CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democratic Party leaders moved quietly this week to lower expectations for the midterm elections as they met for year-end talks against the backdrop of an increasingly bleak electoral landscape.
The House? Likely gone. The Senate? A crapshoot.
Interviews with more than two dozen state party chairs, executive directors and strategists suggest party officials are reframing the 2022 election as a defensive effort, with success defined as maintaining the Democratic Senate majority and holding back a Republican tide in the House.
“Success looks like we hold the Senate and we hold the House, or we narrowly lose it, so if Republicans take control, it’s a razor-thin margin,” said Colmon Elridge, the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.
“I would hope [the Republican margin in the House] is less than 20,” he said.
For Democrats, the meetings here reflected a sober assessment of the party’s near-term prospects — marking a shift on the left from a state of denial to a place of bargaining. In downgrading expectations, party officials are placing increased urgency on Democrats’ effort to pass major pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda while they still can and treating the House campaign next year as a set-up for 2024. If Democrats can keep the chamber close enough, they believe they can make a credible run at the majority again two years later, when a presidential election year could make conditions for the party more favorable.
At the Charleston Marriott, where Democrats met for training, presentations and receptions, one state party chair called the midterm prospects “awful.” Another state party chair said, “I don’t see any way we keep the House.” And one strategist said, “If we’re in the 10 to 20 [loss of House seats] range, that will be better than we thought.”
“I’m scared,” said Peg Schaffer, vice chair of the Democratic Party in New Jersey, whose Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, won reelection this year, but by a far closer margin than expected. “We need to get the vote out, and in the midterms, it’s hard.”
By every conventional measure, Democrats are staring into a midterm abyss. Inflation is soaring, and large majorities of Americans are anxious about the economy. Biden’s approval ratings — a metric closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms — are stuck in the low 40s, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, and generic ballot tests pitting unnamed Republicans against unnamed Democrats have swung in the GOP’s favor.
Even worse for the party in power, Covid-19 is still killing more than 1,000 Americans a day, and the virus’ Omicron strain is spreading so rapidly that Democrats are bracing for a spike in cases to start the new year. On Friday, the Association of State Democratic Committees opened its general session with an announcement that two vendors working on site had tested positive for Covid. Party officials were conducting contact tracing as the meeting went on.
“Omicron is going to lead to a surge in January, which is undoubtedly going to depress people,” said Karl Sandstrom, a campaign finance lawyer working with Democrats.
Of the party’s prospects in 2022, he said, “It certainly isn’t promising. But it’s a long year.”
In part, Democrats are suffering from bad timing, pinched between anxiety about next year and the sting of the off-year elections. It was just last month that Democrats saw Republicans over-perform expectations in New Jersey and win an upset in Virginia’s gubernatorial race. The results cast what Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, acknowledged was a “shadow” over the meeting.
In a speech to the state party association, which he leads, Martin repeatedly urged Democrats to “stop agonizing.”
“Look, look, Democrats, midterms are never easy,” he said. “But none of us in this room are here today because the work is easy. We’re here because the work matters.”
But there is no guarantee that Democrats will be able to run more effective campaigns in 2022. There was widespread agreement among Democrats in Charleston that any hope for success next year will hinge on Congress passing Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate and social spending package, as well as on elections reform legislation. Both are significant lifts. Biden acknowledged Thursday, just as meetings picked up here, that negotiations on his Build Back Better bill will likely drag into next year. Congressional action on voting rights appears even more tenuous.
“If we could get the Build Back Better plan passed and get a strong voting rights bill passed, Democrats will have a strong possibility of at least keeping the Senate,” said Hendrell Remus, chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
“It’s tough. It’s a tough reality,” he said.
Publicly, Democrats are still projecting confidence that they can maintain the House in 2022. And it’s not impossible that they will. The Omicron variant, while highly contagious, appears typically to cause mild disease. The economy is showing signs of strength. If the virus and inflation can be brought under control by mid-2022, the mood of the electorate may dramatically improve, likely helping the party in power.
“My goal is — even if it’s slim, if it’s by one — it’s keeping control of the House and adding at least one or two more to the United States Senate,” said Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, in an interview.
While acknowledging the historic precedent of the president’s party losing seats in midterms, Harrison said, “The economy’s going to come back and come back strong,” benefiting incumbent Democrats.
“The real challenge for us is the feeling from Covid,” he said. “Can people get to some sense of normalcy? I believe if people start feeling as if normalcy is coming back, I think Democrats are in a much, much better situation.”
Many party leaders and strategists believe there is at least a small chance that will happen. Moreover, they are acutely aware that defeatism is a losing strategy in an election where high voter turnout will be critical. In Nevada, a swing state where Democrats will be defending the seats of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak in 2022, Judith Whitmer, the state party chair, said she is “extremely optimistic.”
“We have to stop with this tendency to have a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. “We keep hearing this narrative, ‘It’s going to be a bloodbath.’ … I don’t think we should look at it like that. I think we have to be optimistic.”
Trav Robertson, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, ripped into what he called “this negative, defeatist attitude coming from a group of Washington elites.”
“By God, we can make history and create our own fate,” he said. “How do you lose? You don’t get voting rights passed.”
If Democrats are able to muscle voting rights legislation through Congress and also pass Biden’s Build Back Better agenda — and if inflation and Covid come under control — one state party executive director said Democrats could at least maintain a sufficiently large minority in the House to “block bad things from happening.” Holding a narrow minority, one strategist said, would poise the party for a more competitive campaign in 2024.
But hardly anyone here was banking on it.
Asked about the party’s prospects next year, one state party’s executive director shook his head and said, “Let’s get a drink.”
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