House Democrats Are Racing for the Exits as a Red Wave Looms
But here’s why observers say all hope isn’t lost yet for the party to hold on in the midterm elections.
More than a dozen Democrats in the House have already announced their exits in anticipation of a GOP sweep of the chamber in next year’s midterm elections.
California Rep. Jackie Speier, a survivor of the Jonestown massacre, is the latest in a string of lawmakers to announce her resignation, having concluded that serving in a chamber run by Republicans hellbent on retribution and score-settling won’t be good for her mental or physical health.
The number of retirees has not yet reached record levels, but it’s a sign of trouble ahead for Democrats struggling to find a message that connects with voters in the face of ominously low poll numbers and state-by-state redistricting efforts that, on the whole, will favor Republicans.
“These are very challenging numbers, but they also concentrate the minds of everyone,” says Stan Greenberg, a veteran Democratic pollster. Republicans now hold a 51-40 advantage on the generic ballot, which asks which party voters favor in Congress without naming specific candidates, the GOP’s biggest advantage ever.
“A year from now will look very different in terms of the economy and what people are getting from government.”
President Biden kicked off the administration-wide effort to sell the public on the bipartisan trillion-dollar infrastructure bill by walking across an 82-year-old bridge in New Hampshire judged structurally deficient years ago that will finally get rebuilt. The other half of Biden’s agenda, the Build Back Better bill, addresses human needs from child care assistance to climate change, and is paid for by taxing billionaires and imposing a minimum tax on corporations. “This is the first Democratic administration and Democratic party asking the top one percent and corporations to pay their fair share,” says Greenberg. “In our polling, It’s the #1 policy favored by voters.”
These policies may poll well, but they don’t directly address the rising cost of groceries, gasoline and other products that are driving down Biden’s numbers. Dave Wasserman with the non-partisan Cook Political Report told The Daily Beast that if you were to synchronize the legislative results in the recent Virginia and New Jersey elections with the rest of the country, Democrats would lose 51 House seats. To put that in perspective, President Obama lost 63 House seats in 2010, but he was working with a much larger margin. Democrats had 257 seats. Republicans needed 40 and they got 63. Obama called it a “shellacking.”
“The House Democrats margin now is only 5 seats,” says Wasserman, “and we could be talking about a much bigger wave.”
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio puts the GOP’s chances of capturing the House majority at 85 to 90 percent, and winning control of the Senate at 60 percent. Wasserman has no quarrel with Fabrizio’s estimates. “If the election were held next week, Republicans would easily sweep the battleground states.”
In the Senate, he notes “Republicans could nominate turkeys in several states, but they only need to swap out one Democrat for the majority.”
How could Democrats dig such a deep hole in less than a year? The 2020 election was more of a repudiation of Donald Trump than a Democratic mandate, particularly with regard to social spending, says Wasserman. Voters don’t see how legislation that Democrats have been pursuing for so many months is a solution to rising prices, and they’re receptive to the Republican argument that the Democrats’ spending spree is contributing to inflation.
The Build Back Better bill still faces hurdles on Capitol Hill, and Democrats paid a price for letting the infrastructure bill languish amidst internal policy battles among Democrats. The hole is deeper than anyone imagined it would be given the deep experience that Biden and his top aides brought to the job of legislating and governing. In fairness, Biden has accomplished more with the thinnest margins than any recent president, but that doesn’t excuse his perceived incompetence on Afghanistan and the administration’s failure to get immigration and the border crisis under control. It’s not just Republicans questioning Biden’s competence, it’s Democrats too.
Still, a sense that they’ve got to hang together, or they’ll assuredly hang separately, has taken hold with the realization that these two historic pieces of legislation are the only life raft Democrats have if they’re to survive the midterms.
“We lose one election (Virginia) and come close in another (New Jersey) and the sky is falling,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow with The Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program. “It’s not as bad as people think.” She concedes Democrats could lose the House, but is more optimistic about the Senate, where she says Democrats can hope that the rare moment of restraint Trump showed in Virginia by staying away from the GOP gubernatorial candidate, Glenn Youngkin, will not be repeated.
Trump is already backing three Senate candidates in battleground states with compromised personal histories. Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania is awaiting a judge’s ruling on allegations of choking his ex-wife and hitting one of his children, which he denies. Eric Greitens in Missouri had to resign as governor after allegedly tying up his mistress in the basement of the home he shared with his wife. Herschel Walker in Georgia is accused by his ex-wife of threatening her with a gun. These allegations of crimes against women “won’t be treated as a badge of honor by suburban women,” says Kamarck. “MAGA people will think that’s wonderful, but that’s not where the race is.”
Democrats are counting on next year’s political environment to look a lot different. “One silver lining for Democrats is that COVID appears to be increasingly in the rear view mirror,” says Wasserman. And Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, predicts a “dramatic increase in wages and real income” next year with voters benefiting from record income two quarters before the election. “Look at our data on the child tax credit,” he says. “It’s pretty stunning.”
Right now, voters don’t know where that money is coming from, but they will once the campaigning starts in earnest, and Republicans have to answer the question about why they didn’t want billionaires and corporations paying their fair share.