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Opinion What Democrats need to worry about most

Former president Donald Trump delivers remarks to a rally of supporters in Florence, Ariz., on Jan. 15. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Midterm elections are nearly always treacherous for the party that controls the White House, and there are growing signs that this year’s could be particularly rough for the Democrats, who hold the thinnest of majorities in Congress. It is particularly true in the House, where if more than four seats switch hands in November, Republicans will regain the majority.

President Biden’s approval rating is in the dumps, with the percentage lately averaging in the low 40s. No modern president other than Donald Trump had a lower rating at the end of his first year in office. The country is in a sour mood, understandably so, as it moves into the third year of a pandemic, and with inflation rising.

That all of this is reverberating down the ballot was confirmed on Thursday, when the House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, added seven more incumbents — most of them in districts that Biden carried by double digits in 2020 — to the list of those it considers endangered and in need of additional resources.

Meanwhile, nearly 30 Democratic House members so far have announced they will not seek reelection — which is twice the number of Republican retirements. In many cases, this is because Democratic incumbents are looking at new Republican-drawn district maps, calculating their odds and deciding it is time to hang it up. The latest to head for the exit is Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who has served more than three decades in the House. “Despite my strength at the polls, I could not stop the General Assembly from dismembering Nashville,” he said in making his announcement on Tuesday. “There’s no way, at least for me, in this election cycle.”

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But of all the numbers that should be worrying Democrats nine months before the election, the one that might be most ominous is a figure that suggests their voters are far less energized than Republican voters. An NBC News poll found that where 61 percent of Republicans say they are highly interested in the upcoming midterms, only 47 percent of Democrats feel that way, with the largest drops coming among Black voters, the young and people who live in urban areas.

Part of this might be sheer exhaustion. After four years of being in a constant state of high anxiety over Trump, it is understandable that many Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters would welcome a respite from thinking about politics all the time.

But there is also evidence that what these voters are hearing from the party is not speaking to what most concerns them in their daily lives.

Take, for instance, a recent survey that American Bridge 21st Century, a leading Democratic super PAC, commissioned of women in the key battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Fully 56 percent cited economic recovery as an extremely important priority they would like to see Biden and the Democrats address, with lowering health-care costs coming in second at 47 percent. They gave Republicans higher marks for actually focusing on economic issues, while saying they believed Democrats are more preoccupied with social and cultural ones.

All of this suggests, among other things, that Democrats are not doing a very good job of telling their own story, which includes the fact that they passed a $1.9 trillion covid relief package with no Republican support.

“These gaps that exist show issues where we have the opportunity to connect on the economy,” American Bridge President Jessica Floyd told me. “We’re out there doing the thing that voters want us to be doing. Voters just don’t know it. What we need to realize is our actions don’t speak for themselves.”

At the same time, it doesn’t help that Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better spending package — which includes popular initiatives such as universal preschool and assistance for families — has been stymied largely because his own party cannot agree on how big it should be or what it should include.

What might change the dynamic for Democrats, at least somewhat, is the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s decision to retire. As Biden fulfills a campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the nation’s highest bench, he might be able to reinvigorate the party’s deflated base, as well as elevate issues such as abortion rights, which are threatened by the openness the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has shown toward overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The election last November of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in blue-trending Virginia should have served as an early warning signal of what might await Democrats this year across the map if they cannot find a way to reenergize the voters they need most. So far, however, there is little evidence of what, if anything, they have figured out to do about it.