Democrats face strong headwinds as they map out midterm strategy

Democrats are confronting a number of obstacles as they look to map out their 2022 midterm strategy following a series of biting losses in Virginia and other states earlier this month.

With the signing of a long-awaited infrastructure bill out of the way, the party has entered a full-court press to sell the accomplishment to the American public, hoping to flip the political script ahead of what’s shaping up to be a bleak midterm election for Democrats.

But the question still haunting many in the party is whether those efforts will be enough to change their current political trajectory. Biden’s approval is at its lowest point since he took office, consumer prices have surged at the fastest pace in more than three decades and the COVID-19 pandemic is poised to enter its third year.

Then there are the historical headwinds blowing in the GOP’s favor. The president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during midterm elections, and while not yet complete, the decennial redistricting process is poised to give Republicans a critical edge.

“It is going to be an uphill battle,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “But from here on out, they need to do everything that they can to not downplay these crises, because people are feeling it. They’re feeling it at the pump. They’re feeling it with Thanksgiving turkeys. Democrats need to not bury their heads in the sand.”

Democrats have staked their midterm prospects on the idea that big legislative accomplishments — the infrastructure law and a roughly $2 trillion social policy and climate change bill — will save them from the kind of midterm thrashing typically dealt to the party of a new president.

And despite Democratic losses in Virginia and other states this month, there’s broad consensus within the party that touting their accomplishments is still the best strategy for holding their House and Senate majorities in 2022.

“The results in Virginia and elsewhere ought to be a wake-up call that we’re not getting the job done on messaging,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), told The New York Times in a recent interview.

“The No. 1 thing is to grow the economy and end the pandemic,” he added. “But close behind that is telling people what you’ve done. I think it’s a fair criticism to say we haven’t done enough of that, and I think the White House needs to do more.”

In recent days, Biden and other White House officials have begun a nationwide tour and media blitz to tout Democrats’ recently passed infrastructure law. Meanwhile, House Democrats are discussing holding as many as 1,000 events between now and the end of the year in an effort to sell the party’s accomplishments.

Democrats scored another key win on Friday when the House approved the roughly $2 trillion social policy and climate bill, which lies at the center of Biden’s legislative agenda.

Recent polling shows that both the infrastructure law and the larger spending bill are more popular than not among voters, giving Democrats hope that their midterm strategy may ultimately pan out. Still, strategists say the next coming weeks and months will be a crucial test of just how effective the party’s messaging will be.

“My question is: Do we see Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE’s approval ratings start to recover soon? Do we start to see the headlines about Democratic infighting go away?” one Democratic consultant said. “I think if that’s going to happen, it’s gotta happen pretty quickly. It can’t wait another six, seven, eight months.”

And there’s a lot for Democrats to overcome. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week last showed Republicans in their strongest position on the so-called generic ballot test — which asks respondents whether they would prefer a Democrat or a Republican to serve in Congress — in the survey’s 40-year history.

Likewise, Republicans took the lead on the generic ballot test for the first time since January 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. The GOP needs to net just five seats in the House and only one in the Senate to recapture control of both chambers next year.

And in another worrisome sign for Democrats, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted after the House gave final approval to the infrastructure bill and released on Thursday found that 46 percent of registered voters want the GOP to take control of Congress next year, compared to 41 percent who want Democrats to retain their majorities.

That same poll showed Biden’s approval rating slipping to just 36 percent — its lowest point yet in a Quinnipiac poll. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans say that the state of the U.S. economy isn’t good and is getting worse, according to the survey.

“You can do big things, and you can let people know what you’ve accomplished,” one former Democratic campaign aide said. “But there are still so many things out of our control, right? You can’t control the pandemic. You can’t automatically make people feel better about the economy.”

Tyler Law, a Democratic strategist and former national press secretary for the DCCC, said that more important than simply trumpeting the legislative accomplishments is how Democrats go about selling them. He argued that Democratic leaders need to focus on the specific parts of their agenda that will have the most immediate effect on voters’ lives.

“If we’re talking about things voters don’t care about then we’re just talking past them,” he said. “What I don’t want to see is Democrats getting caught in the trap of patting ourselves on the back and talking about historic achievements. History doesn’t matter to voters struggling to pay the bills.”

Of course, major legislative accomplishments haven’t always translated into success at the polls.

Democrats were hit with a series of midterm defeats in 1966 after passing swaths of former President Lyndon John’s Great Society. Likewise, the party incurred stinging losses in the 2010 midterm elections after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGlobal Health, Empowerment, and Rights Act will permanently end to harmful global gag rule Incoming Georgetown Law administrator apologizes after backlash over Supreme Court tweets Ex-Education Secretary Duncan considers Chicago mayor bid MORE’s major legislative achievement.

Democrats have long blamed their 2010 midterm losses on a failure by the White House and party leaders to aggressively sell the ACA, believing that had the messaging around the law not been bungled, voters would have rewarded Democrats for passing such a piece of legislation.

Now, Democrats say they’re confident they won’t make that same mistake again.

“I think the difference between 2022 and 2010 is that Democrats know pretty far out that this is going to be a challenge for them,” Reinish said. “They have their work cut out for them. But if they do this well, then I think then it’ll be viewed as more of an immediate success. Hopefully they’ve learned their lessons from 2010.”