The collective mood of Democratic insiders has darkened appreciably in recent weeks.
Pollsters and prognosticators are forecasting increasingly dire results for their party in the November midterm elections. Inflation, the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters, is accelerating. And despite a booming job market, the president’s average approval rating hasn’t budged since January, when it settled into the low 40s.
“Are you calling to ask me about our impending doom?” one Democratic strategist quipped at the outset of a recent phone call.
“The vibes just feel very off,” said Tré Easton, a progressive consultant.
Others use words like “horrible” and “debacle” to describe a political environment that has gone from bad to worse over the last three months. Many fault the White House for steering President Biden too far to the left as he sought to pass social spending legislation stuffed with progressive priorities. Some see the president as a wounded figure who has failed to establish himself as the unequivocal leader of his fractious party.
“It’s going to be a terrible cycle for Democrats,” said Doug Sosnik, a former political adviser to Bill Clinton. Democrats have only a matter of weeks, he said, to try to alter the contours of a race that will largely be determined by factors beyond their control.
One sign of the alarm rippling through the party: Some Democratic politicians have begun creating distance between themselves and the president. Senate candidates are stampeding to break with the administration’s immigration policies, for instance. Other moves are more subtle, such as those of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who quietly removed the president’s name from news releases about federally funded infrastructure projects.
“What you’re seeing is people feeling like it’s time to head for the lifeboats rather than trying to steer the ship,” said Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary who worked under Barack Obama.
A sense of fatalism is setting in among many, with discussions centering increasingly on how to limit the party’s expected losses rather than how to gain new seats. In Arizona, for example, some Democrats are losing confidence that they will be able to flip the State House, a major target for national party strategists this year.
“We have to be cognizant and realistic about where and how we can win,” said Chad Campbell, a former state lawmaker and Democratic consultant in Phoenix. He added that it was more important for Democrats to position themselves for 2024.
“Most of this is baked,” said Dmitri Mehlhorn, the confidant of a number of Democratic megadonors, referring to the historical pattern of the president’s party losing seats in the midterms.
Not everyone is so pessimistic. But for those charged with solving the Democrats’ midterms conundrum, the question, increasingly, is: How many seats can they save? Control of the Senate is deadlocked at 50-50, and Democrats are clinging to a five-seat majority in the House. Few Democratic strategists expect to keep the House, but many remain hopeful about the Senate, where there’s far more room for candidates to burnish their own independent brands.
When Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank, recently reviewed past midterms for a presentation to Democratic strategists and Hill Democrats, he found that the party in power typically lost around 10 percentage points during off-cycle elections.
That suggested two main takeaways, he said. First, the Democratic Party’s current struggles are utterly ordinary by historical standards. And second, even candidates in safely blue political areas need to brace themselves for difficult campaigns.
“If you’re a district that is Biden plus 12 or less” — meaning the president won the House district in question by that many percentage points in 2020 — “you need to run like you’re losing,” Kessler said.
Wealthy donors in Silicon Valley are turning their attention to offices they have traditionally ignored: attorneys general, governors and secretaries of state in parts of the country that could prove decisive to the outcome of the presidential election in 2024.
In Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania, Republican candidates aligned with Donald Trump have disputed the 2020 election results, promoting dubious “audits” and conspiracy theories about voting machines. The widespread fear among donors is that, if those Trump allies are elected, they will find illegitimate ways to ensure his return to power in 2024.
With Democrats’ prospects in Washington looking dim, Mehlhorn is advising donors to look for opportunities to forestall and disrupt full Republican control in those states.
“Frankly,” he said, “the most important thing is to preserve the ability to have elections in the future.”
‘You don’t have to outswim the shark’
Democrats are still weighing, too, how much to emphasize their accomplishments versus how much to sharpen their points of contrast with Republicans.
The White House has positioned President Biden as fighting to lower costs for Americans, holding events outside of Washington with vulnerable incumbents such as Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa. On these trips to tout his legislative program, he has invited lawmakers into the conference room on Air Force One to hear their concerns and help him hone his speeches to better reflect local input.
But the president has expressed frustration at times that his administration isn’t getting enough credit for taming the coronavirus pandemic, resuscitating the economy and passing funding for infrastructure.
“We have done one hell of a job, but the fact is that because things have moved so rapidly, so profoundly, it’s hard for people,” to appreciate Biden said on Thursday at a fund-raising event for the Democratic National Committee in Portland, Oregon, before rattling off a list of favorable statistics about the economy.
One challenge for a White House that was slow to recognize the public’s growing anger over rising consumer prices is how to balance such boasts while also empathizing with voters’ anxieties about their personal finances.
“The difference about heading into 2022 is that we have tangible projects that have been accomplished because Democrats were able to get that done,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic consultant who previously worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
McKenna said it was important to convey a double-barreled contrast message: that while Democrats are trying to solve working families’ most pressing problems, Republicans are focusing on distractions — be it feuding over Trump’s false claims of a stolen election or attempting to ban school textbooks.
Democrats have made gleeful use of an 11-point plan pushed by Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm. Scott’s plan, which has irritated many of his fellow Republican senators, calls for subjecting all Americans to income taxes and proposes tinkering with government entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare.
Around Tax Day, for instance, the Democratic National Committee purchased Google text ads pointing late-filing Americans toward an ungenerous interpretation of Scott’s plan, which Democrats insists represents the Republican Party’s true policy agenda.
But more drastic measures might be needed if Democrats are going to turn the fall elections into a choice between the two parties rather than a referendum on Biden, others argue.
Gibbs is urging his fellow Democrats to pick a few issues that are important to voters, such as lowering prices for prescription drugs or insulin, and launch a disciplined, party-wide effort to blame Republicans for standing in the way.
“It’s got to be a more coordinated fight than a presidential tweet,” Gibbs said.
There’s an analogy some Democrats are drawn to that speaks to their need to shift the race into a head-to-head contest.
In the first season of the HBO show “Billions,” a fictional hedge fund chief named Bobby Axelrod is confronting the threat of federal prosecution over his illegal trading practices. He decides his best bet is to distract the government by leaking damaging information about an easier target: a rival financier.
As they draw up the plan, Axelrod’s shadowy fixer, a man known only as Hall, tells him: “Remember, you don’t have to outswim the shark. You just have to outswim the guy you’re scuba diving with.”
What to read
Katie Glueck examines how Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida’s fight with Disney signals an escalation of the Republican Party’s brawl with the business community.
At an administrative law hearing in Atlanta on Friday, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia spouted debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 election but denied that her support for the Jan. 6 protests made her an “insurrectionist,” Jonathan Weisman and Neil Vigdor report.
Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House’s top Republican, spent much of Friday containing the political fallout after The New York Times revealed his private criticism of Trump after Jan. 6, Annie Karni reports.
A weather-beaten receiving line
On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Sarahbeth Maney told us about capturing the image above on Tuesday:
On our way to New Hampshire, we had a bit of a bumpy ride. When we stepped outside, we were met with gusty winds so strong that I struggled to keep my balance.
I shielded myself behind some print and TV reporters as we waited for President Biden to exit from Air Force One. I crouched low and noticed an interesting pattern in the way local officials stood in a line, all with a similar pose of locked hands.
Everyone was ready to rush into a warm place, but the president appears unfazed by the weather.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you Monday.
— Blake (Leah is on vacation)
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