP insistence that their fundamental advantage remains in place, Democrats are keen to test whether the stakes have truly changed.
That speculation is based on the energetic backlash to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe and Republicans’ refusal to consider more ambitious gun control legislation in the aftermath of recent mass shootings – issues strategists and candidates believe could stir previously frustrated base voters, especially college-educated Whites, one of the few demographics among which Democrats were already building support.
A CNN poll last week found overwhelming opposition to the high court’s abortion ruling, cutting across party lines. More than 9 in 10 liberal Democrats disapproved of the ruling, but so did 71% of independents and 55% of moderate or liberal Republicans. Whether Democrats can translate that anger into success at the polls, though, remains an open question – especially with 77% of respondents who disapproved of the ruling saying politicians who support legal abortion are not doing enough to ensure access to it.
New York Democrat Pat Ryan, the Ulster County executive running in a special election next month to replace Antonio Delgado, who left Congress to become New York’s lieutenant governor, has made the abortion fight a central theme of his campaign against Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive.
“The intensity is hard to articulate in a poll, but on the ground, certainly women, but across the board, across gender, race, religion, I’ve felt it. We’ve seen it in our campaign. Our fundraising numbers reflect from grassroots support, our numbers of volunteers. I wouldn’t normally use this as an indicator, but we can’t keep yard signs,” Ryan said. (He will be on two ballots on August 23: the special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District and in a primary race for the new 18th.)
Ryan’s race, in a swing district, is widely viewed as a bellwether for November. He is embracing and encouraging the attention – and hopeful that, especially if he is successful, other Democrats will try to emulate his forceful rhetoric.
“When you pull your punches and sort of triangulate and moderate, that’s what gets us to where we are right now,” Ryan said, “where rights are being ripped away because we haven’t made clear what the stakes are.”