Democratic concerns about President Biden’s flagging approval ratings, slow-moving agenda and struggles to sell his accomplishments have burst into public view as candidates, party officials and strategists worry that missteps that have led to a dead heat in the Virginia governor’s race could foretell trouble in next year’s midterm elections.
Fear of a defeat that could echo in 2022 is gripping the party as Republicans seek to capitalize on Biden’s unpopularity and on rising anxieties among Americans about the pandemic, immigration, inflation and supply chain bottlenecks. The GOP also is opening new culture disputes over issues such as education, a move that polls show is gaining traction with voters.
A year after Biden defeated Donald Trump and set the stage for Democrats’ takeover of the federal government, GOP officials are voicing more confidence than their Democratic counterparts about the overall terrain on which contests for Congress and statehouses will be fought. The first major test comes Tuesday in Virginia, where Democrats’ nine-year statewide winning streak is at risk as Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, seeks a second term against a relentless campaign by Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state Biden won easily in 2020.
Democrats fret that they have worsened the typical off-year challenges they would face with a long and messy path toward twin infrastructure and domestic policy bills that has so far left them without a campaign counterpunch for Republican attacks on other issues and has drawn attention to Democratic infighting.
Biden advisers voiced confidence that after breakthroughs in recent days, they are closing in on realizing their domestic agenda. They predicted that passage of the two sweeping proposals would revitalize the president’s image ahead of the 2022 elections and improve his standing on the pandemic and the economy, the two issues they feel are at the top of voters’ minds. But other Democrats are less convinced that the political problems that have taken root this year will be easily eradicated.
One of their overarching concerns is whether, even if they manage to ram programs through Capitol Hill, party leaders will be able to sell their programs to the public in the coming year. One of Biden’s top 2020 pollsters, Celinda Lake, recently said she was struck by data showing how few people recognize that the massive pandemic relief bill Biden signed in March was passed without the support of a single Republican in Congress. Democratic elected officials are urging Biden to champion his agenda more aggressively.
“The last time I checked, we passed a $1.9 trillion — that’s with a T — covid relief bill,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who represents much of Fairfax County. “How can anyone give credit to us if we are not talking about it? And we have completely stopped talking about it. And to me that is astounding. Just astounding.”
“With respect to the reconciliation bill, we ought to have a better name for it,” he continued, referring to the arcane procedural maneuver congressional leaders have used as shorthand for the sweeping proposal to expand the social safety net.
The president’s approval rating, a highly correlated indicator of party success in off-year elections, began a steep decline with the resurgence of the coronavirus in July and the botched military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. But it has continued to fall in recent weeks nationally and in Virginia as Democrats have focused on protracted legislative negotiations, a development that McAuliffe and advisers have indicated is a drag on McAuliffe’s campaign.
The frustration reached a new level among strategists Thursday night when Democratic leaders again delayed a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill whose passage McAuliffe has said would help him win Tuesday’s election. The vote will not be taken before Election Day, leaving it as a potential selling point for 2022 candidates, but less so for this year’s crop.
Biden and Democratic congressional leaders have devoted most of their energy in recent months to a divisive intraparty debate over the social spending plan and a related holdup in House approval of the infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate in August. Biden has opted not to directly pressure these Democrats to relent and hold an infrastructure vote first.
One Biden adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations, defended what Biden did on Thursday when he released a revised framework for the social spending plan that he said flatly will win passage. The adviser argued that it was helpful in Virginia and elsewhere, since it shows the party’s priorities.
But the result of Biden’s approach has been open-ended talks that have showcased Democratic self-doubt and public bickering between figures such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). McAuliffe has derided these deliberations and repeatedly urged Democrats in Washington to deliver results. Other Democrats are echoing his frustration.
“We have gotten lost in process. And the process argument is not helping anybody. It’s not helping in Virginia,” said Dan Sena, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee whose political consulting firm now works for Del. Hala S. Ayala (Prince William County), the Democratic nominee for Virginia lieutenant governor. “Candidly, it’s only helping the other side.”
Exasperation with the legislative logjam has extended across the party spectrum and beyond Virginia. Democrats are struggling to retain the support of independent voters they had firmly in their corner as recently as last year. New Jersey also has a gubernatorial election Tuesday, and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is polling in the high single digits ahead of his Republican opponent — roughly half Biden’s victory margin in 2020.
The Democratic Party’s base also has grown tired of the bickering. Jeff Jackson, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate running in a contested primary in North Carolina, said he spoke to hundreds of people at a recent event at a brewery.
“Senator Manchin’s name came up about 10 times,” said Jackson, a state senator. “There’s a lot of frustration there.”
Some Biden allies point to the Democrats’ narrow majorities in Congress and wide range of views in their ranks, arguing that it was inevitable that Biden would be mired in complex back-and-forths for months since he could not afford a single defection in the Senate and few in the House. To others, the public negotiations amount to an unforced error.
“For the good of the party, for Virginia, for his own presidency, it is hard to understand why more hasn’t been done to stop what has become a debilitating decline,” said Simon Rosenberg, a longtime Democratic strategist who advised party candidates in the 2018 congressional elections. “Many things could have been tried, including passing the infrastructure bill. But here we are, and I, for one, am skeptical that the bills which failed to prevent this decline over the past five months will somehow magically restore his standing.”
Democrats view the Virginia election as an early test of their messaging and candidate profiles, as well as of voter attitudes and the composition of the electorate a year after Trump lost. Although the state has turned a darker shade of blue in recent years, it is filled with the kinds of suburban and exurban swing counties, rural conservative pockets and liberal cities that have effectively turned it into a midterm-election laboratory.
McAuliffe has at times distanced himself from less popular elements of Biden’s record and has acknowledged that Biden’s unpopularity poses a challenge, even as the two campaigned together in Arlington days ago. Onstage, they made relatively little mention of the president’s record; Biden acknowledged, “we’ve got more to do,” before ticking through initiatives he is still trying to pass. They spent most of their time tying Youngkin to Trump as part of a larger Democratic effort to energize core voters.
Trump has raised the prospect of running for president in 2024 and continues falsely to claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. These are two factors Democrats hope will motivate a party base that has proved more difficult to rouse after Trump left office. Part of the challenge, Democratic strategists said, is Biden’s limited accomplishments in recent months.
“There should be a postmortem, and the answer they are going to find is if we want to get things done, they have to lead,” another Democratic election strategist said. “Biden is not a senator anymore. Things don’t have to come out of committees.”
Biden’s advisers say that the current difficult moment is almost certain to pass. They expect the pending bills to play a central role in the party’s campaigns next year, which they hope to use to reframe Republicans as obstructionists who look out for wealthy interests.
“Six and eight months from now, when it really matters, the environment is going to be different,” Biden pollster John Anzalone said. “We are going to have a Democratic narrative that I think is really powerful about helping working families lower costs on health care and child care and elder care. And we are going to have a narrative of helping people succeed in a tough economy, and the Republicans aren’t going to have a narrative.”
Republicans have taken advantage of the void left by their opponents’ infighting to lay out an argument that Democrats have failed to deliver security, health and prosperity across the board. They point to crises on the southern border, the Afghanistan withdrawal and rising costs, which economists pin largely on supply chain issues but which Republicans ascribe to Democratic stimulus efforts.
In Virginia, Youngkin has zeroed in on another newly powerful issue: education. The issue typically has played to Democrats’ advantage, but polls in Virginia show a stark shift in attitudes. Youngkin and other Republicans are hoping to unify their base and the moderate suburban voters who of late have spurned the GOP by focusing on how schools have dealt with the coronavirus, racial justice curriculums and transgender equality.
Youngkin has run a barrage of ads singling out McAuliffe’s comment during a televised debate that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) compared McAuliffe’s remark to the protest slogan “defund the police,” which Republicans successfully pinned on some Democrats in the 2020 elections, even though almost all party leaders opposed the idea.
“I think one thing that is going to happen in ’22 is we are going to have an unbelievable turnaround in school boards, and it’s going to get out a lot of voters that normally wouldn’t vote,” Scott said. “They are going to come out to vote, and they are going to vote Republican, so I think it is going to be good for us.”
In Virginia, special elections are planned next year for at least two school board seats in Loudoun County, the center of the political battle over education. Democrats are worried about getting caught flat-footed on the issue.
Lake, the Biden campaign pollster who now does surveys and research for the Democratic National Committee and other Biden allies, said that while GOP attacks on critical race theory are not likely to resonate, the argument that Democrats are not on the side of parents requires a more robust response than the party has presented thus far. “That’s the one we need a better strategy on,” she said.
The issue has taken center stage in the final stretch of the Virginia race. Youngkin recently released an ad featuring a woman who fought against the Toni Morrison book “Beloved” in schools. At the McAuliffe rally with Biden, Democratic aides handed out copies of the book to reporters with a flier accusing Youngkin of wanting to ban books.
Several Democratic voters who attended the rally dismissed the substance of Youngkin’s attacks. But one man said the accusations might still work.
“I will tell you what: Fear always works stronger,” said the man, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Nazir.
“It’s easy to scare people,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of gullible people.”
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