For years, Democrats knew exactly what to do with Donald Trump — oppose him and everything he stood for, and wait for the votes to pour in.
Now that he’s no longer in office, but still playing an outsize role in national politics, Democrats’ calculus of how to incorporate him into their campaigning has gotten significantly more complicated. That’s especially true after this week. The outcomes of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races were not good for Democrats — Terry McAuliffe outright lost the first, and in New Jersey, the incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy barely hung on to his seat in a race that was not expected to be competitive.
The implications of those results have spilled past the borders of those states and splattered all over the Democratic Party, where Democrats who will run in next year’s midterms are frantically trying to figure out how to avoid the same results they saw Tuesday in their own races and retain control of Congress.
“Democrats should stop using Trump in their messaging. If polling wasn’t an indicator for candidates then this election was,” Jasmine Burney-Clark, a Democratic political consultant in Florida — where there is a competitive Senate race for 2022 — said in a text. “People aren’t responding to messages that center him, his corruption or his fear tactics like January 6th.”
Part of the emerging consensus among Democrats is that the solution is straightforward: pass legislation to run on. While it’s unclear whether that would have made a difference in the Virginia race, members of the Virginia congressional delegation expressed frustration that McAuliffe wasn’t given something more substantive for his campaign. Instead, McAuliffe ran on his own previous record as governor, and his campaign also spent a lot of energy tying his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to Trump. Youngkin, for his part, walked a fine line between riling up enthusiasm from Trump’s base and keeping a far enough distance from the former president that he could appeal to otherwise persuadable voters — and it worked.
Meanwhile in Washington, Democrats have been unable to move significant legislation since the start of Biden’s term, when they passed a sweeping coronavirus response bill that included stimulus checks, unemployment aid, and guaranteed income for parents. Leading up to Tuesday’s election, twin bills meant to address infrastructure, the climate crisis, and social programs remained stalled as two senators — Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — stood in the way of what most of the party wanted to use the social programs bill as a vehicle to move.
"We need to focus on delivering good policy for the American people," Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday when asked what Democrats needed to do to avoid losing again in the midterms. "And what I always say is, I'm focused on doing the work today and the politics will take care of themselves."
As the fight among Democrats has dragged on, the president’s popularity has sagged, though one Marquette University Law School poll of registered voters conducted at the end of October found that in Wisconsin, which Biden won in 2020, Biden still leads Trump in a hypothetical rematch in the next presidential election.
Trump has proven an effective foil for Democrats. Not only was Biden able to run an effective campaign opposing him in last year’s presidential race, but in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom was able to beat back a recall election in part by talking a good deal about Trump. Newsom’s campaigning hinged a lot on convincing the electorate that voting against him could result in a MAGA-like governor.
Still, the data so far "doesn't show that the Trump factor is a motivator the way it was a year ago," Colin Strother, a Democratic operative who consults on races in the Democratic stronghold in south Texas where Trump made massive gains last year, said in an email. "We stand for doing the right thing for every American, and right now that's taking the form of addressing poverty and income inequality. The problem is that's an amorphous stance to begin with, and then the White House is unable to effectively communicate how their plans will realize that goal."
“We have to give structure to our values and goals. It's got to fit on the bumper sticker. We just don't have that right now,” he said.
Democrats warn against reading too much into the results from this week, and it’s fair that only so much can be extrapolated from an off-year election in just a small handful of states. A lot of what was on the ballot was also local — mayors, ballot initiatives, and school boards, which have their own dynamics and local political environments at play. And a lot could change in the next 12 months before the midterms. Still, Democrats are looking to see what adjustments they need to make in order to make the most of that calendar year to give themselves a fighting chance.
"I think for Democrats across the country, the key thing is both being able to illustrate how they delivered for people and draw sharp contrast with Republican efforts to drive the country into a ditch," Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chair in Wisconsin, which will have a competitive Senate race next year, said when asked whether he thought Democrats should stop talking about Trump.
How Democrats think about Trump could change in an instant. Trump has himself teased another run at the presidency virtually since the day he lost. Though he’s relished in endorsing Republican candidates, taking credit when they’ve won, and generally passing the time putting out statements via email, at any moment he could announce he will run for president again in 2024, and instead of being a former president once again become the biggest story in American politics.
“The way that Republicans won in Virginia was really interesting. They won by distancing themselves from Donald Trump, and particularly in the competitive areas where they needed to pick up a few votes that had swung against him a year ago,” said Adam Kinsey, a Democratic operative based out of Arizona, another state that will have a competitive Senate race next year. “I would just ask, do we really think Donald Trump has the discipline to stay away from the midterms nationwide in 2022, particularly when he's going to be running for president in '24? I highly doubt that.”
Addy Baird and Kadia Goba contributed reporting to this story.