The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Are Democrats doomed in the midterms? Not if they can do this first.

President Biden speaks at FEMA headquarters in Washington in May. (Oliver Contreras/Bloomberg)
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The midterm elections will take place in approximately 500 days. Which is exactly why some Democratic strategists believe it’s urgent to begin executing their midterm strategy right now — nearly a year and a half in advance.

In some respects, the political landscape for Democrats looks forbidding. Though they passed the massive covid-19 relief package known as the American Rescue Plan, Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) opposition to ending the filibuster means that even if they pass a huge infrastructure package, action on many major priorities could then grind to a halt.

That’s one reason Democratic strategists are taking steps now to set the terms of the debate in the midterms. To this end, they say they’ve homed in on a key demographic: suburban women who support President Biden but are at risk of either backing Republicans in 2022 or staying at home.

This demographic is somewhat distinct from the relatively affluent, educated White suburbanite demographic that is often discussed as central to the suburban shift to Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

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Instead, this group is a subset of suburban women who are more likely to be non-college-educated and somewhat less affluent, and tend to be drawn from the working class or lower middle class, or the ranks of small-business owners.

“Without a doubt, it’s a key target audience,” John Anzalone, one of Biden’s pollsters, told me.

Democrats see this group as a challenge and an opportunity. Recent research by the group American Bridge in four states with big Senate races — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia — found that among suburban women who approve of Biden but are not committed to voting Democratic (or voting at all) in 2022, an uncomfortably large percentage were unaware of the details of the covid rescue package.

Yet at the same time, large percentages of them generally approve of Biden’s overall priorities, the group’s spokesman, Max Steele, told me.

This has led Democrats to conclude they must do more to inform these voters about what’s in the relief package, which included stimulus checks, tax credits for families with children, aid to small businesses and large expenditures on vaccine distribution.

And so, American Bridge is running a new ad in Virginia, the site of a big 2021 gubernatorial contest, that features a female small-business owner who says she backed Biden in 2020 but doesn’t always vote for Democrats, and notes that “I really have seen firsthand” the “massive impact” of the rescue package on the economy.

“With the help of Democrats in Congress, Joe Biden got it done,” she says, concluding that “Biden is in our corner.”

The group recently ran a similar ad featuring a female restaurant owner in Arizona, who says the relief package gave her “hope,” and adds that Biden is “thinking about small business” and “thinking about me.”

And the Biden-aligned group Building Back Together recently started airing an ad in several swing states that pitches Biden’s infrastructure plans — and features Biden using the word “jobs” at least half a dozen times.

This messaging is key to winning that demographic, Democrats believe. First, it allows them to tell a story about how policy will impact those voters — the relief package is already bringing benefits, and the infrastructure and jobs plans would create more blue-collar jobs, invest in the economy of the future, and bring more support to economically struggling families.

One challenge is that there’s a “universe” among that demographic that “doesn’t know enough” about Biden’s agenda, Anzalone says.

“It’s going to be really important to communicate that these plans reward hard work, create opportunity for them in this economic recovery, and that this is about them,” Anzalone told me. “That’s the key.”

Dan Sena, who led the House Democrats’ campaign arm during their big 2018 win, points to another crucial nuance here: Many of these voters might be persuadable by bogus GOP claims to fiscal conservatism.

Democrats believe that Republican attacks on these plans as threatening everything from fiscal Armageddon to a rampaging socialist takeover are designed to peel off those voters. So the war is on to define Biden’s plans before GOP attacks do.

As Sena notes, for Republicans to win the House, they’ll have to win back some suburban voters in areas where Biden did very well. “The very first place Republicans are likely to go will be the suburbs, especially with non-college-educated White women,” Sena told me.

Lurking in the background is an even more basic imperative: keeping Biden’s approval rating up. As Cook Political Report analyst Dave Wasserman told me, Biden’s real approval rating (accounting for the possibility of polling errors), must be above 50 percent as “pretty much a prerequisite for Democrats’ hopes of holding the House.”

In some ways, Democrats have a good story to tell: The vaccine rollout is a governing success, the covid rescue plan is helping Americans everywhere, and if economic growth lifts off, Democrats will plausibly be able to claim to have presided over a robust recovery on many fronts.

But it’s perfectly plausible that the Democratic legislative agenda will soon stall out. And, of course, Republican voter suppression and extreme gerrymanders tilt the electoral field even more in the GOP’s direction.

If there’s anything that will give Democrats a decent chance of holding Congress, it probably starts with keeping Biden’s approval ratings buoyed and with relentlessly keeping voters informed about what Biden and Democrats did pass into law — and, above all, the direct impact it’s having on them.

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