Facing red wave, Democrats work on a midterm message

Democrats are working on their midterm messaging to meet the changing national sentiment on COVID-19, hoping to strike the right balance between optimism and realism in the midst of mass virus fatigue. 

Aiming to show cohesion against Republicans, Democrats in the White House to election pollsters and operatives in battleground states are forming internal strategies with the goal of offering a more tailored public vision for a country easing off debilitating restrictions. 

Republicans scoff at these efforts. They claim voters who have abandoned Democrats since President Biden took office are responding to unpopular policies and a massive lurch to the left by the Democratic Party.  

While political headwinds and the November map are challenging for the party in power during midterm years, Democrats say that the facts about the coronavirus currently meet the electoral politics they need for success.  

The science is on their side, they say, adding they just need the message to match.  

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“It’s important that Democrats communicate a plan, leadership, setting clear metrics and following the science,” said Celinda Lake, a top pollster for Biden during his 2020 campaign. “That can vary by states as conditions vary. And it depends on how red the state is.” 

“But they need to have a consistent frame,” she said. 

Throughout the latter part of 2021 and into this year, Democratic lawmakers have been wringing their hands over messaging as GOP officials have gotten more bullish about taking back the House and Senate in November. 

But there are different messaging ideas in Democratic circles. 

David Axelrod, a former White House senior adviser to President Obama, urged Biden to be cautious in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. 

In a much-discussed op-ed in The New York Times, Axelrod wrote, “Offer realistic hope for better days ahead. We desperately need it. But recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe we are on the wrong track, and people will have little patience for lavish claims of progress that defy their lived experiences. … Americans are not celebrating. Millions have lost loved ones; many continue to struggle with the effects of the virus.” 

The latest polling indicates that most voters are fed up with the virus that has drained the country’s health and economic defenses and burdened their daily lives. Many who have been compliant with safety guidelines are growing tired of the ritualistic nature of yet another shot in their arm and a never-ending mask on their face.  

Democrats juggling politics with public health see an area to make inroads. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows COVID-19 cases on the downtick, with new cases decreasing a total of 43 percent through the week of Feb. 16 over the prior week, according to their weekly national tracker. 

That data should be a promising wakeup call for liberal candidates and organizers to imagine a pandemic campaign cycle that looks drastically different than during the presidential election. 

“The reality that Democrats need to recognize is that voters are not concerned about the public health impacts of the pandemic the way they once were,” said Aliza Astrow, an analyst with the centrist think tank Third Way. 

“Democrats should be united in declaring victory over the pandemic, encouraging states to return to normalcy, and recognizing that the risk calculus has changed — and those who want to protect themselves can do so with vaccines and good quality masks,” she said. 

Democratic strategists are formulating ways for candidates to articulate what success can and, in several cases, has already looked like under even the most fraught circumstances.  

They maintain that has been effective for Democratic Govs. Janet Mills of Maine, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Jared Polis of Colorado, who will each face voters this fall. 

Some operatives say success for these types of officials means promoting things like lifting mask mandates when appropriate and making sure federal dollars from the Biden administration are being directed to schools.  

That calculation is based on the anticipation that Republicans are planning to use education as a divisive issue at the ballot box, arguing that their opponents have burdened parents and students with what they believe are unnecessary and overreaching government restrictions.  

“Democrats’ masks and COVID messaging is based on politics and poll numbers,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Nathan Brand.  

“For two years, Biden and Democrats have pushed harmful school closures, shutdowns, and mandates, while Republican leaders have led the economic recovery by keeping their states and schools open,” he said. “Children, small businesses and American workers have suffered because of Biden and the Democrats’ failed agenda, while they flaunt their own mask rules.”  

While some Democrats look to spend a significant amount of bandwidth combating that specific GOP attack, which they expect to be replicated in key swing states and districts, others see merit in getting back to the basics that traditionally move voters, like the economy. 

“Voters want to see that you’re leading and that you have a plan,” said Jared Leopold, a veteran midterm strategist and adviser to Democratic governors. “Democrats should be talking about economic recovery first. And part of that story is how they’ve made smart decisions on keeping people healthy during the worst of the pandemic.” 

Officials in both parties are anxiously awaiting Biden’s speech next week to see if he will outline a newer coronavirus road map on top of other domestic priorities.  

So far, administration officials have provided regular updates as more facts and data emerge, with some acknowledging in recent weeks that Americans are right to feel a sense of exacerbation over a pandemic that still counts some 78 million active cases, according to the CDC.

Jeff Zients, who leads the White House’s COVID-19 task force, holds a biweekly call with governors to assess a situation often described as fluid, scaling back slightly from the former weekly discussions when cases were rising more rapidly.  

“Throughout this planning process, our team has been working with experts both inside and outside of government, local public health leaders, governors, business leaders and partners across our health agencies to benefit from their expertise and ideas,” Zients said during a briefing last week. 

He emphasized the use of vaccines, booster shots and ongoing testing as ways to protect individuals from contracting the virus and becoming sick. 

While the most recent spikes linked to the omicron variant are dropping in many states, Biden’s approval has diminished over time. A recent Politico-Morning Consult survey found that just 39 percent of respondents approve of how Biden has dealt with the years-long crisis.  

Top White House officials said last week that they are preparing to enter a different “phase,” with press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters that people are simply “tired of masks” and that things are continuing to improve on the ground in many places. 

Tags Barack Obama David Axelrod Gretchen Whitmer Janet Mills Jared Polis Jeff Zients Jen Psaki Joe Biden Tony Evers
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