Democrats plot strategy to defy expectations, limit midterm losses
PHILADELPHIA — Facing stiff headwinds in the midterm elections, House Democrats gathered in the city this week to plot their legislative future, recalibrate their campaign message and salvage a delicate majority that’s at risk of dissolving in November.
The party’s annual issues conference, staged in a snazzy hotel overlooking the Delaware River, brought roughly half of the 222-member caucus to the City of Brotherly Love in what was essentially an effort to prove history wrong.
The party of the incumbent president routinely performs dismally in the first midterm cycle, and election handicappers expect this year to be no different.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her team sought to present the glass half full.
Armed with a slew of economic statistics, sports metaphors and quotes from the giants of American history, Democratic leaders sought to portray an election battleground that will defy the grimmer midterm prognostications.
“We come to Philadelphia with a record of results and a plan for the future,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, told reporters Friday morning.
“We have incumbents and candidates that can win in tough districts,” he continued. “And our argument will be that if you give us another two years, we’ll keep working for you and your family. The other side will keep working for themselves.”
President Biden addressed the conference on Friday afternoon with an optimistic message about an economy on the rebound, a COVID-19 pandemic in retreat and a democracy on the mend after four years under former President Trump, who was impeached a second time for urging supporters to overturn his election defeat.
“It was the Democrats — it was you — that brought us back,” Biden told his congressional allies, referring to the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package passed at the start of his presidency without any Republican support.
In their favor, the Democrats are pointing to the record number of jobs created under Biden’s tenure; millions of COVID-19 vaccinations distributed over the same span; an increase in workers’ wages; and an election map much more favorable than they expected when state redistricting began last year.
“We’re proud of that record; we’re happy to stack it up against the other team’s absence of a vision,” Maloney said.
Despite the rosy assessment, however, Democrats face long odds of saving their majority. The conference came as inflation on consumer goods spiked again in February, gas prices continue to skyrocket, the coronavirus remains a source of national anxiety and Biden’s approval rating is still well underwater.
On all fronts, Republicans are attacking relentlessly.
The combination has created an unsettled mood of public apprehension in a volatile economy and an uncertain future — a simmering sense of dismay that’s been only exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine late last month.
A ground war in Europe was not the intended topic when Democrats scheduled their strategic retreat for this week. However, the conflict quickly absorbed much of the oxygen of the event as Biden and Congress grapple for ways to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and save the lives of Ukrainian civilians without starting World War III.
“It is central because people are dying,” Pelosi said Friday, shortly before Biden spoke.
Earlier in the day, the president took the remarkable step of ending normal trade relations with Russia. Speaking to the Democrats, he warned that direct engagement with Putin’s forces — to include a no-fly zone over Ukraine that some lawmakers are promoting — would launch another world war.
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say, that’s called World War III, okay?” he said.
That’s a sensitive topic within the caucus, as some Democrats have pressed for more aggressive steps in confronting Russia’s invasion head on. Yet party leaders have stuck with Biden through it all, emphasizing his vow to engage Putin directly if he expands his imperial designs onto a country aligned with NATO.
“As he has said, if there is a single inch of NATO territory covered by Article 5 that is encroached, we will [engage],” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
In more ways than one, the Democrats are a caucus in transition. Pelosi, after leading the party for the last 19 years, has promised to yield power at the end of this term, regardless of the election results. The shift will send shockwaves through the caucus, spark an unusual round of jockeying for top leadership spots and present a new face of the party for the first time in almost two decades.
First, however, Pelosi and her team say there’s unfinished business when it comes to their legislative plans, particularly after several of their top priorities — including voting rights protections and the multitrillion dollar social spending package known as the Build Back Better Act — have stalled in the Senate. Much of this week’s conference was spent discussing how to salvage that agenda before November.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said there’s “a Venn diagram” revealing what can win the support of the Senate Democratic holdouts — Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — and deliver a victory before the elections.
“We’re not backing off of our vision just because we’re having a hard time pushing it through,” she said. “It’s not that [voters] think you have to win every battle, but they do want to see us fighting for what they believe in, and we’ve got to deliver some results.”
Yet Maloney said flatly that the party’s election chances are not hanging on their ability to score another big legislative victory along the lines of the Build Back Better Act. Suggesting some Democrats come across as too “preachy,” he advised members to establish a rapport with voters that earns their trust.
“We need to talk like real people,” he said. “If you go home for Thanksgiving, and your brothers think you sound like a jerk, what your grade point average was doesn’t matter to them. You have to show up and be a human being in relationship to your voters.”
If legislative avenues become clogged, Democrats also used this week’s retreat to hone a strategy for making policy gains through Biden’s executive powers. Indeed, the heads of the Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus and Jayapal all said they’re readying a list of priorities they want the White House to move unilaterally. The list touches on issues such as diverse as police reform, immigration and voting rights protections. It is, they’re ready to remind Biden, a powerful tool with a great deal of precedent.
“Slaves were freed in 1863 by executive order,” said Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat. “So executive orders do have power.”