The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats try to regain footing for midterm elections

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) meet with reporters in Washington on Nov. 12, 2020. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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When House Democratic leaders met with President Biden this month in the Map Room, they brought with them an unexpected request: Could he identify a senior White House point person to work with them on the midterm elections?

The fact that the question needed to be asked at all, in a room filled with several of Biden’s top aides, spoke to the Democratic disorganization just nine months before elections that will shape the second half of Biden’s term. Lawmakers’ frustration had been building, according to multiple people familiar with the situation, as campaign strategists struggled to work with Biden’s team while the administration tried to craft a consistent strategy for dealing with hot-button issues such as the coronavirus pandemic and inflation.

House Democratic campaign chairman Sean Maloney (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who traveled to the White House on Feb. 2, decided that the best route was to take the issue directly to the president. They made the request as part of a broader discussion about how Biden would help in the coming elections and the ways the White House can more succinctly sell its agenda and accomplishments.

“We wanted to make sure that the proper attention was being paid to the midterms,” Maloney said in an interview, explaining their request. “They have an enormous amount of talent down there. We just wanted to know who our point of contact was.”

That meeting and another with Senate strategists have proved to be turning points of sorts, according to people on all sides of the conversations, resulting in regular coordination on planning and freeing up $15 million from the Democratic National Committee to be used to help House and Senate campaigns. It’s a pivot Biden hopes to take public on Tuesday, when the president steps on his biggest stage, a televised prime-time State of the Union address, with a focus on Democratic accomplishments and plans for the future.

But the efforts to define for voters the Democratic case against Republicans comes at a time of significant internal uncertainty among the party’s leaders, with many lawmakers and strategists questioning whether the White House’s emphasis on political issues has been sufficient and whether there is still time to shift, according to interviews with officials and strategists, more than a dozen of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity about private conversations.

“I don’t see a message. That troubles me. I think Democrats are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” said Democrat Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member of the South Carolina State House. “They’ve done some good things. They don’t seem to be able to figure out how to talk about it.”

Biden made clear in the meeting that he would step up his personal involvement in the coming months, and he said several senior advisers would continue to be involved in the midterm effort. They include Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who is coordinating the political efforts, senior adviser Mike Donilon, who oversees the Biden strategy, and Counselor to the President Steve Ricchetti, who often works with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to a Biden adviser familiar with the conversation.

“They have all been incredibly accessible since the meeting with the president,” Maloney said.

Democratic concerns have been particularly acute around the party’s pitch on the economy, which has recovered quickly under Biden, even as costs have begun to grow at the fastest rate in decades. After pivoting last fall away from talking about “transitory” price increases, Biden focused this year in his speeches on concerns about inflation and what he is doing to fight back.

When Biden met separately with top Senate Democrats, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) urged the president and his team to help the party turn up the volume on what they are doing to lower prices, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the conversation.

In the eyes of some top congressional Democrats, the issues at the White House have less to do with Biden than with his staff and its sometimes ill-defined structure. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who leads his party’s senate campaign effort, expressed an upbeat view of the president’s engagement on the eve of the White House meeting. “The president has communicated to me in no uncertain terms that he will do whatever he can to make sure we not only hold the majority, that we expand the majority,” Peters said.

The Biden adviser said the increase in planning and coordination was occurring on schedule, as the White House shifted from a year focused on governing to an election year.

“I think you’re just going to see a lot more focus on defining the choice for the American people and making it easy for them to see who’s in it for them and who’s in it for political gain,” the adviser said of the meeting. “We talked about how do we put a simple frame around all that we have done and accomplished together so that it really reaches people more clearly.

But significant skepticism remains. Biden’s approval rating has fallen below 40 percent in at least one competitive senate state; a Post-ABC poll published Sunday set his national approval at 37 percent. In a shift from early in Biden’s presidency, more Americans now say they would like to vote for a Republican congressional candidate than a Democrat, according to national polling averages.

Democratic senators have urged the White House to do more to establish a clear economic message, and both the House and Senate have begun to chart new legislative strategies on issues such as China, drug prices and crime to help move beyond the Democratic infighting that so far has doomed legislative efforts to expand social programs and voting rights.

Several Democratic operatives worry that the Biden White House focus on legislating in 2021 and preparing for the elections in 2024 has pushed the immediate election challenge to the back burner.

“This is a White House issue,” said one Democrat involved in midterm planning. “They are just waking up to the fact that the midterms are an issue.”

Pelosi has acknowledged the frustrations in private meetings with her own members.

At a recent weekly “Crescendo” meeting with representatives from each of her caucuses, she described the difficulties she had with the White House during the Obama and Clinton years when it came to strategizing for the midterms, according to a Democrat with direct knowledge of the exchange. She has urged her lawmakers to develop their own plans, and then to push for the Senate and White House to get on board, according to multiple people familiar with the comments.

A recent polling memo from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, shared with Capitol Hill aides, urged candidates to be aggressive in response to Republican attacks on defunding the police and critical race theory. Democrats have begun work on bills to combat crime and increase funding for police.

In recent weeks, Pelosi, Biden and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), a liberal lawmaker from the South Bronx, have all clearly rejected “defund the police” as a policy. “Enough is enough,” Biden said in a February visit to New York City about rising crime rates, reprising his campaign position. “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to give you the tools and training and funding.”

Biden advisers point to historic investments they have already made in the fall campaigns. Building Back Together, an outside group backed by Biden, spent more than $25 million on ads in competitive districts last year, mostly focused on the failed effort to pass legislation to expand social programs. In addition to the $15 million for the House and Senate efforts given this year, the Democratic National Committee has set aside $20 million for a coordinated campaign effort in competitive Senate states that are also likely to be 2024 presidential battlegrounds. Millions more have been earmarked for voter protection efforts across the country.

DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison met with Biden on Feb. 18, according to Biden advisers, for a long-scheduled meeting about the coming year. The meeting came amid numerous reports that he is frustrated in the job, since most of the strategic decisions at the party are being run through the White House, as is typical under a Democratic president. The pandemic has also limited Harrison’s travel for fundraising, which some Democrats hope will change as coronavirus cases decline.

“The message the president had for Jaime was, ‘We want to see more of you,’ ” the Biden adviser said of the meeting. “You have a unique role only you can do. You can set up a choice in a very political way.”

Harrison was recently in Florida raising money, according to a person familiar with the situation. In a statement, Harrison said the DNC and its partners are “a cohesive team that is firing on all cylinders.” He added, “I am proud to be a part of this team and the critical work we are doing, which will only increase in the coming weeks and months.”

But Harrison and the White House will first have to overcome the frustration of Democrats out in the states, who feel months were lost last year because of internal debates over Senate procedural rules and the giant legislative package, called Build Back Better, that many voters did not understand. Legislative successes on infrastructure and coronavirus relief have failed to stop the decline in Biden’s approval ratings.

Lawmakers in some competitive districts said they already are looking beyond the national dynamics of the race.

“I care about what the president says because I want him to do well, but I don’t care about it in the context of my election because I don’t think that’s what my voters are focused on,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said. “They are focused on having a personal connection with me and feeling like I care about their problems.”

Still, some Democrats said they wonder whether the White House has been too slow to deflect political liabilities.

“We need to continue elevating the really significant accomplishments in fighting covid, moving economic progress, including fighting inflation, and other challenges like anti-crime measures,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is running for a third term this year. “I think what’s really important is to simply present clearly and accurately the really solid record of accomplishment of the Congress and the administration.”

But consistent messages still remain elusive at times. On Feb. 17, weeks after his White House meeting, Maloney was asked on MSNBC how Democratic candidates should respond to voter concerns about higher inflation.

“Don’t talk about Nobel laureates, because no one cares,” Maloney said, referring to a frequent Biden talking point. “Talk about the price of a gallon of milk.”

Hours later, Biden’s official Twitter account posted: “17 Nobel Prize winners in economics say the Build Back Better Agenda will ease longer-term inflationary pressures. We can get this done.”

In an interview, Maloney said it was understandable that the White House would have a different set of policy talking points on Twitter, with its audience of political insiders, than Democratic candidates would have with voters. He said the relationship between the White House and the midterm campaign team was strong.

“We feel pretty good about what we’re getting right now,” Maloney said. “It’s right where it should be, is the way I would say it.”

correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the Feb. 2 meeting between President Biden and the House Democratic leaders. It was the White House Map Room, not the Oval Office. This version has been corrected.

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