CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Scott Soffen has long considered himself a loyal Democrat. This time last year, the apparel company owner in this southern New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia felt confident that his party’s victories would usher in sweeping change, particularly on social justice and economic inequality.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, about 300 miles away, along a highway dotted with gas stations and antique shops, Tristen Ashley was in an empty cafe. She, too, has voted for Democrats in the past, backing Joe Biden in 2020, Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Terry McAuliffe when he ran for governor in 2013.
“It’s been too extreme,” said the 38-year-old who opted not to vote in last week’s Virginia election, even though McAuliffe was back on the ballot. “I think that’s where I generally have problems voting or finding a candidate that I like, because it’s hard for me to find somebody that’s willing to work across party lines and fix things.”
The past week has been a tumultuous one for the Democratic Party. While President Biden and congressional Democrats celebrated passage Friday night of a massive infrastructure bill, danger signs remained from the party’s dismal performance in Tuesday’s elections — with Republicans sweeping statewide races in Virginia, which had been trending blue for years, and nearly toppling the incumbent Democratic governor in deeply blue New Jersey.
The results showcased Democrats’ declining support among moderate voters, particularly in suburbs, small towns and rural communities. And they helped crystallize a problem that has been lurking under the surface for some time, as described in interviews with voters and party leaders alike: the absence of a singular, unifying goal for Democrats to rally around.
While President Barack Obama provided a glue for the party in 2008 and 2012 and the animosity toward President Donald Trump brought all factions together in 2016 and 2020, the party of 2021 often functions more like a collection of smaller tribes spanning an ideological spectrum from socialism to centrism. As a result, when voters and politicians are asked to define what it means to be a Democrat, the answers are often as varied as the diverse constituencies and coalitions that make up the party.
The array of priorities is apparent in the issues Democrats are attempting to address simultaneously in a social spending package still in the works in Congress. The measure, which Biden has called his “Build Back Better” bill, named for his campaign slogan, has mired the party in months of tense and, at times, bitter negotiations. At issue have been provisions on immigration, climate, poverty, prescription drugs, family leave and education, among others.
The differences are only enhanced by the fact that passing the bill through an evenly split Senate and narrowly divided House with no GOP support requires the blessing of nearly every Democrat in Congress — from Sen. Joe Manchin III of pro-Trump West Virginia on the right to Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on the left.
“Welcome to my world,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week when asked whether she was worried about the image of Democrats being unable to get out of their own way. She sought to put a positive spin on the discord: “We are not a lock-step party . . . and that exuberance is the vitality of our party, which we value and treasure.”
Republicans, who have largely unified around their support for Trump, found success in last week’s elections without the former president on the ballot by reaching moderates and independents, in part by tapping into anxiety on issues including school closures and pandemic restrictions, taxes and anti-racist school curriculums they claim have gone too far.
Top Democrats now say their path forward is in enacting the infrastructure plan and passing the additional social spending measure that would fulfill a number of Biden’s promises. But some concede that it’s hard to reach many voters with complex legislation.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, fresh off a near defeat, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the debate over Biden’s spending bill “feels very abstract from here,” adding: “There are a lot of kitchen tables that we need to connect more deeply with.”
Biden acknowledged last week that the political battles in Washington can overwhelm and confuse voters.
“Look, I just think people are at a point — and it’s understandable — where there’s a whole lot of confusion,” Biden said after the election. Voters, he said, are uncertain on issues including whether he will get the pandemic under control, rising gasoline prices and the status of potential tax breaks.
“They’re all things that . . . that I’m running on — that we’ll run on,” he added. “And I think we’ll do fine.”
It remains unclear how the public will interpret the infusion of infrastructure spending into their communities, how the second social spending bill will play out — and whether those measures come to define Democrats in the eyes of voters.
In interviews over the past week with voters in breweries and cafes, grocery stores and farms in suburban New Jersey and rural Virginia, traditionally Democratic voters expressed wide-ranging views about the current state of the party. Some are alarmed that Democrats, with control of all levers of power, haven’t done more to affect their lives. Others are angry that the top issues for the White House are not the ones they care most about.
Liberals say conservatives are holding up the kinds of sweeping change the country needs. Moderates say the party has misread the electorate and risks losing the majority a year from now. And some have come to view members of their own party as a bigger enemy than Republicans.
In Nelson County, Va., a rural area that voted Democratic before turning more Republican in recent years and voted strongly for Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) last week, several voters said they were turned off by the direction of the party.
Lauren Grace, a 37-year-old farmer who’s motivated most by climate issues, said it has been a little frustrating to watch Democrats make so little progress on priorities they’ve been promising for years.
“It’s such a big tent, and we can see that playing out right now with all of the different priorities. It’s definitely the party for all of those progressive interests, all of those human interests, like climate and justice, criminal justice reform,” said Grace, who voted for McAuliffe. “It’s just a big tent right now. It feels like it’s hard to bring it together in a way that actually moves things along.”
In Cherry Hill, N.J., a mostly White, affluent suburb of Philadelphia, Democrats have a massive voter registration advantage, and primaries often determine who holds office.
Some liberals see moderate voters as linked to powerful and well-financed political machines that can control many aspects of municipal life, even in nonpartisan elections.
Susan Druckenbrōd, a liberal Democrat, considered breaking out champagne when she learned that state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the second-most powerful Democrat in her state, had been unseated by a truck driver who raised little money and shot his campaign video on a smartphone.
Sure, she thought, another Republican would have a megaphone in Trenton. But Druckenbrōd, a 56-year-old who hews close to the left flank of the party, had come to think that the bigger threat to her party was a moderate Democrat like Sweeney who had prevented liberal legislation from reaching the Senate floor.
Druckenbrōd said she couldn’t fathom the thought of being a Republican, but there “have been times, especially, here on a local level, I don’t really see myself as part of the party.”
One of the things that has dismayed Kate Delany, president of the South Jersey Progressive Democrats, is that when her group brings new voices to the table, the larger party structure treats them as outsiders.
“They do feel that we are, you know, we are not sufficiently productive or loyal to the party, that we are complainers or we’re extremists,” she said. “We feel that we are calling out problems and debt and also corruption.”
For Delany, liberals have been used as a means of bringing new voters into the Democratic fold, but not necessarily new voices or opinions.
“I think the Dems pay a lot of lip service to the idea of we want new voices, we want women of color, but we don’t want them if they’re not going to have the identical talking points that we’ve handed to them,” she said. “It’s this very troubling and misleading use of identity politics like, ‘Well, we got a woman up there,’ or ‘We got an Asian person,’ but ‘They’re our people. They’re going to say what we want.’ It’s like a college brochure idea of diversity, rather than really bringing in new voices.”
Some party leaders have also voiced alarm about Democrats’ lack of cohesion.
House Minority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) has warned his party that keeping the Black community as a reliable voting bloc requires addressing policy issues such as voting rights as well as economic, social and racial disparities. He has called for the abolishment of the Senate filibuster, even a temporary one, to pass voting rights reforms.
Clyburn said the takeaway from the depressed turnout among Black voters in New Jersey and Virginia should be considered “a national problem” that could plague the party in the midterms.
One challenge has been the broad array of issues that Democrats are pursuing.
Some are motivated by voting rights and criminal justice reform, while others say the pathway should be guided by the nuts and bolts of rebuilding roads and bridges. Some want sweeping efforts to combat climate change but have met resistance from Manchin attempting to protect his state’s coal industry.
Biden and other party leaders have a record of struggling to sell their programs, even after passage and even when they contain popular provisions.
Earlier in the year, for example, the Democratic-led Congress passed a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that has largely been forgotten in the public debate.
“Every single Democrat in the country voted for a relief package that helps small business and families, gets shots in arms and addresses anxiety,” said Dan Sena, a Democratic consultant. “But we haven’t talked about that. The one thing that unifies us is what we haven’t talked about. We have this unified set of things we did at the beginning of the year that we just stopped talking about.”
Even if the party is able to unite around the latest legislation, there will remain lingering divisions over what to pursue next.
“This is not a center-left or a left country. We are a center — if anything, center-right — country,” Manchin said last week on CNN.
“We don’t have the numbers that FDR had or that Lyndon Baines Johnson had in order to get some major, major legislation done. We don’t have those,” he added. “So we have to come to the realization of what we have and deal in good faith that we can do at least something.”
But for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — who last year said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are” — the election results illustrated the perils of running a more moderate campaign. In Virginia, McAuliffe, an establishment fixture and party fundraiser, defeated several challengers from the left in a primary to be the gubernatorial nominee.
“The results show the limits of trying to run a fully 100 percent super-moderated campaign that does not excite, speak to or energize a progressive base,” she said of the Virginia race. “And frankly, we weren’t even really invited to contribute on that race.”
Viser reported from Washington, Wootson from Cherry Hill, N.J., and Elwood from Nelson County, Va. Zach Purser, Tyler Pager and Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.
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