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Facing a tough election, House Democrats are conflicted about the way to win

The campaign chief says the party must be more empathetic and authentic, but others insist that’s not enough and want to pass parts of Build Back Better.
Image: Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speak during  the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia on  March 10, 2022.
Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., members of the Congressional Black Caucus, speak Thursday at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference in Philadelphia.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — House Democrats gathered here to take stock of their achievements and chart a path to hold their tenuous majority. But just as they hoped to unify and take on Republicans, their differences were on stark display.

Behind the anxiety is a dispute between Democrats about the way to defy historical trends against the party in power and survive the midterm elections.

Progressive and Congressional Black Caucus leaders say Democrats need more legislative victories to persuade voters to keep them in charge. But the party’s campaign chief, who’s focused on protecting at-risk members, says Democrats have plenty of achievements and can win by demonstrating more empathy and authenticity to voters.

Asked whether Democrats need to pass a Build Back Better-like bill to keep the majority, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC, replied: “No.”

He said Democrats have plenty of accomplishments to tout and a better district map than the one they won on in 2020. He said that while more victories would be good, voters will judge them on “whether they think we’re preachy or empathetic” and “whether they think we have the right priorities.”

“Where the Democratic Party has room to grow is attributes,” he said, arguing that candidates must work harder to show voters they “care about them” and “share their values.”

The DCCC recently conducted studies of voter attitudes and found that many Americans in key battleground areas find the party to be preachy and judgmental, a source familiar with the findings confirmed.

Maloney’s advice? “Talk like real people.” Don’t “sound like a jerk.” And “be a human being in relation to your voters.” Or put more simply: Be “real people.”

His remarks came moments after Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, offered a different path: improve the lives of voters by passing parts of the Build Back Better Act, a smorgasbord of popular promises from President Joe Biden that cleared the House and stalled in the Senate over opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

“We will not talk about he who shall not be named or that which shall not be named — Build Back Better,” Jayapal told reporters Thursday. “It’s like Voldemort. We just don’t say those words. But we continue to work on the pieces of the legislation.”

'Disappointing, infuriating, disenchanted'

Another leading progressive, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said voters “who galvanized to help put Biden in the White House” expected much more from the party than it has delivered.

“They expected something to be done with Build Back Better. It hasn’t,” said Bowman, who cited policies like universal child care and housing assistance, as well as stalled priorities on policing and voting rights, as drivers of voter anxiety. “We need wins in those areas to further secure our pathway to maintaining a majority in the House.”

“Disappointing, infuriating, disenchanted,” he said. “There’s a lot of those sentiments out there.”

Democrats gathered here were unified about the need to tout their accomplishments — including the American Rescue Plan, the $1 trillion-plus infrastructure law, plummeting Covid death numbers and record job creation in Biden’s first year.

But they disagreed about whether that would be enough to win, particularly with the added headwinds of rising inflation and soaring gas prices fueled by Russia's war in Ukraine.

One big variable in 2022 is the showing among predominantly young and nonwhite Democratic voters who don't reliably turn out. They showed up in big numbers to throw President Donald Trump and the GOP out of power, but they sat out the midterm elections in the Obama administration, causing red waves in 2010 and 2014.

“We have a precarious majority in the House and the Senate. So there’s a lot of frustration with the inability to get 10 Republican senators to meet us and pass the Dream and Promise Act,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who noted that the bill has passed the House. “There is a frustration on our part — on my behalf, the administration’s behalf.”

In a meeting at the White House this week, Black Caucus leaders said they pressed Biden about key Democratic priorities like voting rights and police reforms — issues that have no realistic chance of becoming law this year given the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.

But Biden struck a bipartisan tone in his State of the Union address last week, urging Democrats and Republicans to find common ground to get something done for the American people. The president is set to address the retreat in person Friday.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, agreed that Democrats should spend the rest of this election year working on bills that could pass on a bipartisan basis.

“We should focus on commonsense, bipartisan action that can actually get done and bring folks together — like combating crime, turning the corner on Covid and cutting taxes and costs, including gas prices, groceries and prescription drugs,” Gottheimer said.