For Democrats, the future goes from bad to worse

Last week’s results might just be the beginning of bleak outlook

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., right, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., talk about the infrastructure bill before the House voted Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., right, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., talk about the infrastructure bill before the House voted Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 9, 2021 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — Democrats better hope things are darkest before the dawn because they now face a series of challenges that combine to offer a bleak near-term future for their party.

As I argued three weeks ago in this column space, two trends were preparing to collide in Virginia — Democrats’ growing strength in the commonwealth and in a handful of increasingly influential suburbs, and the midterm dynamic, which favors the party not controlling the White House. I suggested that the outcome would likely tell us something about 2022.

Well, the results from Virginia and, even more, from New Jersey, delivered nothing but bad news for Democrats.

In the Virginia governor’s race, Republican Glenn Youngkin won by 2 points just a year after Joe Biden carried the state by 10 points. In New Jersey, long-shot Republican former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli came within 3 points of upsetting the state’s sitting governor, Democrat Phil Murphy. Democrats also lost control of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Yes, there were local factors at play. Youngkin turned out to be a very good campaigner, and in the Garden State, property taxes helped Ciattarelli almost pull off the upset.

But the results confirm that the midterm dynamic was much stronger this year than were the fundamental trends in both states. That’s great news for Republicans heading into 2022.

Democrats must hope that the timing of the 2021 contests helped create a “worst case” scenario for their party.

Biden’s job approval numbers have sunk, and voters seem increasingly concerned about inflation. The battle over COVID-19 mandates has some voters fatigued and wanting to move on, and although the House passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill late last week, it was held hostage for months as Democrats struggled for consensus around a broader measure that would provide universal pre-K and address the cost of child care and other kitchen table issues. 

The combination of Biden’s weak job approval rating and Democratic infighting on Capitol Hill, with progressives and moderates slugging it out daily, gave Republicans the ideal political environment for this year’s elections. Last week’s contests, to a large extent, turned out to be about Biden and Democratic control of Congress — not Donald Trump or the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

As I noted in another recent column, federal and state races tend to be different, and Biden’s standing could improve, along with the economy.

But that should be no consolation to Democrats, who now have plenty of reasons to worry about the midterms, even after the passage of the infrastructure bill. 

The early signs about redistricting are not good for House Democrats, and party moderates could well find themselves poorly positioned to run for reelection next year, especially if Biden’s job approval numbers remain low.

Republicans used “Defund the police” in 2020 to gain a dozen House seats, even while Trump was losing the White House, and it appears the GOP found another effective issue in “critical race theory” this year — even though neither the Democratic Party nor Biden ever supported “defunding” the police and critical race theory is not taught in public schools.

That the GOP could create hot-button issues from ideas advocated by only the most extreme elements of the Democratic Party should have Democratic strategists worried — and looking for answers.

Republicans have apparently done a much better job demonizing Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib than Democrats have in painting Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar as the face of the GOP.

Many Democrats, of course, will say the reason for that is racism and white supremacy, but from a campaign point of view, the most important question for the party is how it counters that messaging.

Unfortunately for Democrats, they probably won’t have Speaker Nancy Pelosi to guide their efforts since she is likely to retire next year. And House Democrats could also lose other savvy legislators and party leaders if Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, who like Pelosi are now in their 80s, decide to walk away.

If Republicans capture the House and/or the Senate next year, Biden can wave goodbye to the rest of his agenda. Indeed, if Republicans capture both chambers in a midterm partisan wave, they would be able to work together to pass legislation that puts Biden in an awkward position.

Over the slightly longer term, things get even worse for Democrats.

The Senate class up for election in 2024 represents a potential disaster for Democrats, with at least 10 Democratic-held seats in competitive states, including in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia.

Biden’s age — he’ll turn 82 shortly after Election Day 2024 — raises questions about his health and electability, and it’s far from clear what kind of nominee Vice President Kamala Harris would be as Biden’s successor.

Of course, the stronger Republicans look and the better they do next year, the greater the chance that Trump runs again in 2024 and that congressional Republicans misinterpret their mandate, moving far to the right and giving Democrats just the opening they need to flip the narrative.

But until that happens, it’s difficult to see much good news for Democrats.