With a tough midterm election about six weeks away, many Democrats have largely settled on a campaign message, and it’s not one that simply emphasizes their accomplishments. Instead, it amounts to a stark warning: If Republicans take power, they will establish a dystopia that cripples democracy and eviscerates abortion rights and other freedoms.
“When you are the in-party in the midterms — like the Democrats are now — and the wind is blowing against you, you have to ride every advantageous breeze you can find,” former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said. “And the Democrats have found those breezes in the Dobbs decision and in Donald Trump.”
For months leading Democrats, starting with President Biden, signaled that they would campaign on having helped Americans, from fixing bridges to cutting drug costs. Biden suggested that attacking Republicans too harshly would divide the country and alienate potential supporters.
But with Donald Trump’s reemergence, the proliferation of Republican nominees who reject fair elections, and the Supreme Court’s overturning abortion rights, the calculus has starkly changed. Biden now all but admits his initial approach no longer works.
“I remember I got beat up in the campaign by saying that I wanted to unify the country and unify the parties,” he recently told a Democratic gathering. “You used to be able to do that. But things have changed a whole bunch.”
Republicans have adopted their own apocalyptic rhetoric, warning that Biden and the Democrats are taking the country down a path of soaring crime, raging inflation and uncontrolled immigration. That has created a midterm arena marked by dueling dystopias, as the parties vie to outdo each other in describing the hell scape that lies ahead if the other side wins.
But while Republican rhetoric in many ways amounts to a routine political attack, the Democrats’ message reflects the reality that many in the GOP are openly embracing anti-democratic principles and an end to abortion rights, even as some scramble to distance themselves from such positions after previously advocating them.
Republicans insist that the November elections remain a referendum on Biden. The GOP holds a sizable advantage on issues like the economy and crime, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, and Democrats are more trusted to handle abortion and climate change.
“Talking about January 6th and whether we have a democracy next year is a really important issue in Washington, D.C. But it’s not an important issue to voters in the real world,” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist working on races across the country. “In the real world, voters care about the price of groceries, the price of gas, being able to walk down the street and feel safe.”
A Sept. 9-12 Fox News poll found that 59 percent of registered voters are “extremely” concerned about inflation and higher prices, and those voters prefer the Republican candidate for Congress.
In addition, while Biden’s job rating has improved — 42 percent approve of his performance and 53 percent disapprove, according to a Post average of polls — it is still underwater and could drag down Democratic candidates.
Beyond that, the Democrats’ newly dark message is a gamble. Biden is trying to draw a delicate distinction by blasting “MAGA Republicans” and has said he is not talking about all Republicans, noting he can still work with many of them. But GOP leaders say the president is simply calling all of them fascists.
At a recent rally, Trump suggested that Biden was branding Trump supporters “enemies of the state.” Then he added, “He’s an enemy of the state, you want to know the truth.”
Still, the current landscape has little modern precedent. “In a normal environment, this midterm election would be about Joe Biden,” Israel said. “But this midterm, Democrats have successfully made it a referendum on Donald Trump, and he’s helping them by inserting himself in the headlines and endorsing candidates in primaries who are way too far to the right for moderate electorates.”
In New Jersey, Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski is running an ad that attacks his opponent for his loyalty to Trump and his record on abortion. That district leans Republican, according to the Cook Political Report, and it’s still unclear whether Malinowski’s attacks will help move the needle by Election Day.
“Having Trump’s back? Or having a backbone? Tom Kean Jr. made his choice — following Trump no matter what,” a narrator says in the ad. “A national abortion ban. Trump and the MAGA crowd know they can count on Tom Kean Jr. because Tom Kean Jr. promised that — no matter what.”
Democrats stress that each district is different, and say their candidates will campaign accordingly. But their increasingly negative messages signal an acknowledgment that simply touting the laws they’ve passed — including a $700 billion health, climate and tax bill; a $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package; a $1 trillion-plus infrastructure plan; and legislation to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing — is not enough.
“My dad used to say, ‘Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative,’ ” Biden said at a recent Democratic event. “This November, you have to choose to be a nation of hope, unity and optimism — or a nation of fear, division and darkness.”
The reason for the shift is clear. Republicans were outperforming in off-year and special elections until June, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated the constitutional right to abortion. That prompted record numbers of women to register to vote.
Meanwhile, Trump began to dominate the news, as congressional hearings revealed his role in the attack on the Capitol, the FBI found highly classified documents in his home, and he drew closer to adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The Democratic response became evident when Biden on Aug. 25 denounced “MAGA Republicans,” saying, “They’re a threat to our very democracy. They refuse to accept the will of the people. They embrace political violence. They don’t believe in democracy.” The same day, he accused them of moving toward “semi-fascism.”
A week later, Biden spoke at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, saying that “too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal,” naming Trump and his followers and adding, “we do ourselves no favors to pretend otherwise.”
But the seeds of the shift were planted earlier. Biden knew last spring he wanted to cast the “extremist” wing of the Republican Party as a threat to American democracy, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Biden began by capitalizing on a controversial conservative policy plan released by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) earlier this year that called for expiration dates for all federal laws, which the president noted would include those establishing Social Security and Medicare. The president in May began road-testing the term “ultra MAGA” to criticize Scott’s economic agenda and Republican attacks on LGBTQ rights. Trump supporters, for their part, gleefully embraced the “ultra-MAGA” label, putting it on T-shirts and other paraphernalia.
White House political operatives, conducting internal polls and monitoring public ones, thought the message showed promise. One Quinnipiac poll in August, for example, showed that 67 percent of Americans believed the country’s democracy was in danger of collapse. And by then, Democrats no longer needed the goodwill of Republicans in Congress, since lawmakers had passed a handful of bills that required Republican votes, as well as Biden’s sweeping bill to tackle drug costs and fight climate change.
The president had also decided that he wanted to deliver a prime-time speech on democracy at a historically resonant site. Aides initially considered a speech from the White House itself but ultimately concluded Independence Hall carried more powerful symbolism.
To be sure, many Democrats are still touting their legislative accomplishments. A new law letting Medicare negotiate the price of some prescription drugs is particularly popular, and Democrats — especially those in tight races or less liberal enclaves — frequently boast that the measure will lower seniors’ health-care costs.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), whose district encompasses much of the Philadelphia area, said he has focused many of his events on the prescription drug legislation. While he is not ignoring the “very real” threat to democracy and abortion rights, he said, he is not elevating them over actions that help ordinary people.
“Our side absolutely has to double down on talking about what we just did on prescription drugs, what we achieved on infrastructure, what we achieved on the gun bill. These are things that were multi-decade fights,” Boyle said. “If there is one self-criticism of Democrats, it’s that we need to do a better job of celebrating our victories and not just moving on to the next issue.”
Many Democrats are using campaign ads to promote such accomplishments, while peppering their speeches and other comments with warnings of Republican extremism, which they know will be picked up by news outlets.
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster and president of North Star Opinion Research, agreed that the GOP strategy of making the election a referendum on Biden has been complicated by the Dobbs decision. Women have since registered to vote in record numbers, Ayres said, and nearly a dozen Republican-led states have enacted highly unpopular laws that ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest.
Ayres also cited Trump’s looming presence, as well as the emergence of several inexperienced Republican nominees, especially for Senate. “Definition of the midterms has become more challenging because of those factors,” Ayres said. “Those three things have made the playing field substantially more level than it was in the spring.”
A memo to GOP candidates from the Republican National Committee earlier this month urged them to “finish their sentences” on rising costs and increased crime to communicate that Biden is the one at fault, acknowledging that voters, for example, do not always connect “soft-on-crime” policies with Democrats.
The memo also conceded that four-fifths of voters were “not pleased” with the Dobbs decision. On the other hand, it said education was potentially a winning issue for the GOP, as Republicans criticize covid-related school closures and what they describe as politicized school curriculums.
While Democratic strategists are optimistic that their new messaging can help boost their fortunes, they acknowledge that the country’s economic struggles still present a big problem for the party.
“The area where Republicans have the most significant advantage right now is on the economy, and we have to attempt politically to close the gap with Republicans on the economy,” said Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg.
He added, “If we could do one more thing on this election, we could get the economic approval of Democrats up.”
Dave Weigel and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.