One election victory no longer suffices to set the agenda in American politics, not even if a party wins not just the presidency by a healthy Electoral College and popular vote majority, but prevails in Senate and House elections as well. Instead, a party has to maintain its control two years later in the midterm elections.
That reality is causing some unease even among Democrats who are otherwise impressed with the Biden administration’s early progress and message discipline.
“I am worried,” said veteran Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman. “Other than Trump, we have not found anything that makes us as outraged as the other side is about everything they talk about.” Without urgency and anger as a motivator, Oxman frets that Democratic turnout could tail off sufficiently to let the GOP win the handful of seats necessary to take over the narrowly divided House.
Further, he said, the strident rhetoric of the hard left could be used to caricature the entire party, disrupting a more resonant middle-of-the-road message about its infrastructure and equity agendas. The president and his team will have to make a concerted effort to keep that kind of conservative critique from gaining political purchase.
Complicating an already complex calculus is the deliberate effort by Republican legislators and governors to make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots. The fiction, of course, is that those laws are all about assuring the integrity of elections. But we all know the truth because Republicans from Donald Trump to Lindsey Graham have said the quiet part out loud: If it’s easy to vote, the GOP suffers.
Although the Senate is more closely divided, the House presents the biggest risk for Democrats. Historically, the out-of-presidential-power party makes gains in the midterms. GOP-driven redistricting will render the 2022 map even trickier. Then there’s this troubling sign: So far this year, the National Republican Congressional Committee has out-raised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, $45.4 million to $36.5 million, according to The Hill.
Various House leadership members who could be raising money for a focused effort to hold precarious seats have been more focused on filling the treasure chests of their own leadership PACS, in anticipation of the game of musical chairs that will ensue upon the eventual departure of Nancy Pelosi, who has said this term will be her last as speaker.
This won’t just be a party effort, of course. One group already working to boost midterm turnout is the Environmental Voter Project. Founder and executive director Nathaniel Stinnett says that the best way to encourage midterm turnout is to make voting a habit for people who are nonvoters or infrequent voters. To that end, his group is contacting low propensity voters and urging them to cast ballots in 2021 state and local elections.
“You only get a few chances between now and 2022 to turn a nonvoter into a voter — and they only happen in elections,” he noted.
Stinnett sees real potential among citizens who call climate change or the environment a top issue but are unlikely to vote in midterm elections, a cohort that is disproportionately young, female, and people of color. Their numbers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania easily surpass each state’s 2018 midterm-election margin from the closest statewide race, according to his group’s research.
Young voters — those 18 to 29 — will be vital, according to Alan Solomont, former dean of Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, who offered these data demonstrations of his point: While turnout nationally was up about 7 percent in 2020 over 2016, among young people it increased by 11 percent. In Georgia, which Joe Biden won by just under 12,000 votes, he won the youth vote 58 percent to 39 percent, or by 188,000 votes. He carried young Black voters 90 percent to 8 percent.
“The only way Democrats are going to succeed in 2022 is by keeping the level of youth engagement that they benefited from in ’18 and ’20,” Solomont said.
But how do you do that? Both Solomont and Oxman think Democrats can craft a potent get-to-the-polls pitch from the GOP’s voter-suppression efforts. Add in the potential for a Republican House victory to spell the return of Trumpian politics and to stall not just climate efforts but the entirety of the Biden agenda, and you have the ingredients for a powerful message.
With the complexities of the new voting laws, the time to start such an effort is now.