During a closed-door lunch last week with some of his most vulnerable incumbents, House Democrats’ campaign chief delivered a blunt warning: If the midterms were held now, they would lose the majority.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) followed that bleak forecast, which was confirmed by multiple people familiar with the conversation, with new polling that showed Democrats falling behind Republicans by a half-dozen points on a generic ballot in battleground districts. Maloney advised the party to course-correct ahead of 2022 by doing more to promote President Joe Biden’s agenda, which remains popular with swing voters.
“We are not afraid of this data … We’re not trying to hide this,” Tim Persico, executive director of the Maloney-chaired Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview.
“If [Democrats] use it, we’re going to hold the House. That’s what this data tells us, but we gotta get in action,” he added.
Maloney’s foreboding words come as Democratic leaders map out an aggressive strategy to hold the House next November, defending a tenuous majority with the help of a president who has more ambitious plans to juice the economy. But Maloney’s omen of defeat was hardly a surprise to the battleground-district Democrats he was addressing, some of whom have been sounding the alarm for weeks that the party’s messaging — particularly on the economy — needed a reboot.
And it’s not just those so-called frontliners who have begun to alert their colleagues. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who co-leads caucus messaging, gave a wake-up call to another group of fellow Democrats last week, telling colleagues that the party needed to better explain what Democrats have been doing to help the Covid-ravaged economy.
“We’re not breaking through,” Dingell said at that Thursday meeting of about 50 Democrats, according to people in the room. Dingell was echoing a message she’d sent earlier last week in a leadership meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies, where the Michigander said people didn’t think Democrats were doing enough to boost the economy back in her home state, particularly its auto industry.
Party leaders are already stepping up their offense in response to the growing agita. A Democratic messaging blitz this month on Biden’s priorities is set to get help from a White House communications war room that will activate while members are back in their districts. Around the country, Biden’s Cabinet is being dispatched to talk up jobs and infrastructure in swing districts in states such as Iowa, New York and New Jersey.
For now, it’s too early to say that Democrats have no path to keeping their majority. But they would need a lot of factors to break in their favor in order to hang on next November. For now, both parties remain neck-and-neck on fundraising, and the new congressional maps — which could largely determine Democrats’ fate — are still months out.
Meanwhile, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are hustling to pass a massive Biden-led spending package that Democrats hope will further boost their chances of averting the historic pattern of a party in full control of Washington losing ground in its first midterm.
“The point is, to make sure that we’re all on the same page, that we understand the stakes,” Persico said. “Here’s the good news: Everything we are doing and everything we’ve talked about doing is incredibly popular.”
He said that the same polling showed that Biden’s infrastructure plan was “wildly popular,” adding: “Nothing in this poll suggests anything about altering our agenda. It’s about emphasis.”
Still, a growing number of battleground-district incumbents are privately alarmed by new data that showed the party struggling on bellwether issues such as the economy, despite their trillion-dollar pandemic rescue effort this year and Biden’s generally steady approval rating. And they worry that Maloney’s stark warning, once made public, could significantly impact fundraising and recruitment.
The July poll commissioned by the DCCC and presented by Maloney last week showed a Democratic candidate falling behind a GOP candidate by 6 points in a generic poll in swing districts. The survey of 1,000 likely 2022 voters was conducted in more than four dozen congressional battleground districts and regions.
Democrats cautioned that a generic match-up poll taken roughly 16 months ahead of an election does not necessarily signal how people would vote closer to the race, and that individual candidates are often more popular with voters than a party-only head-to-head.
Still, the same survey showed only 42 percent of people trusted Democrats on the economy — even as key pieces of the party’s agenda, such as the expansion of the child tax credit, remain hugely popular.
“The polling looked pretty dismal to me,” according to one Democratic member who attended the briefing, who addressed it candidly on condition of anonymity.
But another frontliner who attended the meeting, Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), said she didn’t agree with the assessment that Democrats would lose the House if the election were held today.
Wexton, who flipped a GOP district in 2018, said she wanted to make sure “that we turn out every vote we turned out in 2018 and 2020” and was confident she’d keep her seat next fall.
The data was presented to the full caucus last week, where Maloney noted other risks to the party, such as inflation and the hiring shortage affecting low-wage segments of the economy.
He stressed that Democrats do have a strong tool in their arsenal: Much of Biden’s agenda polls strongly, including the party’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that included aid for small businesses as well as huge safety net expansions.
The problem, congressional Democrats say, is making sure they get the credit.
The DCCC’s survey also revealed serious weak spots for GOP candidates, including extremism tied to Jan. 6 and vaccines.
Fifty-seven percent of battleground voters said they have serious doubts about GOP lawmakers after hearing that those members “helped spread Trump’s lie about the election,” and 56 percent of voters said they had serious doubts after hearing that Republicans in Congress are “spreading lies about the COVID vaccine.” Still, some vulnerable Democrats say their colleagues could help their cause more by sidestepping fights about culture-war flashpoints, whether it’s police funding or critical race theory.
And for quite a few moderates, the DCCC polling — while alarming — is a breath of fresh air from a campaign arm they said was slow to recognize worrisome trends in the last election. The 2020 race cost House Democrats more than a dozen seats, a GOP rout that few in the party saw coming.
The DCCC’s survey isn’t the first to identify a Democratic weak spot on the economy. A national survey released last month from the centrist Democratic group Third Way warned of congressional Democrats’ “trust gap” on the economy.
But while voters disapproved of congressional Democrats’ handling of the economy by a margin of 41 percent to 55 percent, voters gave Biden much higher marks. Fifty percent of voters said they approved of Biden’s handling of the economy.
The group’s takeaway for congressional Democrats in the midterms? “Run as ‘Biden Democrats.’”
Nicholas Wu, Ally Mutnick and Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.