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Democratic insiders warn the party will get ‘absolutely destroyed’ in the midterms without a strong economic message as in-fighting and January 6 overshadow Biden’s wins

President Joe Biden joined Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol on January 6, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

  • Democrats need to sharpen their economic message in the 2022 midterms if they want to keep Congress.
  • Democrats’ focus on Trump’s role in the Capitol siege has overshadowed their economic gains.
  • Democrats should claim some credit and be out campaigning on current job growth, one advisor said.

Democratic strategists are sounding the alarm that the party needs to overhaul its messaging about the economy if it wants to stand a chance of keeping control of Congress in the 2022 midterms.

Despite having economic wins to brag to voters about, much of the political narrative coming from the Democratic Party this term has to do with intra-party dust-ups — and Donald Trump’s transgressions on January 6 —  rather than successfully contrasting themselves with Republicans on their economic vision, the strategists told Insider.

Democrats face a tall order of convincing inflation-conscious voters that economic conditions are already good, but they also have to convince fickle electorates in multiple battleground states and districts that given two more years, they could tangibly make their lives better.

“Voters are going to look for hope and change,” said Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee. “Not more of the same.”

There are numbers that suggest things are, in fact, getting better.

Wages are rising, the economy is growing at a rate not seen since the Reagan Administration, and hiring has stepped up. The Biden administration is touting 6.6 million new jobs created in 2021 as the economy bounced back from havoc wrecked by the pandemic. And as of early February, the US unemployment rate is down to 4%.

“Democrats have not focused on taking credit for a robust economic recovery,” said Mark Longbow, a senior strategist on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “It’s not perfect, no recovery ever is, but on jobs and growth Democrats ought to claim some credit and be out campaigning on it.”

If they don’t, they face dire consequences in November when voters will decide who controls the gavel in Congress.

A muddled message

Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona following a vote at the US Capitol on November 3, 2021.Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona at the US Capitol on November 3, 2021.

Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For much of Joe Biden’s presidency, the Democrats’ main adversary has not been Republicans but themselves. In the grand narrative of political storytelling, it’s West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin who’s been the primary villain in Biden’s quest to pass a major legislative agenda, not Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

After Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, refused to vote to alter the filibuster and allow Democratic voting rights legislation through the Senate, Democrats in her home state were preoccupied not with re-electing their current candidate, Sen. Mark Kelly, in November, but with trying to launch a primary campaign against Sinema — in 2024.

The main attacks leveled at the other side of the aisle so far have to do with the Capitol insurrection on January 6 and Republican attempts to downplay the severity of the event in order to appease Trump, its primary instigator, and the voters who support him.

Democrats notched big policy accomplishments when they passed the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The problem is, the strategists said, Democrats need to do a better job of talking to voters about what they think that legislation accomplished.

“The Democratic message for the last year has been something like, ‘1.2 trillion, 2.5 trillion,’ – just a litany of tomato, tomato when it comes to how much money” their legislation cost, said Matt Canter, a partner at the Global Strategy Group and a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman.  

He said the party needs to narrow its messaging on providing “help for working people, addressing rising costs, doing things that will help regular people feel the effects of a growing economy.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, said her party has “not done a terrific job” of touting all the financial and health benefits rolled into the nearly $2 trillion COVID relief package Biden signed into law in early 2021. 

 

They should “really let people know what was in the American Rescue Plan that helped our families and enabled millions of people to get vaccinated,” Hirono told Insider at the US Capitol. She added that reminding constituents about the monthly child tax credit payments that automatically flowed to working families throughout 2021 would also be wise. 

President Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi CapitolPresident Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leave a meeting with House Democrats at the Capitol on October 28, 2021.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Talking points emerge

There’s a growing sense that Democrats are starting to feel the urgency for an economic message that touts their accomplishments so far.

At her weekly press conference on February 9, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, praised recent jobs numbers and said that Biden had “the highest rate of job creation and reduction of unemployment practically in history.”

“We’re laser-focused on the economy for the people, creating jobs, growing the economy,” Pelosi said. 

She said the Biden administration created 6.6 million new jobs, and that the president has overseen the “fastest rate of growth in 40 years.”

“We’re really talking straight on about how we’re going to help people get back on their feet, put more money in the pocketbooks of working families, and how Republican candidates are opposing these proposals,” said a DSCC official, who requested anonymity to weigh in on a primary process that was still playing out.

But despite those topline numbers, most Americans remain focused on their own pocketbooks and job prospects. 

“Gas is expensive, and things are more expensive,” Canter said. “And I think Democrats have to speak to those concerns.”

Democrats have their work cut out for them. Biden has an unfavorable approval rating, with just 41% of the public approving of his performance, according to FiveThirtyEight. Currently, Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats on the question of who the public wants to control Congress. Historically, the president’s party loses seats in his first midterm election.

The story isn’t much prettier when it comes to Americans’ views on the economy. Despite positive signs of overall recovery, Americans feel pessimistic about their own economic outlook. A January Gallup poll of 811 people found that 41% of adults say they are financially worse off than a year ago, although Democrats are more optimistic about their financial situation than Republicans. A February Gallup survey showed that only 33% of Americans felt satisfied with the state of the economy, a sentiment Gallup attributed to concerns about inflation.

More ominously for Democrats, a November NBC News/Marist poll found that when it came to who voters trusted more to handle the economy, Republicans had an 18-point advantage.

“One thing that we know pretty reliably from political science is that economic performance, especially indicators, like inflation, gas prices are strongly predictive of the electoral success of the incumbent party,” said Josh McCrain, a political scientist at the University of Utah. “If Democrats don’t want to get absolutely destroyed in the midterms, they need to make it clear to voters that inflation is high, but overall economic indicators are still good. That’s a tough sell.”

Convincing voters will require each candidate to tout Democrats’ economic record in their home states and districts, highlighting hyperlocal improvements that came from, say, the infrastructure bill.

Candidates “ought to be out talking about the bridges that are getting fixed, the roads that have been built, the internet pipeline that’s being laid,” Longabaugh said. “All of those things, I think make the economic recovery more tangible to people.”

Biden has also overseen the deployment of COVID-19 vaccinations and testing kits — through an at times messy process. 

“The party has a compelling story,” Brazile said. “The question is, will the party be able to discuss what they’ve delivered?”

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