House Democrats to showcase ‘deliverables’ in bid to preserve majority
In the face of stiff national headwinds that threaten one of the narrowest majorities in recent history, House Democrats say they will showcase the local results they have delivered since seizing control of Congress and the White House just over a year ago.
In interviews, party leaders and the incumbents who face difficult re-election bids say they will illustrate the results of measures like the coronavirus relief legislation known as the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which gave members the opportunity to deliver major projects to their districts — and then to brag about those projects at ribbon-cuttings and grant presentations.
“I think that what we have prioritized is deliverables,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I’m a big believer that the most important deliverables are the ones that you had something to do with, that had the biggest local impact.”
Maloney pointed to Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who has touted deals to build several new Navy warships at Bath Iron Works, and to Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who sponsored legislation that passed the House to reduce the price of insulin.
“We’re going to run on a record of results,” he said.
But some members acknowledge that delivering a concise message in a complicated environment has never been the party’s strong suit.
“We are a party that is not easily condensed to a ball cap slogan. We are representative of the people, and people are complicated,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.). “There’s a lot of different levers that we are working with to try to bring people better lives and better livelihoods, and I think that’s the thing that we sometimes struggle with. It’s not easy to encapsulate that message into three words.”
Democratic strategists have urged members of lay out a clearer narrative of their achievements over the last few years. In an address to House Democrats in February by Zoom, former President Obama urged his party to compare the state of the nation today to where it was in 2020, when the pandemic raged and the economy stumbled.
“We got a story to tell. Just got to tell it,” Obama told a reporter recently as he visited the White House to celebrate the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act.
Houlahan connected the dots between the measures Democrats have approved and the message she plans to take to voters in November.
“The American Rescue Plan I think is an unsung colossal success in terms of what it has done to allow our economies to get back up to speed as quickly as they have been able to, our schools opened, our people healthy so that they can be confident in returning to our jobs,” she said. “The message is that we will continue to be working on behalf of the people we represent, rather than the special interests or any other sort of outside organizations or entities that might not necessarily carry the values of our community.”
The effort to overcome troubling atmospherics is made all the more urgent for Democrats who are watching polls that show voters favor handing control of Congress back to Republicans.
Recent national surveys have shown Republicans leading a generic congressional ballot question by margins of two points, in recent NBC News and Fox News surveys, to four points in a Quinnipiac poll and five points in an Emerson survey last month. Typically, because of the way voters are dispersed, Democrats need a multi-point advantage to hold ground, and a larger gap to pick up seats.
At the same time, President Biden’s approval ratings sit at historical lows. Polls out this week from Quinnipiac and CNBC both peg his approval ratings south of 40 percent. Historically, incumbent presidents suffer congressional losses in their first midterm elections in all but the rarest of circumstances, and those losses become landslides when a president’s ratings are below 50 percent.
The ominous warning signs for Democrats make the strategy of forging local ties seem necessary. But to some — like the Republicans who tried the same tactics in the 2018 midterm, which featured a similarly unpopular incumbent president — the decision to play the local angle brings back uncomfortable memories.
“We had to” tout local achievements that year, “because the national environment for Republicans wasn’t great,” said Matt Gorman, who was at the time the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Sometimes you can pull a moonshot and overcome a disastrous overall environment, but a lot of times you can’t.”
That year, Democrats picked up 41 seats, the largest gain they had achieved since Watergate.
In an interview, Maloney said he did not believe House Democrats would spend time developing a singular message.
“It’s not really our job here, although we’re obviously deeply concerned and care about the kind of crispness of the national brand and the message, and we suffer the consequences of having to outperform,” he said. “I wish there were a national entity with a budget that was doing Democratic branding. And I think that the White House, understandably, has a kind of central role here. And so we, whether we like it or not, we’re sort of going to ride under that brand.”
“We would obviously love to see the president doing better. But I do think he’s done some remarkable things, and especially in foreign policy and the war, but also on infrastructure and the COMPETES bill, which will get done, and the rescue plan,” Maloney said.
Maloney said Biden is still a welcome presence in Democratic districts — he posed with Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) during a stop in her district this week, a photo which Axne promptly tweeted out. Houlahan, too, said she would welcome Biden or any member of his administration to her district.
Republicans are making bold predictions about the size of their advantage going into the midterms. NRCC chairman Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) has said his party may defeat as many as 70 Democrats, in what would amount to one of the largest drubbings in a century.
“Voters know Democrats’ record and poll after poll has shown they despise it. We hope Democrats will run on their record of rising prices, rising crime and open borders,” said Mike Berg, an NRCC spokesman.
“I think the other guys have an assumption that they’re going to get a big wave,” Maloney said. “They don’t really have a plan, they have an assumption that there’s going to be this kind of historic precedent, this big wave.”
“We have a plan,” he said. “The plan is to outperform the brand, like you have to in a tough seat. And you know the question is, how much do you have to have outperformed by? At some point, it becomes more than you can do. But if you’re talking seven to ten points or something, most people do that anyway. I mean, I outperformed Biden by nine points in my district, and I outperformed Hillary [Clinton] by a little more.”
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