A disappointing election night for Democrats earlier this month raised doubts about their strategy of linking Republicans on the ballot to former President Donald Trump.
But as the party reexamines its strategy heading into the midterm election year, Democrats aren’t ready to abandon their anti-Trump playbook.
Democrats working on 2022 races acknowledge that their surprise loss in Virginia and closer-than-expected victory in New Jersey exposed the limits of using Trump as a campaign villain now that he’s out of office.
The party first and foremost, they say, needs to pass and sell President Joe Biden’s entire economic agenda to begin reversing their political decline. But some Democratic strategists argue that won’t be enough to protect their narrow House and Senate majorities.
To buck traditional midterm trends, they say the party also needs to find a way to more effectively portray the GOP — especially the elements inspired by Trump — as too extreme to be voted back into power.
“We need to shift the conversation for voters from merely a referendum on Democrats to a choice between two very competing visions over where we need to go economically, but also as a democracy,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster. “Despite efforts that were made, we have got to make Republicans accountable for extremism that’s really taken over their party, unquestionably.”
“There needs to be equal, if not more, focus on defining Republicans on that extremism as selling the plan,” Canter added.
In the wake of this month’s election results, Democrats have primarily focused on advancing Biden’s infrastructure and social spending plans, hoping that delivering on major pieces of legislation will help to shore up their standing with voters.
But Democratic operatives say the party also needs to shift some of the spotlight back to the Republicans, particularly on those who have followed Trump’s lead in refusing to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election and supporting the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol.
Those issues have taken a backseat to other concerns in recent months, from the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal to a coronavirus resurgence to rising inflation.
Finding the right messaging mix has taken on even greater importance for Democrats as they stare down an increasingly treacherous political environment, with Biden’s approval ratings stuck in the low 40s and voters now giving Republicans the edge when asked which party they want to control Congress.
“Democratic messaging can’t be either/or. It has to be both/and,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s not a question of Democrats listing a laundry list of policies and then outlining a separate critique of the Republicans. Instead it’s one argument about how Democrats are delivering and righting the ship, but Republican radicalism puts everything at risk.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Sean Patrick Maloney laid out the dual-track approach the party plans to take in a memo this week. He said Democrats will contrast the party’s accomplishments, including the newly signed infrastructure law, the expanded child tax credit and pandemic recovery measures, with Republicans’ “reckless and dangerous vision for America.”
Maloney added that House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy “has turned over control of the entire caucus to Donald Trump.”
LESSONS FROM VIRGINIA
The results of the gubernatorial election in Virginia caused some Democrats to question how far an anti-Trump campaign can go now that the former president is no longer at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe sought to repeatedly link Republican Glenn Youngkin to Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia and nationally. But Youngkin managed to pull off a two-point victory in a state Biden carried by 10 points just one year ago.
Some Democratic operatives say there is reason to believe the strategy can still be effective going forward, arguing that Youngkin’s case was unique. Trump did not endorse Youngkin, a political newcomer, until after he became the GOP nominee. Youngkin was then able to keep the former president at a distance during the general election, allowing him to win over Trump’s base without turning off independents.
Democrats say it will be difficult for other Republicans who have more direct ties to Trump to keep him at arm’s length in 2022. For instance, many of the House Republicans who objected to the Electoral College count earlier this year are running for re-election, while GOP candidates running in open primaries in key Senate races like Arizona, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been actively vying for Trump’s support.
The former president has also vowed to be a regular presence on the campaign trail next year as he contemplates another presidential run, which Democrats argue will make him more relevant than he was in Virginia.
“Anyone who thinks Trump is not going to be part of the debate in the midterms must have been on an island since he descended down an escalator into our lives six years ago,” Ferguson said. “The ‘R’ on the ballot may as well be a scarlet ‘T’ on their shirt lapel.”
Democrats also argue that while their Trump messaging did not sway independents in Virginia, who were more focused on issues like the economy and education, it helped boost turnout among base voters. McAuliffe garnered roughly 190,000 more votes than Democrat Ralph Northam, who won the 2017 governor’s race by nine points.
Democrats say they recognize the need to fine-tune their message to reach a broader swath of the electorate, and make clear to voters how a Trump-led GOP would have a negative effect on their daily lives.
“It’s not Trump for the sake of Trump. It’s the disastrous policies the Republicans will pursue when they are in power because of Trump’s influence,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic consultant. “There are real policy outputs. It’s not just about Trump being historically unpopular.”
THE BIDEN AGENDA
Democratic strategists acknowledge that no matter what strategy they pursue, they face an uphill climb, as the president’s party historically loses seats in a midterm election. They are also aware that invoking Trump won’t be effective in every race in the country in 2022, and could even serve to motivate his supporters to turn out to vote.
And they also say that the party first needs to prove to voters that they delivered on their campaign promises before leaning into contrasts with the GOP.
“I don’t believe we will lay a Trump blanket over all of them,” said Martha McKenna, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Democrats would be well-served to do a lot of positive communications about promises made, promises kept.”
Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law this week, and Democratic leaders in Congress are aiming to pass legislation that would expand the social safety net and combat climate change before the end of the year.
Even as Biden’s support has slipped in the polls in recent months, his plans remain broadly popular. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of voters support the infrastructure plan and 58% support the social spending proposal.
Democrats hope that successfully passing and selling these measures will boost Biden’s political standing and provide voters with a sense the economy is heading in the right direction. If those fundamental dynamics don’t change, some Democratic strategists argue the party’s other tactics won’t do much to turn the political tide.
“Macro trends trump all,” said Democratic operative Tyler Law. “The president’s approval rating, how people view the economy, bread and butter issues. That will drive the midterms more than anything else.”