Three weeks out from a midterm election that is beginning to look more and more like a big victory for Republicans, Democrats are starting to play the blame game.
Former President Obama stepped into the spotlight over the weekend by warning fellow Democrats and progressives not to be a “buzzkill” by constantly scolding people for being politically incorrect.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, says the party is spending too much time talking about abortion rights and not enough talking about economic inequality and that it didn’t go big enough in passing legislation to help Americans struggling to afford health care, prescription drugs and other basic needs.
Meanwhile, younger House Democrats who are scrambling to keep their seats in Congress, including Rep. Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), argue the party leadership has fallen out of touch with many voters and have called for “a new generation” and “new blood” in charge of the party.
And many Democratic lawmakers have pointed to President Biden’s low approval rating as a drag on their own prospects.
It all comes as recent polling has shown a Republican resurgence in key Senate and House races and left Democrats worrying they peaked too soon.
Obama and Sanders both expressed a concern that’s becoming more and more widespread across the party: Did Democrats err in focusing on cultural fights and issues like abortion while ceding the stage to Republicans on inflation?
“When we’re talking about putting together … durable majorities, we have to be able to speak to everybody about their common interests,” Obama said in an interview with “Pod Save America.” “Where we get into trouble sometimes is when we try to suggest that some groups are more — because they historically have been victimized more, that somehow they have a status that’s different than other people.
“And that we’re going around scolding folks if they don’t use exactly the right phrase, or that identity politics becomes the principal lens through which we view our various political challenges,” he said.
“Sometimes Democrats are [a buzzkill],” Obama observed.
Obama’s first major interview of the midterm campaign season immediately generated media buzz at a time when party strategists are trying to put Republicans on the defensive instead of reflecting on the divisions of their own party.
Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist and Clinton White House adviser, said, “I don’t disagree with the former president.”
“I think the language police stuff gets a little silly, but I would also say that in the focus groups that I have done and the polling that I have been working on … voters are not mostly focused on that stuff. That’s what Twitter is focused on,” he said. “My sense of what voters are focused on is economic issues, abortion, stuff that really matters to them and their lives.”
One senior Republican strategist said Obama is getting out ahead of what is likely to be an intense debate within the Democratic Party if it loses control of the House and possibly the Senate as well.
“If Democrats get wiped out, you’ll probably see a lot of people in their party pointing back to that message as a way to find renewal,” the strategist said.
“I think he’s doing it because they’re expecting huge losses in the election and he wants to take a leadership role in guiding the party after the losses. It basically sets him up as the smart guy who understood why Democrats were about to lose but people didn’t necessarily listen to him,” the source added. “It empowers him to be a powerbroker heading into 2024.”
After Democrats lost nine seats and control of the Senate in the 2014 election, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said his party was wrong to focus too much on health care reform in the midst of the Great Recession.
“We were in the middle of a recession and people were hurting and said, ‘What about me? I’m losing my job. It’s not health care that bothers me. What about me? My income is declining and I can’t do the things I used to do. It’s not my health care at issue,’ ” Schumer told reporters at the National Press Club in late November of 2014, before he ascended to become Senate Democratic leader.
Democratic strategists say they’re still optimistic about keeping control of Congress.
Jonathan Kott, a Democratic strategist and former Senate aide, argued that Herschel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate in Georgia, is “imploding,” while the Senate race in Ohio — a state that has trended Republican in recent election cycles — “is now on the table,” and that incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is ahead of his Democratic opponent by only 3 points in one recent poll.
Yet Kott said “there always is” a reevaluation of strategy after an election, especially when a party loses, and advised “Democrats should take a lesson from President Obama — he spoke to the entire country, he didn’t speak to one group on Monday, [another] group on Tuesday.”
“President Obama is absolutely correct. We need to start talking to the entire country, all the voters, and say here’s all the things we done,” said Kott, who advised centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Manchin, a Democrat who represents a state former President Trump won by large margins in 2016 and 2020, has urged his Democratic Senate colleagues for more than a year to pay more attention to voters’ concerns about inflation — on which Kott said Manchin was “absolutely right” to focus.
“One of the reasons he was right is he talks to his constituents every day, multiple times a day, and hearing directly from people is probably [a better] indicator than any economic forecast you can get,” he said.
The political picture has gotten worse for Senate and House Democrats since they left Washington three weeks ago still feeling confident in their chances, buoyed by getting a bold new tax reform and climate bill signed into law and hopeful there would be a voter backlash against the conservative Supreme Court and “MAGA” Republicans.
But a New York Times-Siena College poll published Monday showed that independents and women are shifting to the Republican Party despite the spotlight Democrats have put on abortion rights and that Biden’s low approval rating is a major headwind for Democrats.
The survey found that 49 percent of registered voters nationwide said they would vote for a Republican to represent them in Congress, while 45 percent said they would vote for a Democrat. It was conducted from Oct. 9 to Oct. 12.
It showed that 24 percent of registered voters think the nation is on the right track, while 62 percent think it’s moving in the wrong direction. Twenty-six percent of respondents said the economy is the most important problem facing the country right now, and 19 percent said inflation is the biggest problem. Only 4 percent said they saw abortion as the most pressing issue.
Sanders — Manchin’s rival in setting policy priorities within the Senate Democratic Caucus — said recently that Democrats are putting too much emphasis on abortion rights when many voters are more worried about the economy.
“I don’t believe it can be the only issue,” Sanders told “CNN Tonight with Jake Tapper” in a recent interview.
“At a time when we have an economy in which the wealthiest people, the billionaire class, are getting much, much richer while working people are struggling to put food on the table, it goes without saying that we have to focus on the economy,” he said.
Faiz Shakir, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to Sanders, argued that Democrats have a potent economic message to use against Republicans but need to employ it more regularly to overcome the political headwinds facing them this fall.
“When the country is at two-thirds wrong track and by most accounts Republicans are up by 15 to 20 points on the economy … we got to change that,” he said. “We got to at least make the compelling economic argument about what [Republicans] want to do to Social Security, what they want to do to Medicare, what they want to do to student debt relief and prescription drug costs.”
“It doesn’t feel like — when you look at the ads on air by Democrats — they’re fighting aggressively on the economic contrasts,” he said.
He said polls also show Latino voters and young voters are worried about inflation and the economy and added that “you got to get out there and talk about it.”
Not all Democrats are buying into Sanders’s advice and are instead sticking with an abortion-first strategy.
Biden delivered a speech at Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., that put the spotlight once again on the abortion issue and promised that if Democrats keep their Senate and House majorities, the first bill he will send them would codify the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which established the right to an abortion.
“We’ve got work to do,” Shakir said when asked about Biden’s abortion-focused speech.
Lux, the Democratic strategist, said there would be a careful review of party strategy after the election, no matter how Democratic candidates perform.
“There’s always discussion after you lose an election and there should be discussion if we win the election,” he said. “Just because you win doesn’t mean you did everything right. The party will have good discussions in either scenario and go forward from there.”