Democrats are sounding growing alarms in the final push before the midterm elections that the party lacks the message it needs to combat President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE and win back Democratic majorities in Congress.
Some of the comments are positively biting, and illustrate that nerves are on edge less than two weeks before Election Day.
They also hint at the fights that will take place if Democrats underperform and fail to at least win back the House majority, which would count as a significant disappointment at this stage.
“We haven't had a real message since the last presidential election, so why change it now?” said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis. “We had no message in 2016. We had no message in between. We have no message going into this election ... You have to give people a reason to vote for you, not a reason to vote against someone else.”
Democrats think they have a good chance of retaking the House majority despite these problems given the fact that their voting base is fired up to send a message to Trump.
Polls have tightened, however, and there is a recognition that Trump has started to fire up his own base. The narrow path the Democrats once saw for a Senate majority has largely disappeared.
“In terms of a Democratic Party having even a semblance of a message, it's just not there and that's the reason this election is going to be unpredictable,” said Kofinis. “Nobody should be surprised if it's a good night or a bad night.”
Democrats found a winning formula in 2006, when they captured both chambers with promises to champion a series of specific policy proposals early the following year, including a minimum wage hike and cuts in student loan rates.
This cycle, they’ve replaced that design with a shorter slate of broader themes — a preferred blueprint, in their eyes, because it allows Democratic candidates to tailor their messages to the concerns and demographics of individual districts.
“This is not a national campaign,” House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Sunday shows preview: Pelosi announces date for infrastructure vote; administration defends immigration policies GOP should grab the chance to upend Pelosi's plan on reconciliation MORE (D-Calif.) said Monday during a CNN forum in New York. “It is one district at a time.”
Yet Democrats outside the Capitol are voicing concerns that a blurrier message could haunt Democrats at the polls if voters are left uncertain what the party stands for.
Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, said his party needs to be more clear about its message for the country.
Emanuel, who led Democrats to a sweeping midterm victory in 2006, highlighted the “six in ’06” agenda in that cycle as an effective way for the congressional party to push back at the president. He also suggested Democrats may have missed the opportunity, stating: “It’s a little late now to do.”
“I don't want to say we did everything right in '06, but we had a ‘Six in '06’ [agenda], a set of ideals that are very clear,” he told CNN last week.
A second Democratic strategist said Emanuel makes a good point.
“I couldn’t tell you what exactly we stand for, no,” the strategist said. “So in that sense, I think Rahm is right. At least back then, we had a target, we knew what we needed to do to get there. I can’t say the same thing now and that’s troubling.”
Democratic leaders are quick to reject the notion that their message lacks the bite to resonate with voters. Discarding a focus on the president — a focus thought to have backfired in 2016 —their “For the People” agenda features just three broad promises: lowering health-care costs, boosting wages and fighting government corruption. It’s those issues, they contend, that voters care most about.
“People ask what are the Democrats for? We are for the people, for lowering their health care costs by reducing the cost of prescription drugs. We are for bigger paychecks by building infrastructure of America and we are for better government by reducing the role of money in politics,” Pelosi said Monday.
“It's not about President Trump. I've said to them don't even mention his name.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), is echoing that message, saying the many controversies surrounding Trump have put Republican candidates on the defensive, freeing Democrats to focus more attention on issues like the economy.
“Republicans are having to explain for everything that’s going on in this administration … which puts them in a tough place. It gives us an advantage,” he said this month at a Bloomberg editorial roundtable.
“I say it everywhere I go: I don’t think we need to talk about the president. He’s going to do it for us.”
Yet Democrats are not all on the same page when it comes to the election-year approach to the president. Ignoring Trump, they argue, is to ignore the elephant in the room.
“There’s one issue in this election: Donald Trump. That is it,” Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchFailed drug vote points to bigger challenges for Democrats Shakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' Democrats debate shape of new Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Vt.) told The Hill recently. “And this election is about whether the country is going to vote for a mid-course correction.”
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon echoed that sentiment, adding, “Like it or not, the midterm election is a referendum on the president and the party of power.”
Kofinis said that some Democrats, such as Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee who is running to be Florida’s governor, have been successful in providing a message.
And there are some signs that Democratic leaders are shifting closer to the specificity of their 2006 message as the elections draw closer.
Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol House Democrats set 'goal' to vote on infrastructure, social spending package next week Holding back on defensive systems for Israel could have dangerous consequences MORE (Md.), the Democratic whip, is making new promises to prioritize government reform as the first piece of business next year, citing very specific proposals — an echo of the Democrats’s “drain the swamp” vows of 2006.
And Pelosi has recently pounced on comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP should grab the chance to upend Pelosi's plan on reconciliation We don't need platinum to solve the debt ceiling crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (R-Ky.) that Republicans intend to cut entitlement programs and revisit efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act next year. She’s comparing the dynamic to that of twelve years ago, when the Democrats made President George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security a central part of their successful campaign.
“Mitch McConnell has given us a gift,” Pelosi told CNN.