It may not last. Economic unrest is traditionally unhelpful to a party in power. But as the Democratic National Committee met for its winter meeting in Washington, the party was breathing a sigh of relief to see cultural concerns at least momentarily fade.
“Republicans have done a better job, always, of creating wedge issues out of cultural issues,” said Trav Robertson, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. The mandate for Democrats in the midterms, he said, is “to remind people” instead that the party in power increased vaccinations, passed legislation to rebuild infrastructure and is navigating the conflict in Ukraine.
When asked if Democrats should proactively engage voters at all on cultural issues, he said, “No.”
For Democrats, the shift in public attention to the war in Ukraine — and the attendant focus on gas prices and inflation — is far from a panacea. The electorate remains deeply worried about the state of the economy, an ominous sign for the party in power in Washington. Inflation, which notched a 40-year high on Thursday, was hitting Americans long before Russia invaded Ukraine. Voters have a history of punishing politicians for sky-high gas prices, and there is a risk to Democrats of minimizing issues like abortion and transgender rights, which are of significant concern to voters.
“The American people have some understanding that gas prices are going up right now thanks to Putin’s war, but we need to do more to talk about how we can address inflation and we need to communicate a message that shows we understand what they’re going through,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster. But, he warned, culture war issues “are a fundamental trap for Democrats. We need to hit back at Republicans, then get back to the things that matter to the American people.”
Over the course of several days at the DNC, party officials offered a template for how Democrats could do just that, treating non-economic concerns as important but settled matters that Republicans — not Democrats — are fixated on at the expense of other things.
“What’s the GOP plan?” Jaime Harrison, the DNC chair, said in his speech at the party meeting on Thursday night. “How will they bring down costs and address the needs of regular people? In the states, they’re too busy attacking trans and queer kids, too busy taking away your reproductive freedom, too busy telling teachers what history they’re not allowed to teach, to actually do their jobs.”
In the hotel bar late that night, DNC staffers raised their hands and cheered for Harrison’s speechwriter. And it wasn’t a one-off. At a meeting of state party chairs, Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said Democrats would not succumb to the “distraction and demagoguery” of Republicans, who he said had “set their sights on transgender kids” instead of addressing “real issues.”
Someone in the crowd shouted at Martin to “get this speech up online!”
The imperative for Democrats to blunt Republicans’ assault on cultural issues was apparent in the response to the policy blueprint released by Sen. Rick Scott
(R-Fla.) last month. Democrats cringed at his suggestion that “there are two genders” and that the government should “never again ask American citizens to disclose their race, ethnicity, or skin color on any government forms.” But polling on those issues is mixed, while Scott’s economic proposal requiring all Americans to pay income tax polls poorly for Republicans.
Biden’s State of the Union also reflected that shift in tone. In a rebuke of the “defund the police” movement, he called for the government to “fund the police.”
“The issue terrain is definitely on our side right now,” said Pete Giangreco, a longtime Democratic consultant. “Republicans have made missteps — like [Sen. Ron Johnson’s] talk about repealing Obamacare and Rick Scott talking about raising taxes — and those matter more than CRT and the social stuff they’re trying to gin up.”
In a hallway at the Hilton where the DNC met, Leonard Aguilar, a Texas DNC member and secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, said that for the midterm elections, “The big thing is jobs.” And Iowa’s Democratic Party chair, state Rep. Ross Wilburn, said the party’s imperative for the midterms is to not be “distracted by the culture wars.”
“I think the midterms are a challenge no matter what,” said Megan Jones, a Nevada-based Democratic consultant and former Harry Reid adviser. “But I would definitely rather talk about the economy than critical race theory.”
Across the country, Democratic governors are scrambling to find ways to get money back in the pockets of voters. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is sending $400 checks to drivers, courtesy of a state insurance surplus. California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a tax rebate this week during his State of the State address. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker are both trying to freeze state gas taxes and fees.
A half-dozen governors signed a letter urging Congress to suspend the federal gas tax, an idea championed by four vulnerable Senate Democrats but not universally embraced by the party.
“It matters what it costs to fill up the pick up truck, you better believe it, and it matters what a pound of hamburger costs, and we have real ideas about how to make that better,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “You will see us in action on that.”
At the House Democrats’ retreat this week, Maloney sounded some notes of optimism in his closed-door presentation to members, arguing that Republicans “blew it” on congressional redistricting and swing-district Democratic incumbents are leading their challengers in fundraising.
But “we understand there are still headwinds,” Maloney added.
Most Democrats do not expect any shift in messaging or in the electorate’s priorities to prevent them from losing the House in November. But the midterm landscape does look slightly better for them today than it did just several months ago, with a realistic prospect of holding the Senate and limiting their losses in the House.
Still, Jones, the Nevada Democratic consultant, said, “As much as we can make it about people’s lives and how we’re making them better, the better. The more we’re talking about [culture war issues], the more we’re diverted from talking about accomplishments and what we’ve done.”