Senate Democrats are grappling with how to improve their messaging after failing to win back the majority for the third cycle in a row.
Democrats were the favorites to win the Senate heading into Nov. 3, but instead find themselves soul searching about strategy as they face the possibility of another two years in the minority.
Senators aren’t engaging in the high-profile spats and finger-pointing seen in the House following the loss of Democratic seats, but Democrats say there’s a recognition that their message is getting lost in translation, or drowned out by GOP attacks, among voters they should be winning.
“I think the issue we’re grappling with more on the Senate side is, you know, how to get accomplishments and then make sure people understand ‘hey that’s a Democratic thing,’” said Sen. Sen Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) pointed to President-Elect Joe Biden’s platform as a blueprint for Democrats.
“We should be paying attention to what Joe Biden did, Joe Biden’s message won in the kind of states we need to win in order to capture the Senate, so we should sort of be looking at the issues that Biden focused on … and think of that as a template,” Murphy said.
Democrats entered the 2020 cycle defending 12 seats to Republicans’ 23. Though most of those were in deep-red states, a combination of historic levels of fundraising, an unpopular Republican incumbent at the top of the ticket, a once-in-a-lifetime health pandemic and, in retrospect, inaccurate polling made Democrats and political prognosticators believe they had multiple pathways to winning back the majority for the first time since 2014.
Instead, in the four best states for Democrats, they won two, Arizona and Colorado, and lost two, Maine and North Carolina. And in the roughly eight additional races handicappers rated as toss ups or “lean R,” Democrats won none outright.
The two Georgia races are going to runoffs on Jan. 5, and Democrats would need to win both to get the Senate to a 50-50 split.
Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has largely sidestepped reflecting on the Senate majority battle since the race was called.
Asked during a press conference if Democrats made mistakes focusing on red states, such as South Carolina, where they were easily defeated, Schumer noted Biden’s victory and pointed toward Georgia.
“We’ve won the most important election that we face. We always said the number one election is of the president, and we won. And, when it comes to the Senate, it’s not over at all,” he said.
Schumer and his leadership team, which ranges from progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to centrists including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), were reelected by acclamation, though the party still needs to pick a chair for its campaign arm the 2022 cycle. And senators acknowledge most of their focus right now is on Georgia.
But there are signs of frustration that messaging supported by a minority of the party is being used against candidates up and down the ballot.
“I don’t think it was the progressive movement, I think it was the fact that Democrats didn’t have the right message to counter some of the things that came up. I think that so many things right now are just about messaging and you know I keep saying things that were hit on me about defunding the police which is not true about some other things,” said Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), the only Democratic senator who lost his reelection campaign.
Manchin, part of the Senate’s dwindling group of moderates, was more direct, saying that the party needed a message “that didn’t scare the bejesus out of people.”
“When you’re talking about, basically, Green New Deal and all this socialism, that’s not who we are as a Democratic Party,” Manchin said during an interview with Fox News. “If you have a D by your name, you must be for all the crazy stuff, and I’m not.”
Manchin’s rhetoric — he’s also tweeted that Democrats don’t have “some crazy socialist agenda” — earned him a call out from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who tweeted a photo of her appearing to glower at him during a State of the Union address.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said that Republicans were able to use the Green New Deal and “defund the police” calls “very effectively in a lot of races, even if Democrats had not said those words.” He argued that lawmakers now needed to “govern from the center” and “achieve what we can.”
The division lines between centrists and progressives are playing out in increasingly public, bitter fights among House Democrats amid deep disagreements about why the caucus is seeing a tighter majority.
But across the Capitol, senators say their discussions are more about how they can successfully connect with voters who support Democratic ideas but are currently voting for Republicans. For example, Florida voters expanded the minimum wage but the state also went for Trump at the presidential level.
Kaine said the centrist-versus-progressives discussion was “not really the debate here.”
“We all agree that minimum wage, on the Democratic side, should be raised, and virtually no Republicans do so what’s the disconnect?” Kaine said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) added in an interview with MSNBC that Democrats “need to sharpen our message.”
The Senate election map could pose long-term challenges to Democrats hopes of winning the majority. Though 2022 will have GOP seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin up for grabs, Republicans are already eyeing Democrats in states including Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada. The president’s party also historically loses seats during a midterm.
And in 2024 the so-called Class I is a notoriously weak spot for Democrats, who lost four seats from the same group in 2018.
The reduction of split-ticket voting has posed a challenge by loosening the party’s foothold in rural states, boxing them out of seats held by Democrats less than a decade ago.
“We do need to understand how the deck is stacked against us in the Senate and the answer can’t be that we’re not competitive in half the states,” Murphy said. “Part of what we need to talk about is how we make ourselves more competitive in places like Iowa and Nebraska and South Carolina.”