The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic midterm fears mount as policies fail to resonate with voters

President Biden delivers remarks on the economy in the South Court Auditorium in the White House complex on Nov. 23, 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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At a virtual fundraiser late last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) shared a blunt assessment about the Democratic Party.

“Democrats are terrible at messaging,” she said, according to notes taken by one attendee. “It’s just a fact.”

The admission surprised some attendees for its frankness, but it’s a sentiment that is widely shared among other lawmakers, donors and party leaders. The concerns are growing more urgent as Democrats gear up for grueling midterm elections, in which most in the party expect to lose control of the House and many are also increasingly pessimistic about retaining a majority in the Senate.

Beyond a struggle to sell the nuts-and-bolts of legislation, there are deeper fears among Democrats that the party lacks a cohesive and convincing argument to win over voters in next year’s elections. Democrats are eager to tout the bills they have passed in President Biden’s first year, but a strategy tying together the disparate pieces of legislation — from lowering the cost of child care and eldercare to combating climate change to building roads and bridges — is still lacking.

And two of the biggest worries for voters — the economy and the pandemic — continue to drag down Biden and the Democrats. With inflation already a top concern, markets plummeted on Friday as a new coronavirus variant prompted the United States and other countries to impose travel restrictions amid fears of another resurgence.

“I’m not going to argue that it’s working right now, but I need it to work when it matters, and if it’s going to work, we need to get the accomplishments and the record of results that the American people will support. We are doing that,” Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said when asked about frustration in the party with the White House strategy to promote its agenda.

When discussing their pitch to voters, Democrats from the president to rank-and-file lawmakers often spout a laundry list of policies they have passed, many of which are individually popular. The problem is that most voters have not given Democrats credit for implementing the measures. Democrats faced a similar quandary after passing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March, when strategists found that Democrats received no meaningful political boost despite united Republican opposition to the broadly popular package.

“History teaches the elected representatives who do it aren’t always rewarded in the next election,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is running for reelection next year. “But if we can show some results, and inflation is under control if it comes down, I think people will be in a much different frame of mind about Congress.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are starting to coalesce around a midterm strategy centered on the argument that the Biden administration has been marked by incompetence — from the chaotic withdrawal in Afghanistan to rising prices to prolonged and messy negotiations on Capitol Hill.

White House officials vehemently disagree with that characterization and argue that passing popular policies is the party’s best political strategy. They remain confident Democrats will be rewarded for their legislative success, which includes the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure plan and potential passage of the social spending and climate package known as Build Back Better.

But the Biden administration, and Democrats, continue to be whipsawed by events.

On Wednesday, the White House welcomed the news that jobless claims plunged to their lowest level in more than 50 years. But supply chain bottlenecks and rising inflation continue to threaten Democrats’ economic message, worrying some in the party about growing too confident that conditions will fully improve by next year’s elections.

And on Friday, the World Health Organization’s announcement of a new “variant of concern” named omicron amounted to another major setback.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said Wednesday that the party is in “lockstep” with a message centered on saving lives through vaccines, lowering costs for American families and creating jobs.

“We are the first, as Democrats, to wring our hands and criticize each other, and I think that’s unfortunate, because we know what we’re doing,” she said. “We know who we’re fighting for, and we know that this is about making sure everybody’s got a fair shot to succeed in our country, and that is embedded in our DNA as Democrats.”

Yet senior Democratic strategists remain concerned that the White House has not shown enough urgency in making the party’s case before the midterms, including a more aggressive public schedule by Biden. Some fear that if the White House does not change course soon, there will not be enough time to fix the problem by next November.

“Joe Biden right now is the father of our country, and I just want to see him out there every day telling us what the plan is,” Maloney said. “I’d like to see him do dozens of these events in important markets all over the country where people need to know what we’re doing, and nobody can do it like he does.”

Biden traveled to New Hampshire and Michigan this month after signing the infrastructure legislation into law, and White House officials say he, Vice President Harris and other Cabinet members will continue to fan out across the country in the coming months. Maloney said House Democrats were also planning to hold 1,000 events around the country to sell the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Still, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and other senior officials have been listening to Democrats outside the White House on ways to refine their political message, according to people familiar with the discussions. There have also been talks about how the White House will be staffed to plan for the midterm election season.

Concerns about the party’s midterm strategy also dominated a private briefing for Senate Democrats earlier this month with some of the party’s top strategists and pollsters. Organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chair of the caucus’s Steering and Outreach Committee, the presenters included Anita Dunn, a former senior adviser to Biden who is still actively involved in White House political operations, and pollsters Geoff Garin and Pete Brodnitz.

Much of the meeting focused on Democratic messaging and the party’s struggles to sell its agenda, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Democrats fretted about the defeat of former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) in this month’s Virginia gubernatorial election and about the broader trends that contributed to poor Democratic results in other contests.

Ultimately, the strategists urged Democrats to focus their pitch on the economy, particularly as it relates to Biden’s Build Back Better plan. They also argued that the Biden agenda, as it was developing through legislation, would be a strong issue to run on in the midterms. But one presenter advised the lawmakers to stay away from talking about the social safety net, concerned that the phrasing would turn people off, and instead focus on job creation and improving wages.

Many senators in the room concurred, worrying that the party was not getting credit with voters. Post-election research on Virginia voters conducted by Democratic-aligned groups validated those worries, finding that voters “couldn’t name anything that Democrats had done” and were “unhappy with the direction of the country” and the economy.

“To me the highest message priority for 2022 is to make sure we get credit for having defeated covid and secured the economic recovery,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. “If we can’t get credit with voters for big important things we’ve done, we are unlikely to get credit for things which largely haven’t happened yet. As the incumbent party, we will be judged by whether we’ve made people’s lives better, not on what legislation we’ve passed.”

Early November polling by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee found the party could make the most gains in swing districts by talking about what it can do to secure the supply chain, boost manufacturing and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil — all responses to current attacks against Democrats, according to a slide deck circulated by the group.

Messages about taxing large corporations also won over voters, as did fixing highways, roads and bridges. Separate questions found that Democrats had an opportunity to gain support by attacking Republicans on their efforts to ban abortion, block an increase in the debt ceiling and block negotiation of prescription drug prices.

At the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, the party’s chair, has settled on the slogan, “Democrats deliver,” arguing that it allows the party to focus on the legislation it has passed and draw contrasts with Republicans.

“Democrats will remain focused on our strategy and message because we know it’s what the American people want and need, which stands in stark contrast to the obstruction and extremism we see on the other side,” Harrison said.

But some Democrats have encountered difficulties in proving to voters that they, not the Republicans, are delivering results.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who is running for reelection in a tough swing district, already saw the challenge of selling the Build Back Better legislation, which Democrats hope to soon pass. One constituent, she said, firmly believes the extra money in her bank account from the child tax credit is thanks to former president Donald Trump. The tax credit was instituted and is likely to be extended in legislation supported only by Democrats.

“I had to explain that whole thing with her,” Wild said, attributing it to Trump’s persistent self-promotion.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said selling the infrastructure bill should be an easier lift because voters can visualize and soon see progress. During her first event just one day after the infrastructure bill passed the House, Dingell fell into a pothole in her district and immediately exclaimed, “This is what we’re going to fix!”

“We need to go out and tell people what that money is for, build realistic expectations — maybe we’ll fix the pothole I fell in last Saturday quicker, but we’re going to build those roads in the next five years,” she said. “We’re going to talk about all the things that are in this bill so people know what’s there.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.