Democrats' bid to keep the Senate will involve plans to fight inflation and promises for a renewed agenda

Key Points
  • Democrats scrambling to retain control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections plan to tout their party's legislative accomplishments and ambitions.
  • They will also make the case that those policies are the best answer to voters' concerns about Covid-19, inflation and the broader economy.
  • "If you feel ignored or underappreciated by the Democratic Party, you have the right to. We as a party have not spent enough time listening to your concerns," Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman has said.
Democratic Senate candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock speaks during a campaign rally in Atlanta, Georgia on December 15, 2020.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

Democrats scrambling to retain control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections plan to tout their party's legislative accomplishments and ambitions – and to make the case that those policies are the best answer to voters' concerns about Covid-19, inflation and the broader economy.

They can promote their quick action under the Covid relief bill passed in the earlier, more successful stretch of President Joe Biden's tenure, as well as a generational investment in the nation's infrastructure.

They may also promise to revitalize Biden's Build Back Better plan and voting rights legislation, two massive initiatives that have sputtered out while the party has held narrow majorities in Congress and the president's approval ratings have plunged.

CNBC spoke with Democratic campaigns, staff of incumbents running for reelection and political strategists to hear their views on how the party can win in 2022. Uniting all factions of the Democratic Party and its supporters is a focus on one critical topic: fighting rising costs.

Strategists say the party must both reiterate its efforts to cool the current bout of inflation and how the policies the party championed throughout 2021 will work to boost consumers' bank accounts. They also stress that message should be coupled with a knock on Republicans for blocking those efforts.

Campaigns advisors told CNBC that candidates should show voters they care about working families and the middle class through policy efforts to reinstate the child tax credit, attempts to lower health-care costs and expand access to child care.

A test in Georgia

A representative for Sen. Raphael Warnock's campaign highlighted several efforts to lower costs and combat inflation.

The campaign said the Georgia Democrat has in the last 12 months pushed the Biden administration for federal funding for the state's ports, secured more than $140 million in grants to address affordable housing needs and introduced legislation to lower drug prices.

"It shouldn't cost working people an arm and a leg to get their prescriptions filled," Warnock said in a Twitter post on Dec. 10. "I'm urging my Senate colleagues to support my Capping Prescription Costs Act to ensure every American can access the medication they need."

Warnock won his seat in a special election in January 2021 and is serving the remainder of a term vacated by former Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons in 2019.

He will ultimately face one of his Republican challengers, including retired professional football player Herschel Walker and former Trump administration official Latham Saddler. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Walker's bid for the Senate seat.

While Georgia is a must-win state for Democrats hoping to maintain their paper-thin majority in the Senate, that isn't the only political battle brewing in the Peach State.

Earlier this week, a Georgia judge approved the formation of a special grand jury to assist in collecting testimony as part of a criminal probe into efforts by Trump to alter the outcome of that state's 2020 election results.

Meanwhile, voting rights advocates say 2022 could prove the damaging effects of new state legislation that limits access to absentee ballots and introduces strong ID requirements. Democrats and voting rights advocates say such efforts by Republican state legislatures in the wake of Trump's 2020 defeat amount to an underhanded way to disenfranchise Black voters, a key Democratic constituency.

The addition of Stacey Abrams, a prominent voting rights advocate and popular Georgia Democrat, to the 2022 ballot could work to Warnock's advantage however. Abrams is likely set for either a rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp or a race against GOP former Sen. David Perdue in the state's gubernatorial election later this year.

Keystone issue: Inflation

Political analysts are also keeping a close eye on what appears to be a close race for a Senate seat in swing state Pennsylvania, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman hopes to succeed Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in what some consider the best chance for Democrats to gain a seat.

Republican hopeful Jeff Bartos, who is also running for the Pennsylvania seat, told CNBC in December that his campaign is concentrating on the impact inflation is having on Pennsylvanians across the state and reining in what he views as Democrats' excessive spending.

Cost increases, which have in many sectors outpaced wage gains and soured Americans' views on the economy, have weighed on Biden's approval ratings and pose a hurdle to the party's attempt to control Congress.

The Labor Department's latest inflation report showed that U.S. consumers paid 7% more for all goods and services in December than they did 12 months prior. The figure represented the fastest year-over-year price increase since 1982.

To counter that narrative, many Democrats are touting efforts to lower costs. Jazmin Vargas, a representative for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats running for office will tailor their messaging to that end. 

"We're talking straight on about how we're going to help people, get them back on their feet, put more money in the pockets of working families, lower costs, and also how Republicans are opposing these proposals," Vargas said in an interview. 

She added that the economy added about 6.4 million jobs in 2021 — a record for a calendar year — as the U.S. rebounded from the Covid-19 recession. The recently passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, she added, should foster further job gains in the years ahead.

A delicate balance

Democrats' ability to retain control of Congress will determine whether the back half of Biden's term is characterized by even more Democratic wins or entrenched partisan gridlock.

The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, meaning that the 2022 results could shift the balance of power on Capitol Hill. Democrats also hold a narrow 221-212 advantage in the House of Representatives.

Losing one or both chambers would imperil their ability to pass Biden's economic agenda, but retaining the legislature could restart momentum behind the party's top priorities like the stalled Build Back Better and voting rights bills.

The outlook for Democrats is dire, however, given Biden's low approval numbers, the historic tendency for the party in power to lose seats in midterm elections and a raft of congressional Democratic retirements. In a recent CNBC/Change Research poll, 56% of voters now say they disapprove of the job Biden is doing, the worst such reading of his presidency.

The slide in Biden's overall approval numbers appears to be borne out of voters' frustrations with rising costs and the surge in Covid cases thanks to the delta and omicron variants.

Top Democratic strategist Anita Dunn made the call to focus on costs explicit in a memo to congressional offices in December.

Dunn, who has advised Biden as a candidate and as president, wrote that the party needs to tout its own ability to reach everyday Americans and hit Republicans over their opposition to popular policies. She encouraged the party to be specific and hammer the GOP for obstructing policies that lower costs for working families, which voters tend to support in polling.

Analysis continues to show "the popularity of the President and Democrats' economic agenda, especially when it comes to lowering costs," Dunn wrote. "Data also shows that Republican opposition to these plans is damaging to them, and that highlighting this opposition both hurts Republicans on the ballot and raises Democratic approval."

Explicitly framing the GOP as opposed to policies that lower costs, she wrote, serves better than simply deriding Republicans as the "party of no." That strategy appears to be playing out in the rollout of funds related to the infrastructure bill Biden signed in late 2021.

Inflation and infrastructure

Democrats from the White House to Capitol Hill have in recent weeks criticized their Republican rivals for changing their minds on transportation funding that the majority of the GOP opposed, but nonetheless promote in their home districts.

"Big shout out and thank you to GOP members like @RepKayGranger @SteveScalise @RepClayHiggins and @RepAshleyHinson who voted against the infrastructure deal, but now tout it in their districts bc they understand the positive impact it will have!" White House spokesman Chris Meagher wrote Tuesday morning.

"More than 90% of House Republicans were against historic infrastructure investment that Pres. Biden and Democratic majorities delivered to rebuild our country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., wrote Monday. "But that pesky fact isn't stopping shameless press releases and tweets claiming credit as they #VoteNoAndTakeTheDough."

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D - PA) delivers an introduction for Governor Tom Wolf during an inaugural ceremony on January 15, 2019 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Mark Makela | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Over in Pennsylvania, Fetterman has taken a different tack when it comes to inflation.

The state's lieutenant governor has made a habit of arguing that price increases at national restaurant chains are in part designed to help keep pace with workers' demands for better pay.

"Chipotle did it. They raised the price of a burrito by a whole 32 cents to cover it," Fetterman tweeted in July. "Somehow, no one will miss that 32 cents - except the millions of workers who will finally get to earn a basic, dignified income in our nation."

Preferring the label "populist" to "progressive," Fetterman has made a point of campaigning in some of Pennsylvania's Republican counties. He routinely speaks to communities that voted for Trump and to those he believes have been abandoned by the federal government.

In announcing his bid for Senate in February 2021, he spoke to the rural portions of his state: "My message to rural Pennsylvanians is this: If you feel ignored or underappreciated by the Democratic Party, you have the right to. We as a party have not spent enough time listening to your concerns."

Correction: The Democratic Party holds narrow majorities in Congress. An earlier version misstated its status.