Democrats debate whether they misread public


Tuesday’s election results prompted some soul searching among Democrats about whether the party misread the public’s desire for sweeping change.

The introspection has picked up after the party suffered losses up and down the ballot on Tuesday, giving a reason for some to pause and consider if the party’s agenda has anything to do with the losses and is out of step with the wider public.

Republicans are only too glad to say Democrats misread the mandate from President Biden’s victory a year ago over former President Trump. Democrats also retook the Senate majority after victories in a pair of special elections in Georgia in January, though they lost seats in the House a year ago.

“The economy was the big issue with voters, according to exit polls. It’s not rocket science,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser. “Coming out of more than a year of shutdowns and uncertainty, voters are not looking for radical change. And they certainly aren’t looking for the wild spending and social reform the Democrats are pursuing. Voters are open to incremental change but not wholesale change.”

Tuesday was a dismal day for Democrats.

Republican Glenn Youngkin triumphed in the Virginia gubernatorial race, while New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy squeaked out a closer than expected win. Longtime New Jersey state Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D) lost to an opponent who barely spent money on the race. 

Progressive politicians and causes also suffered some losses.

In Buffalo, Democratic Socialist India Walton lost to incumbent Mayor Byron Brown (D) after he mounted a write-in campaign when he lost the Democratic primary to Walton earlier in the year.

And a ballot measure to scrap the Minneapolis Police Department in favor of a revamped public safety agency failed, dealing a blow to “Defund the Police” advocates.

The results were used as evidence by moderate Democrats warning of a lurch to the left to take a victory lap.

“This is not a center-left or a left country,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has been urging lawmakers to tap the brakes on passing Biden’s ambitious spending plan too quickly, said Thursday. “We are a center — if anything, a little center-right country, and this means that's being shown. And we ought to be able to recognize that.”

Other front-line Democrats who may be vulnerable in next year’s midterms, such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (Va.), have also expressed some unease with the aggressiveness of Biden’s agenda in the wake of Tuesday’s results.

“Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” Spanberger told The New York Times.

Brown, the Buffalo mayor who appears to have won a fifth term in office, faced a tough challenge from the left from Walton, an activist and self-declared democratic socialist who won the Democratic primary in June and had the backing of prominent progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Even Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) endorsed Walton in the closing weeks of the campaign.

But Brown mounted a write-in campaign and is on track to win on the strength of that effort and name recognition.

“I think it clearly is a rebuke of defund police, it is a rebuke of socialism, and I think there were those from outside the city of Buffalo that underestimated the Buffalo community,” Brown said in a veiled reference to national leaders who backed Walton. “They tried to come in and tell us who to vote for, and the people fought back, and we won.”

The White House has pushed back hard against criticism that they’ve tried to go too big with their agenda or that the president is out of step with the ideology of the public. 

Officials have repeatedly stressed that Biden views himself as a president for all Americans, regardless of political leanings, and that the Build Back Better agenda making its way through Congress would help individuals of all political stripes.

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday pointed to the 2020 election results, when Biden received the most votes of any presidential candidate in history, to argue he’s earned the mandate to push his agenda.

“The president has been talking about his Build Back Better agenda for over a year,” she said. “Eighty-one million people voted almost a year ago to put this president where he is right now to make sure we deliver for the American public.”

White House officials also aggressively rebutted a New York Times editorial published Friday that argued the Democratic Party must return to “the moderate policies and values that fueled the blue-wave victories in 2018 and won Joe Biden the presidency in 2020” if it’s to have success in next year’s midterms.

Multiple communications staffers responded by citing a January 2020 editorial from the news outlet that said Biden’s agenda could not settle for the status quo. Andrew Bates, a deputy press secretary at the White House, called it “self parody” for the Times to suggest Biden’s agenda represented a leftward shift from what he campaigned on.

Biden officials and allies believe the president’s agenda remains popular with broad swaths of the public. They have argued after Tuesday’s elections that the need to appeal to the voters who lifted the party to the majorities in 2018 and 2020 is more urgent than ever.

“In most competitive races, turnout alone is not enough,” Guy Cecil, chairman of the pro-Biden PAC Priorities USA, said in a memo Friday. “The best defense is a good offense. The Democratic agenda is popular with swing voters and new Biden voters and every Republican in Congress opposes it.”

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