The 2022 elections are still a year away, but all signs point to trouble for Democrats. The party seems likely to lose its House majority, and possibly even the Senate.
Is it a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. But avoiding that fate requires understanding the party’s challenges and responding appropriately. To stay competitive next year, Democrats will need to take bold steps to protect our democracy — and to pass their own agenda.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is also the most sordid: gerrymandering.
How House voting districts are drawn all but determines which party wins them. Gerrymandering refers to a process in which parties draw districts that heavily favor their own members, which can often result in stark partisan imbalances.
The current districts, drawn after the 2010 Census, are already gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. But the new districts being drawn for 2022 are even worse.
Since the 2020 Census, Republican-leaning states have gained a few seats while Democratic-leaning states have lost some. According to the New York Times, the GOP now controls the redistricting of 187 House seats, while Democrats control the drawing of just 74.
GOP-controlled legislatures are working overtime to squeeze out Democratic voters in these districts, potentially leading to majority-GOP delegations even from states Joe Biden won. So even if Democratic House candidates win more votes than their GOP counterparts in 2022, they could end up in the minority.
Partisan redistricting plans are often challenged in court, and a few were struck down in recent election cycles. But this isn’t likely to happen before next year. Add in the voter-suppression laws proliferating in GOP-controlled states, rising inflation, and President Joe Biden’s plummeting poll numbers and the outlook for Democrats is grim.
But Democrats do have one advantage: It turns out that Biden’s domestic political agenda is immensely popular.
Biden just signed a long-overdue overhaul for America’s roads, bridges and transit infrastructure, which is popular with voters. And the Build Back Better Act now painstakingly trudging through Congress includes some immensely popular provisions — including guaranteeing paid family and medical leave, lowering prescription drug prices, and fairly taxing the richest among us.
Other elements of the plan would create renewable energy jobs, guarantee access to child care, and extend direct monthly payments to virtually all U.S. parents. These are all popular ideas that would benefit virtually all Americans in one way or another.
But there’s a problem: Most voters don’t know Democrats are actually trying to do all this. While huge bipartisan majorities support the bill’s individual provisions, just 10 percent of voters say the Build Back Better would help them. Only a third said they knew anything about what’s in it.
So Democrats have a few tasks before them if they want to survive 2022.
First, they need to pass the most sweeping version of the Build Back Better Act that they can get past their most conservative members, including Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Then they need to make sure voters know what’s in it. Biden and lawmakers should take to the streets and airwaves with people affected by the act, such as members of the Poor People’s Campaign, and make it known that the Build Back Better Act would significantly help nearly all families and workers in this country.
Finally, Democrats need to address the anti-democratic voter-suppression bills that have proliferated around the nation.
They could invoke a one-time exception to the filibuster to pass a “democracy infrastructure” bill over Republican opposition. Such legislation should protect voting rights and crack down on gerrymandering by calling for nonpartisan, independent commissions to redraw federal electoral districts rather than partisan statehouses.
So, before the GOP rushes in their orders for tuxedos and gowns to be sure they get through the bottle-necked supply chain by next November, let’s see if Democrats can follow the will of the people, pass popular legislation, protect our democracy — and actually tell people they’ve done it.
Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.