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Democrats disagree on best midterm message: Pro-Biden or anti-Trump?

Associated Press/Julia Nikhinson
FILE – California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in New York. Newsom, a Democrat, will be on the road again when he travels to Texas on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Newsom has publicly criticized Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and other governors from conservative states.

Democrats are disagreeing over strategy in the final weeks before the midterm elections as the party seeks to retain its slim congressional majorities.  

The battle centers on how much to link GOP candidates to former President Trump, with one side wanting to go all-in on aggressive campaigns that make the election about “Make American Great Again” ideology and the other itching to make more of a case for why Democrats’ policies should keep them in power.  

A third group argues they simply need to make both cases to the public.  

The signs of the tension are breaking into public view. 

“These guys are ruthless on the other side,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), a leading voice urging Democrats to dial up their rhetoric, said this weekend at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. “Where are we? Where are we organizing, bottom-up, a compelling alternative narrative? Where are we going on the offense every single day? They’re winning right now.” 

Democrats are eager to minimize their losses and make gains where they can in a difficult election cycle. 

The party is expected to lose control of the House to a GOP looking to make their side of Capitol Hill revolve around investigations into Biden World. 

The Senate seems more favorable for Democrats, but the anxiety of even partial Republican control of Washington has pushed some on the left, like Newsom, to call on the party to be more forceful in its approach.  

That side sees itself as having plenty of ammunition: the Justice Department investigation into Trump’s removal of classified and presidential documents from the White House, the ongoing probes into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 win, and the number of prominent Trump-backed candidates on ballots nationwide who continue to make the case the last election was stolen from him. 

But not everyone in the party is ready to fight fire with fire. Independent voters in swing states, especially those with sizable populations who voted for Trump, are expected to determine the outcome in places like Arizona and Ohio, and some Democrats believe the party needs to be nimbler. 

“I think Gavin Newsom’s stuff is f—ing stupid and it’s childish,” said Michael Ceraso, a progressive strategist and former state organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in New Hampshire, likening Newsom to Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, of Florida and Texas, respectively, both of whom have made names for themselves with partisan and often-incendiary rhetoric.  

DeSantis and Abbott most recent moves criticized as a “political stunt” include sending migrants to Democratic cities.

In Ceraso’s view, even publicizing the intraparty disagreement less than six weeks from Election Day takes away from a sense of unity that helped the two most recent Democratic presidents — Biden and former President Obama — rise to power against the GOP.  

“What I loved about Obama is he would pick when he would shit-talk,” Ceraso said.  

Progressives, rather, generally prefer to talk about policy than about their opposition. While many see Trump and his aligned candidates as existential threats, they often make the case that Democrats can actually succeed when they bring issues to the table. In that worldview, Republicans’ efforts to deny elections and strip away certain Americans’ rights can be more effectively matched by effective governance.  

For much of the summer Biden’s low approval rating rendered that view overly rosy in the eyes of some strategists. But recently the president has seen a slight uptick in approval, along with a number of legislative wins. 

Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden delivered on his campaign pledge to cancel millions in student loan debt and he signed a bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. 

“In an ideal world, voters see the policy that the administration has implemented make real changes in their lives,” said Ellen Sciales, communications director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement. “That has been why we’ve been pushing the administration to get a lot of that done. To our credit, that argument has held up.” 

The most recent aggregate of national surveys shows Biden at 43 percent of support with voters, a higher standing than at most points in his first term.

“Where are we? Where are we organizing, bottom-up, a compelling alternative narrative? Where are we going on the offense every single day? They’re winning right now.” 

— Gov. Gavin Newsom said at The Texas Tribune Festival

Some Democrats say candidates need to focus on that legislative scorecard and how it affects voters. 

“The swing districts need to overemphasize what we have done, what we have delivered for them. They don’t necessarily identify with a party,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and close confidant of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C). 

“Geographically and demographically, different strokes for different folks, as we say in the South,” he mused. “I think that is applicable to politics.”  

One of the biggest policy debates igniting Democrats is being fought over abortion. After the Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, many activists and lawmakers began rallying support for reproductive rights, hoping that it would make a difference on the margins in November. 

Liberal organizers point to women as a demographic that will help decide which way certain battlegrounds will lean. In states like Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, populist Democrats are running on a platform supporting abortion rights, while right-wing Republicans are divided over how closely to push the issue. 

“Every week across the country, voters are seeing Republicans vote to ban abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, plot their future attack on emergency contraception, and stand up at press conferences to announce to the world that they will pass a national abortion ban if they win power,” said Julie Downey, vice president of communications at American Bridge and a former senior director of advocacy at Planned Parenthood. 

“They are wildly out of step with a vast majority of Americans – and they’re singing it from rooftops,” she said.  

Still, there’s some recent indication that tying candidates to more divisive Republican policies and Trump doesn’t always work well for Democrats. 

In 2021, that effort failed in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Biden ally who sought to position his opponent to Trump, lost to Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who leaned on culture war issues like critical race theory in education. 

Former Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe loss to current Gov. Glen Youngkin has raised questions about the way Democrats should campaign.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) kept the governor’s mansion, but by a much narrower margin than expected. Both off-year races were seen as bellwethers for the midterms. 

But that was last year. Some Democrats are hoping that as Trump faces multiple investigations as the midterms near, they can more easily show voters the difference between many of the Republicans who he has endorsed and their own down-ballot alternatives. 

“I’m a ‘both’ kind of fellow,” said Seawright. “I don’t think one strategy should supersede the other. Fear, anger, frustration and confusion. Those are things that the Republican Party has used to win elections,” he said. “I think that same strategy can apply to us.”

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