Maloney’s Midterm Messaging Mistake

November 18, 2021

Poor Sean Patrick Maloney. He represents an upstate New York district and chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Between a strong GOP showing in New Jersey and election losses in Virginia, he had a rough November—and things will get a lot worse next year, as Republicans will almost certainly take the House.

Amid rising Democratic anxiety about the 2022 midterms, Mr. Maloney gave a revealing interview to the New York Times. His theme: Steady as she goes. The only change Democrats needed was “getting the job done on messaging.”

He declared “the White House should do 25 presidential events in the next couple months” selling the infrastructure bill. He played down concerns that Democrats are pursuing an overly ambitious agenda: “What is wrong with FDR if you get the achievements?” And he dismissed fears about embracing “woke” issues like defunding the police. 

The New York Democrat is living in a dream world.

Democrats counting on the infrastructure bill to save them should realize that about $650 billion of its spending is for existing programs like the Interstate Highway Trust Fund, which has been reauthorized every five years since 1956. Doing what everyone already counts on won’t earn Democrats brownie points. 

Virtually all the bill’s roughly $550 billion in new spending will take place in the nine fiscal years that occur after the 2022 midterm, not before it. Only 0.5% of the $48.2 billion set for broadband, 0.7% of the $62 billion for green energy subsidies, and 4% of the $2 billion for rural utilities will be allocated this fiscal year. Even if voters like all the spending—and many don’t—these outlays won’t dramatically affect people’s lives by fall 2022. Nor does expanding Washington bureaucracy help Americans concerned about rising grocery and fuel prices, paychecks not keeping up with expenses, our growing national debt, rising crime and “woke” schools. And voters know it.

On Monday Mr. Maloney doubled down by leaking a memo outlining the DCCC’s 2022 strategy. It argues that the infrastructure bill contains “long-term investments that will also have an immediate  impact on Americans’ lives,” that the still-pending Build Back Better plan is “very popular,” and that President Biden is putting Covid “in our rearview mirror.” Perhaps most laughable, it claims House Democrats are fighting “for American values” by passing bills for a federal takeover of elections, a prohibition on state laws restricting abortion, and reductions in funding for police departments that don’t comply with federal rules for standards and accountability. 

Memo to Mr. Maloney: These bills can’t pass the Senate, and the claim that Democrats’ “record of securing good-paying jobs for hard-working Americans and fighting for justice” will bring victory in 2022 is goofy. If all this stuff is so popular, why is Mr. Biden’s job approval the lowest for any elected president at this point, save Donald Trump? Fully 66% of voters in the Nov. 7 USA Today/Suffolk University poll say America is on the wrong track, and, more ominously, the latest ABC News/Washington Post generic ballot shows a record 10-point Republican advantage. The Democratic problem isn’t messaging; it’s substance.

The DCCC memo also declares that “Republicans are too dangerous for American families,” calling them “unserious, cynical” and “a threat to public health” for making the pandemic “longer and more disastrous.” Such rhetoric is tiresome and sways fewer independents each day.

So how many House seats could the GOP pick up? Political scientist John Petrocik suggests Republicans should temper their expectations. Even with favorable redistricting, it’s unlikely the GOP will match its 2010 gain of 63 seats. There are only 44 House Democrats who won by 10 points or less—which likely means they’re vulnerable, given the shift toward Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey. 

It helps that Republicans already gained 13 seats in 2020, one of only eight instances since World War II when the party losing the presidential race added House seats. Since 1945, the party in the White House has lost an average of 30 House seats in midterms. That means the GOP could be looking at getting over 230 after 2022 victories if they campaign intelligently. (A majority is 218.) But that’s an important “if.”

Even with the momentum the GOP has today, 2022 will test the mettle of Republican candidates and the quality of their messages. A surefire way for Republicans to lose otherwise winnable contests is to let them become referendums on Mr. Trump’s claim that he’s the real president.

Still, Mr. Maloney’s recent utterances suggest that as long as Republicans can get their act together, Democrats won’t stand in their way


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