Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms

House Democrats are beginning to confront the challenging reality awaiting them in the 2022 midterm elections amid a spate of retirements and dim redistricting prospects.

Democrats had hoped that brightening economic and public health outlooks combined with ongoing discord within the GOP would save them from the kind of electoral thrashing that historically besets the president’s party in midterm elections.

But privately, some in the party are beginning to acknowledge the uphill battle they will face next year when their narrow majorities in the House and Senate will be on the line.

“I think it’s starting to set in a little bit,” one Democratic consultant and former House staffer said. The consultant noted there was “a lot of optimism” among Democrats earlier this year after they captured the Senate majority and President Biden was sworn in to the White House.

“There are things to be optimistic about and it’s not like the Republicans have it all figured out either,” the consultant added. “I just think we need to be realistic about things, that history isn’t really on our side.”

The challenges for Democrats have come into clearer focus in recent days.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D), who narrowly won reelection last year in a western Illinois district that former President Trump carried in both 2016 and 2020, said on Friday that she will leave Congress after her current term. She joins two other House Democrats, Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.) and Filemon Vela (Texas), in announcing retirement plans.

With Bustos out, six Democratic incumbents are set to go up for reelection next year in districts that Trump carried in 2020.

There are likely more Democratic retirements to come. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) is expected to announce plans on Tuesday to run for Florida governor, potentially leaving open a Pinellas County swing district that Republicans had held for decades before Crist was elected in 2016.

Two other Florida Democrats, Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Val Demings, are seen as potential contenders for statewide office. In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan (D) is foregoing reelection to his closely contested House seat to run to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R).

The party was also dealt a setback over the weekend in the race to replace the late Rep. Ron Wright (R-Texas) when Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez fell just a fraction of a percentage point short of qualifying for a runoff election, ensuring that a Republican will succeed Wright.

Democrats saw their majority in the House shrink to one of the smallest margins in decades after a worse-than-expected performance in 2020. Twelve of their members were defeated by Republicans, while every GOP incumbent held their seat.

“We were all expecting to gain seats last year too, and that’s when we were playing offense,” one Democratic strategist who worked on key races in 2020 said. “We’re on the other side of things now, so yeah, there are some reasons to be wary about next year.”

Democrats now claim a six-seat advantage in the lower chamber, though that edge will soon temporarily increase to seven seats when Rep.-elect Troy Carter (D-La.) is sworn in to serve out the remainder of former Rep. Cedric Richmond’s (D-La.) term. 

Other upcoming special elections may alter that margin slightly, but Democrats will have little room for error if they hope to preserve their House majority in 2022, and history tends to side against the president’s party in midterm elections. Democrats lost seats in both midterm elections while former President Obama was in office. Republicans lost their majority in 2018, two years after Trump won the White House.

Democrats’ midterms strategy this time around bets heavily on the notion that voters will reward the party’s lawmakers for passing a tranche of far-reaching legislation they say will prove transformative, especially as the country begins to pull itself out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Among congressional Democrats’ early accomplishments is a $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Biden has also put forward a sprawling infrastructure proposal that would touch nearly every part of the country. For Democrats, the hope is that 2022 could resemble the 1934 midterms, when Democrats expanded their House majority thanks to a prolific first two years of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House.

“It’s almost incontestable that the economy is going to be roaring back by 2022. If you couple that historical rebound with these packages passed in their entirety, I will predict that the Democrats will expand their majorities,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former national surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign.

“There’s no question that the Republican base will be motivated,” he added. “But what I feel confident about is that voters will turn out in 2022 and support the Democratic Party if the agenda that is now before us passes.”

Democrats are also hoping that the disunity that has roiled the Republican Party in the wake of Trump’s presidency will continue through 2022, hobbling the GOP’s ability to coalesce behind a common message.

Republicans have so far struggled, for instance, to find a cohesive line of attack on the Democrats’ stimulus package, which has proven to be broadly popular among the American public.

That doesn’t change the fact that House Democrats are playing defense. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) unveiled an initial list of 47 Democratic incumbents it plans to target next year and added 10 more Democrats to the list on Tuesday. That’s more than twice as many as the 22 offensive targets announced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

Chris Taylor, the national press secretary for the DCCC, said that House Democrats are prepared to run on their early legislative accomplishments.

He accused the GOP of elevating “conspiracy theorists” within its ranks and trying to leverage voting laws and redistricting to gain a systematic advantage ahead of the midterms.

“House Democrats head into the midterms with a disciplined electoral strategy, strong grassroots fundraising, and legislative wins for the American people that are putting shots in arms, cash in pockets, reopening schools, and getting people back to work,” Taylor said. “Meanwhile, House Republicans are being led by QAnon conspiracy theorists, and are dead set on ripping apart our democracy with suppressive voting laws and unfair maps.”

“American voters know Democrats are focused on helping the economy recover and protecting the integrity of our democracy.”

NRCC spokesman Mike Berg responded that “House Democrats are sprinting toward the exits because they know their majority is doomed. Voters want nothing to do with their socialist agenda that destroys American jobs, raises Americans’ taxes, and opens America’s borders.” 

To be sure, a Pew Research poll released last month found Democratic congressional leaders outperforming their Republican counterparts. Fifty percent of respondents said they approve of the job Democratic leaders are doing compared to just 32 percent who said the same of GOP leaders in Congress.

Still, Democrats are facing structural challenges in the redistricting process, which appears likely to favor Republicans.

Census data released last week showed the U.S. population shifting to Western and Southern states, like Florida and Texas, where the task of drawing new congressional lines will fall on GOP legislators. Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest, like New York and Illinois, are set to lose seats in the House next year.

Even in Democratic-controlled states, redistricting could prove challenging for the party. In Illinois, for instance, state lawmakers will be charged with deciding whether to do away with one of its 13 Democratic-held districts or one of its five Republican-held districts, a move that could put the state’s Democrats in more competitive races by adding Republican-leaning voters to their constituencies.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chairman of the NRCC, made clear at a House GOP retreat in Orlando late last month that Republicans shouldn’t depend on redistricting alone to hand them the majority next year, urging members to “run through the tape.” But he also projected confidence in his party’s chances of recapturing the House next year.

“Nobody’s going to do this for us,” Emmer said. “You have to work every single day, one, to make sure that you are raising the resources necessary to fund your campaign. And two that the voters know exactly what your positive vision is.”

Tags Ann Kirkpatrick Bernie Sanders Cedric Richmond Charlie Crist Cheri Bustos Donald Trump Filemon Vela Joe Biden Rob Portman Ron Wright Stephanie Murphy Tim Ryan Tom Emmer Val Demings

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