WASHINGTON (The Hill): A dismal performance by Democratic candidates in New Jersey and Virginia is sparking a sense of panic among Democrats who now view their Senate and House majorities as in serious peril in the 2022 midterm elections.
In Virginia, a state President Biden won by 10 points a year ago, Democrats saw former Gov. Terry McAuliffe fall to defeat in a state the polls suggested he had been leading months ago.
In New Jersey, a strong performance by little-known former GOP Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli against Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was too close to call. Democrats had expected Murphy to win easily.
Republicans immediately went on the offensive, announcing a new bid to go after swing-seat Democrats in the House. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said his party might be able to flip as many as 60 seats.
The GOP needs to flip a net of only five seats to take back the House majority. If they can gain one Senate seat, they’d take control of that chamber.
Both goals looked to be in reach after Tuesday.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved Senate races in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada from the “lean Democratic” column to “toss-ups.”
Dave Wasserman, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, tweeted that Tuesday’s results “are consistent [with] a political environment in which Republicans would comfortably take back both the House and Senate in 2022.”
Democrats had felt more confident about keeping control of the Senate in 2022 because of a favorable electoral map. Twenty Republican-held seats are in play, including in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which were both won by President Biden in 2020.
But Biden’s approval numbers have tanked amid a gridlocked Congress, and his dismal ratings were another anchor on McAuliffe in Virginia. It was also impossible not to interpret the tight race in New Jersey as reflective of broader problems.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the exceptionally close outcome revealed a troubling lack of enthusiasm, especially among minority voters.
“It certainly is something to watch; it certainly is to some degree unexpected,” he said, acknowledging that Murphy was viewed as a solid favorite just a few weeks ago.
Menendez said Republicans outperformed expectations in the state, which Biden carried by 16 points only a year ago, because of “questions on the economy, people having COVID fatigue and minority communities not coming out in the way they should.”
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) warned that his party’s majorities are at risk if Democrats don’t learn from the political setback in Virginia.
He said it was imperative to move forward with Biden’s legislative agenda, which has been stuck in gridlock as Democrats battle one another.
“I was disappointed but not surprised. Terry McAuliffe was pretty explicit in the closing weeks of the campaign that our failure here to reach an agreement was felt by the voters of Virginia,” he said.
Asked whether GOP victories in Virginia and elsewhere may predict a tough election for Democrats in 2022, Durbin replied: “Of course. If we ignore it, certainly does.”
Fueling the growing sense of anxiety are memories of 2009, when Democrats suffered defeats in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races only to lose 63 House seats and six Senate seats in the 2010 midterms.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Wednesday said the impasse over the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which still hasn’t come up for a vote in the House, and the $1.75 trillion reconciliation package, which remains stuck in the Senate, “hurt” McAuliffe and other Democratic candidates.
“The Democrats let Terry down,” he said. “If we had done the infrastructure [and] reconciliation bills in October that we will certainly do before the end of [November], it would have been extremely helpful to him. “
Centrists led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has slowed down the negotiations on the reconciliation package, say the message from Tuesday’s elections is that voters have serious concerns about the huge spending and tax package moving through Congress.
“I’ve been saying this for many, many months, people have concerns, people are concerned,” he said, repeating his fear that another $2 trillion spending package would fuel more inflation.
He also warned that voters are nervous about tax increases, even though Democrats have promised not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000 a year.
“We’re talking about revamping the whole entire tax code. That’s mammoth. We’ve had no hearings, no open hearings,” he said. “They’re scared to death.”
Republicans, for their part, are feeling confident.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Tuesday “suggests the environment is very conducive to big Republican gains.”
Some lawmakers believe that Tuesday’s losses reflect a broader lack of enthusiasm for McAuliffe, Murphy and the rest of the Democratic “establishment,” which has struggled to find a political message that can resonate with voters since defeating former President Trump in last year’s elections.
There’s also concern among some Democratic lawmakers that a decision to water down a proposal to empower the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices and to dramatically raise the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions is hurting the party with voters.
“It’s a colossal failure on the part of the Democratic Party to have anything for voters to rally behind,” grumbled one Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to comment frankly on the election results.
The senator said his party could be headed for major losses in 2022 “if we suck.”
“If we actually got some stuff done for the American people that made a difference at their kitchen table and if we didn’t pass a bill that cut taxes on rich people, which is what we’re talking about doing right now, I think we have a chance,” the lawmaker said, referring to the debate within the Democratic caucus about eliminating the cap on SALT deductions.
A second Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on the political environment said “the base is extremely depressed.”
The lawmaker, who has spoken to multiple Democratic donors in recent days, said Democrats outside of Washington are frustrated that Biden has been unable to close a deal with Manchin on the budget reconciliation package despite multiple White House meetings.
“We are paralyzed here, and the president has been diminished by the inability of him to hold an Oval Office meeting to close the deal,” the source said.
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