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Democrats still divided over midterm messaging

House members talk about stalled bill and selling ideas better while senator and party chair put focus on what GOP would do

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, speaks with reporters at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on Thursday.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, speaks with reporters at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

PHILADELPHIA — Democrats charged with maintaining their majorities on Capitol Hill have stressed the importance of entering the midterms with a unified message. But groups at the center of the party’s messaging apparatus on Thursday appeared to still be working out what their focus would be. 

While House Democrats met here for sessions on issues including the midterms and immigration during their annual issues conference, other party committees were focusing during simultaneous press briefings on a topic they consider one of their best: health care. Those committees began emphasizing health care coverage again this week after Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who is up for reelection, suggested that if Republicans wanted to overhaul the 2010 health care law they should have a plan for doing so next year.

His comments come as Republicans have been torn over whether to propose a platform outlining what they would do if they control Congress next year. 

The Democrats’ varied approach stood in contrast to the discipline of the party’s messaging during the 2018 midterms, when House Democrats credited a laser focus on health care for winning back control of the House. It also reflected the reality that, while Democrats have identified what the head of the House campaign committee called “bright spots” in the national midterm environment in recent weeks, the path for their major legislative agenda is still murky.

When speaking to reporters down the street from where they were meeting, House Democratic officials focused on the health care provisions of a social spending bill they were unable to pass last year, which included provisions to lower prescription drug prices. But they did not emphasize continued GOP opposition to the 2010 health care law that other Democratic committees seized on this week.

‘Bright spots’

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney said he’d told members of the caucus during a presentation about the midterm elections that despite the national environment favoring Republicans, they “have real bright spots,” such as a better map than they’d anticipated before the redistricting process. He also said that concern over more than 30 House Democrats opting not to run for reelection was overblown, as most of those members represent districts that voted for President Joe Biden.

Bright as those spots may be, it is unclear whether Democrats will be able to deliver on their legislative goals while they control the White House and both chambers of Congress. While the House passed an omnibus spending bill Wednesday and Congress has cleared other bipartisan bills, such as one to end forced arbitration agreements, negotiations over a social spending bill to address issues like health care and energy policy have stalled since December. 

Maloney said that he’d like to have additional legislation similar to the House-passed reconciliation bill this year but there were other bills Democrats could run on ahead of November. Even if Democrats don’t fulfill all of their 2020 campaign promises, their proposed policies are popular, while Republicans haven’t put forward a policy plan, he said. 

“If there’s more to do, well, that’s the reality of American politics. That’s why we want to keep the capacity we have now to keep delivering results, because what the other side offers is a ploy to win back power,” Maloney said. “There is no set of policy proposals, there’s no vision for America that lies behind that power. It is just about having power.”

The New York Democrat added that Democratic policies are popular and that candidates need to work on improving their personal popularity.

“We need to talk like real people,” he said. “We need to, obviously, communicate better about what we’re doing because we know it’s popular. But we also have to develop a better relationship with voters that we need to win. That’s what Frontliners do every day.”

‘Unfinished product’

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries struck a similar tone, noting that Democrats added 7.4 million jobs in the first 13 months of Biden’s presidency, crediting a pandemic relief bill that Democrats passed last year through the reconciliation process. He said there’s still more to be done, as prices for everything from gas to food are rising, but he argued that Republicans “will be a disaster for everything.” 

“We understand that much more needs to be done. It’s our constituents that are struggling with rising gas prices and dealing with the challenges of increases in inflation and food and other essential items,” said Jeffries, D-N.Y. “And so we recognize that we’ve embarked on an unfinished product, but one that we’re committed to completing.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said other Democrats are excited to have more of an opportunity to talk with voters in person this year, after most candidates pulled back on in-person campaigning for the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. More members should spend more time talking about issues with voters, he said. 

“We’re trying to build a movement to, like, make America what it’s supposed to be, so in order to do that you’ve got to talk to people,” he said.

The social spending bill isn’t the only legislation Democrats have been unable to send to Biden’s desk. Efforts to overhaul the immigration system and address voting rights have also stalled in the Senate. 

Still, the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told reporters that they don’t think lack of action on those issues would depress turnout among their base voters.

“We realize that we have a lot of work to do. If you look at the things that we’re doing in our districts, all politics are local,” CBC Chair Joyce Beatty said at a news conference. “They also understand if you look at Black voters, we deliver.” 

Republicans have said they are picking up support among Latino voters, but Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, chair of the Hispanic Caucus, said Democrats also won key races in states with large Latino populations such as Arizona and Nevada, where Democratic senators face tough reelection bids this year. 

“In terms of those voters that came out for the GOP, however, it is not conclusive and there [is] still a lot of work that we need to do further,” Ruiz said. “The biggest lesson that we’ve been trying to shout from the rooftops is not to take the Hispanic community for granted, that we need to make sure we’re on the ground, that we listen.” 

Health care, taxes

Senate Democrats, the national party committee and numerous allied outside groups are pushing health care and taxes as main messaging points for the midterms, trying to seize the offensive after Senate Republicans stepped into controversy. 

Sen. Rick Scott, the Florida Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, put out a plan that called for income tax increases on low-income Americans, a proposal that even fellow Senate Republicans, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have rejected. 

Johnson, who is one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this November, said his party should repeal the Obama-era health care law should the GOP win control of Congress. 

“Well, after spending the last year doing nothing except trying to stand in the way of progress for the American people, Republicans have finally, finally made their agenda crystal-clear,” Jaime Harrison, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, said during a Thursday video news conference. “Thanks to Senator and NRSC Chair Rick Scott and to Sen. Ron Johnson, we know exactly what the Republican economic agenda is: It’s for higher taxes, higher health care premiums.”  

Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also joined the news conference and said such policy issues would draw clear distinctions between the two parties in key battleground races this November.  

Scott had called for all taxpayers to have “skin in the game” by paying income taxes and said more than half do not. Peters said profitable corporations that don’t pay taxes, apparently, do not bother Scott.

“He has a problem with everyday families who are struggling, that they’re not paying taxes,” Peters told reporters. “It is a clear difference, a clear contrast that folks will see.” 

‘Voter issues’

The Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA found that National Republicans have spent about twice as much “over the last several months” on ads highlighting “right wing rhetoric,” including socialism, critical race theory and building a wall, as they have on what the group termed “voter issues,” like jobs, wages, health care, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, chairman Guy Cecil said during a press briefing this week. 

“New Biden voters” — people who supported Biden in 2020 but rarely voted in past elections — whom the group is targeting told researchers they had heard “little or nothing” about work that Biden and the Democrats have done to grow the economy. Cecil said that presents an opportunity to Democrats to draw contrasts with Republicans. 

“It’s frankly why so many Republicans are mad at Rick Scott for announcing that Republicans want to raise taxes on half of all Americans,” he said. “And now Ron Johnson, when he said that repealing the ACA should be at the top of Republicans’ agenda when they take the majority back, if they take the majority back in the future. So are Republicans actually talking about the economy or wages or jobs or education or health care? Regardless of what they might say? The answer in terms of where they’re spending their money is no.”

Meanwhile, outside groups such as the Biden-aligned nonprofit Building Back Together have health care-focused ads running in Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia that tout administration proposals aimed at lowering prescription drug costs. The health care group Protect Our Care is running digital ads in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, among other states, arguing that Biden and congressional Democrats have a plan to lower health care and other rising costs

Kate Ackley and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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