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Democrats anxious about 2022 believe they can run on Biden's agenda

House Democrats gather for retreat
House Democrats gather for retreat after passing spending bill 06:09

Democratic Party officials nationwide are anxious about their prospects in this year's Congressional midterm elections, though they're hopeful about running on President Biden's agenda. They are also trying to capitalize on warmer views of his handling of Russia's invasion of Ukraine — and negative views of former President Trump's praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Attendees at the Democratic National Committee's Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C., acknowledged the combination of factors ahead of them, namely the usual historical headwinds for the party in power and the rising cost of living caused by inflation and gas prices.

"It's not so much that we are afraid but we are anxious. We want to get moving because things change so quickly. Gas prices go up. Something good happens. Back and forth. We've got so many unpredictable things leading up to it," said Janet Bewley, the top Democrat in Wisconsin's Senate. "Everybody wants to work to get their voters identified and ready to be motivated."

As DNC members met in their first in-person gathering since the onset of the pandemic, they agree the party has to do more to amplify the direct impact of Mr. Biden's agenda and how it can help ease the rising cost of living. 

In remarks to the party on Thursday, Mr. Biden argued Democrats can address inflation and high gas prices through pieces of his Build Back Better plan, after the broader bill fell apart in the Senate amid intra-party divisions. 

"At a time when food and gas prices are rising, if you can lower other major costs for families, you can help their standard of living," he said, referencing the push to lower prescription drug prices and cost of child care. 

He labeled the rising gas prices "Putin's price hikes at the pump" and said that "as painful as the price is today, the costs are going to be higher if we do not act now to deal with this tyrant."

DNC Chair Jamie Harrison also blamed Putin's invasion of Ukraine for the spiking gas prices and believes voters have made the same connection, blaming him instead of Mr. Biden.

He also accused Republicans of being "soft on Russia," citing former President Trump's praise of Putin and Congressman Madison Cawthorn's vilification of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

"We have the Republican Party, the former president of the United States, the last Republican President, who's talking about how this former KGB officer is a 'genius' and is 'savvy.' We have Madison Cawthorn who is denigrating the president of Ukraine," he said in an interview Thursday, referencing a video of the freshman GOP Congressman calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a "thug."

On the money front, the DNC has kept pace with Republicans, raising over $161 million through January 2022, with $63 million cash on hand, while the Republican National Committee has brought in $171.6 million and has $51 million in the bank. 

But Mr. Biden's approval rating has been declining in the last year, especially with independent voters. A CBS News poll released last Sunday showed a 43% approval rating, largely consistent with his numbers since November of 2021. 

The poll showed a 46% approval rating for Mr. Biden's handling of Russia and Ukraine, slightly up from the 41% he got at the beginning of the conflict. The president is still underwater on the economy (62% disapproval rating) and inflation (69% disapproval rating). 

"If I got worried every time somebody's approval numbers jumped up or down, I don't know if I would ever get out of bed," said Susan Swecker, chair of Virginia's Democratic Party. "Biden has done a lot of amazing work. He was handed over a bit of a mess quite frankly from the previous occupant — so it's like, let's give him a chance."

But beyond Biden's declining approval rating and rising costs, some Democrats are concerned about how the party's national brand plays in more competitive and rural areas.

Anthony Flaccavento, of the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative in Virginia, said the party has an "image problem because of our own way of projecting who we are."

"The way we talk: we just say too much. We use too many damn words, they're too complex," he said. 

Ken Martin, a DNC vice chair from Minnesota, referred to his father-in-law who voted for Trump twice as an example of voters who need more "hope" from the Democratic Party.

"He needs a champion, needs a sense that someone gives a damn," Martin said. "If they don't see us doing that, they won't vote for us...we're not going to be a national party if we're just a party of density and education." 

At a House Democratic issues retreat in Philadelphia, New York Congressman and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney echoed the sentiment.

"We need to talk like real people and pass what I call the Maloney brothers test," said Maloney.

"If you go home for Thanksgiving and your brothers think you sound like a jerk — [say] what your grade point average was, it doesn't matter to them. You have to show up, be a human being, and have a relationship with your voters," said Maloney, who has the daunting task of trying to hold onto the House; Republicans need only a net gain of five seats to flip it.

Republicans ridiculed — and welcomed — a Democratic campaign strategy that relies on Mr. Biden's agenda and record.

"As long as Democrats push Biden's failed agenda, they can expect to keep losing. Democrats up-and-down the ballot are in lockstep with Biden and will be held accountable for his failures in November," said RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn.

 Vice President Kamala Harris argued that 2020 voters "got what they ordered," touting everything from the infrastructure bill to the nomination of Kentaji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, and she urged them to remember that as they campaign.

"They took time from work. It was difficult. And a lot of what they demanded, they got. And so let's get out there, as we do, and remind them of that," she said in the final remarks of the conference Saturday.

Ellis Kim and Robert Costa contributed reporting.

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