Bleak midterm outlook shadows bitter Democratic battle

The 2022 midterm elections — and the very real possibility that Democrats could be swept from their House majority — are hanging over the bitter political fight within the party over President Biden’s domestic agenda.

The centrist House Democrats representing swing districts who see their seats as providing Democrats with their majority say progressives are being short-sighted and selfish by holding up a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill they could tout as a major victory back home.

If Democrats do lose the House, these lawmakers suggest it will be the fault of liberal colleagues in diamond-blue districts who have little to fear themselves in next year’s midterms.

“It’s very risky to have to go back to your district and tell people that you voted ‘no’ on $1.2 trillion of infrastructure funding,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas), a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said recently.   

Progressives take a completely different view.

They see themselves as fighting for the Biden agenda and argue the party’s liberal base will have no reason to come out and support liberal and centrist Democrats alike unless lawmakers can enact real change at a time when they hold the White House and both chambers of Congress.

They are demanding a vote on Biden’s social spending package before a vote on an infrastructure bill that has also won GOP support, and they say doing so is the best way to win next year too.

History sides against both camps, and suggests Democrats are likely to lose the House no matter what they do legislatively. The midterm elections in a new president’s first term are typically disastrous for their party. Just ask former Presidents Obama and Trump.

In 2010, after months of hard debate, Democrats pushed through a health care reform package that would stand as Obama’s domestic legacy — only to lose 63 seats, and control of the House, a few months later. 

In late 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, Republicans scored a similarly enormous victory when they adopted a massive package of tax cuts. The following November, however, voters went to the polls and delivered control of the House to the Democrats. 

In both cases, the president’s approval rating was underwater. And with Biden’s numbers dropping into the low 40s across a host of polls, campaign watchers say that’s the metric that should worry Democrats most.

“Biden’s approval rating matters more to midterm outcomes than the success of his agenda,” said David Wasserman, an expert on House races at the Cook Political Report.

Vulnerable moderate Democrats were furious earlier this month when Biden trekked to Capitol Hill and announced that the House simply could not vote on the Senate-passed infrastructure bill until a deal was reached on the bigger social benefits package.

That forced front-line Democrats — those facing the toughest reelection battles — to head home for a two-week recess without an infrastructure victory in hand. And because it takes time to get shovels in the ground to build new highways, bridges and waterways, the delay further cast uncertainty about when exactly construction could begin on billions of dollars of projects during a midterm election year.

“We need to get shovels in the ground and Americans to work as soon as possible,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, recently said.

On top of that, Biden’s declaration that the infrastructure bill and the multitrillion-dollar social spending package are tied at the hip has provided plenty of fodder for GOP attack ads.

At-risk Democrats, including Reps. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), Jared Golden (Maine) and Abigail Spanberger (Va.), have fully embraced Biden’s “$3.5 trillion socialist spending spree,” the GOP’s campaign arm says, even as the president has told Democrats his reconciliation package will likely fall somewhere between $1.9 and $2.3 trillion.      

“We are now arbitrarily waiting until some point in the future for the progress of another bill that is outside of physical infrastructure to pass. And so now these bills are tied together. There had been talks of dual track; dual tracks mean two. Now they’re, I guess, on the same exact train car,” a frustrated Spanberger, who flipped a GOP seat in 2018 and narrowly won reelection in 2020, said after Biden’s visit to the Hill. 

The problem is that the infrastructure bill “is there and ready to be celebrated,” she added. “My primary concern is why are we linking two bills together that deal with two totally different buckets of things? They’re separate bills touching on separate issues.”

Top progressives say they are all for traditional infrastructure. But they argue that voters put Democrats in full control of the White House and Congress because they had promised to do the kind of big things outlined in Biden’s Build Back Better plan: fund child care and elder care, community college and preschool, expand Medicare, address the climate crisis, and tax the rich and corporations.   

If Democrats fail to go big, progressives said, it would infuriate the liberal base, depress voter turnout and could cost the party both chambers in next year’s midterms. Republicans only need to flip a handful of Democratic seats to win control of the House; they need to pick up a single Democratic seat to win back the Senate.

“Inaction is insanity. … Trying to kill your party’s agenda is insanity. … Losing the majority in the House in the Senate is insanity,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

“Being sane is trying to do everything that you can to get to the table, negotiate in good faith, not break deals and deliver on behalf of the American people on the promises that we make.” 

The challenge facing Biden and the Democrats is not only enacting the president’s ambitious agenda, but reminding voters that they’ve done so.

Polls already suggest the public doesn’t think Biden has delivered much, despite the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package adopted in March without any GOP support.

That bill provided a new round of stimulus checks for millions of working families and included a child tax credit for millions more. Yet only 35 percent of voters say it’s improving the economy, versus 38 percent who say it will either have no effect or be harmful, according to an NBC News survey released in late August. More than a quarter of respondents — 27 percent — had no opinion. 

It’s numbers like that that are making Republicans very confident about their chances of winning back the House next year.

“Pretty remarkable given it was THAT much money, ostensibly needed for an ’emergency,’ and at the height of Biden’s political capital… and just a few months later it’s underwater,” a GOP aide said in an email. 

A Daily Kos-Civiqs survey in August offered a similar warning to Democrats, finding that 57 percent of voters say the Biden administration has done nothing to benefit them personally. 

“If a large infrastructure bill passes, there’s no guarantee his approval will recover,” said Wasserman. “But if it fails, it could get worse — and that’s what Democrats have to fear.”

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election handicapper based at the University of Virginia, provided a similar analysis, noting that Biden’s agenda, while popular in some districts, could be a liability in others where Republicans will attack the safety net expansion as government overreach. 

“Having some success to point to always seems preferable to failure,” Kondik said. “But let’s say the Democrats pass the bipartisan bill and a reconciliation package  maybe it helps them, or maybe it gives Republicans something to point to as they argue for checks and balances next year.”

Updated at 8:57 a.m.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Barack Obama budget reconciliation Build Back Better Donald Trump Elissa Slotkin Ilhan Omar Infrastructure Jared Golden Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer
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