WASHINGTON (The Hill): Democrats are grappling with the increasingly dire political reality facing them in next year’s midterm elections as warning signs pile up for the party ahead of 2022.
Once hopeful that they could defy the typical midterm shellacking dealt to the party in power, a series of foreboding developments has rocked that sense of optimism. President Biden’s approval ratings are in free fall, his key legislative priorities have stalled and, just this week, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) announced that he would retire, making him the first senior House Democrat to bow out ahead of the midterms.
In conversations with The Hill in recent days, several Democratic strategists and operatives expressed a growing sense of pessimism about 2022. Each one said that the party’s recent decline is reversible. Still, most offered a sober assessment of Democrats’ position heading into the final stretch of 2021.
“To be blunt, I’m not feeling good about where we are,” one senior Democratic congressional aide said. “Look, it was never going to be easy or anything. It was always kind of contingent on what got done. I just think we’re starting to see how fragile this is.”
Democrats have virtually no room for error in 2022. Republicans need to flip only five seats in the House to recapture control of the lower chamber, and they stand to benefit right off the bat from redistricting in key states and the historical maxim that the party of a new president tends to lose ground in midterm elections.
And while the fight for the Senate majority appears less dire for the party – the GOP is defending more territory than Democrats, including five open seats – a net loss of even a single seat next year could cost Democrats their control of the chamber.
Those tenuous congressional majorities are among the chief causes of Democrats’ current angst.
A massive $3.5 trillion social policy and climate change bill that lies at the center of Biden’s agenda has been held up by moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Meanwhile, progressive lawmakers have vowed to hold up a $1 trillion infrastructure measure until they see action on the broader $3.5 trillion package.
All that has led to considerable handwringing among Democrats, who fear that they’re squandering what could be one of their last opportunities to pass the legislative agenda that ran on in 2020.
“It’s a kind of a catch 22, I think,” one Democratic strategist said. “We’re asking people to vote for us so we have a bigger majority so we can make these big things happen. But the average voter, who doesn’t eat, sleep and breathe this – all they see is gridlock in Washington and they think it’s just more of the same, you know? That’s not really a great case for us.”
And while no Senate Democrat has announced plans to retire or seek another office next year, the number of the party’s incumbents in the House who are backing away from reelection bids has so far risen to 10, with Yarmuth becoming the latest member to do so.
Yarmuth, the chair of the powerful House Budget Committee, said this week that his decision to retire stemmed from “a desire to have more control of my time in the years I have left” and spend more time with his family.
Still, Republicans, who are now on offense for the first time in nearly a decade, heralded his coming retirement as a sign of Democratic nervousness heading into 2022.
“Vulnerable Democrats are either going to be forced to retire or they’re going to lose their reelection,” said Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “And we saw that with John Yarmuth, the budget committee chairman, calling it quits.”
To be sure, it’s not all bad news for Democrats. The party’s candidates are still raking in massive amounts of cash, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced on Thursday that it had outraised the NRCC by $10 million in the third quarter of the year.
Democrats also still hold a slight edge on the generic ballot, a poll question that tests which party voters would prefer to have in control of Congress. An average calculated by the data website FiveThirtyEight shows Democrats leading Republicans on that question 44.4 percent to 41.5 percent.
Still, that lead has narrowed since June, and some recent surveys paint a more ominous picture for Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month found that 47 percent of registered voters would rather see the GOP win control of the House, while 44 percent said they want Democrats to keep the majority.
Biden’s approval rating has also continued its months-long slide, a trend that began amid a summer surge in new COVID-19 infections and the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“President Biden’s backslide on leadership, honesty and competence and the fact that he has lost some ground on handling of the COVID pandemic has to be concerning to Democrats,” Tim Malloy, a polling analyst at Quinnipiac University, told The Hill.
Malloy said that the Biden administration “has had a grueling few months” and that things like surging gas prices and rising costs due to ongoing global supply chain issues won’t help alleviate Democrats’ troubles, especially with the holiday season drawing closer.
Still, he left open the possibility that Biden could rebound in the coming months if the number of new COVID-19 infections continue to fall and the U.S. economy holds steady. One piece of good news came on Friday when the Commerce Department reported that retail sales had accelerated in September, overperforming expectations.
“On the positive side, if the pandemic is really in retreat by year’s end, and the economy stays relatively steady, the Biden numbers could rise, lifting overall confidence in the party,” Malloy said.
There’s also another variable: former President Trump.
Trump maintains an iron grip on the GOP’s conservative base and isn’t shying away from playing a role in the midterms. Democrats are hoping to use him as a foil next year in an effort to win over many of the same voters that rebelled against the former president in 2022.
Even for GOP leaders, Trump’s unpredictable nature combined with his refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election has caused something of a headache. In a statement this week that delighted Democrats, Trump insisted that “Republicans will not be voting” in 2022 unless GOP lawmakers prioritize his baseless claim that the 2020 election had been stolen from him.
Asked on Thursday about Trump’s remarks, Emmer brushed them off, saying that he is “confident that Republican voters across this country are fired up to vote in the midterms.”
“The former president, he’s a private citizen,” Emmer said, “and he, of course, is entitled to his own opinion.”