Democrats saw a series of welcome victories across Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky last week as voters in statewide elections delivered the GOP key defeats chiefly tied to the issue of abortion rights.
Left-leaning activists in Virginia and Ohio in particular appeared energised by their victories, a much-needed boost to their confidence and optimism after heartbreaking defeats for the party in 2022 and 2021. Ohioans saw the election of author and Trump convert JD Vance to the US Senate, while Virginians witnessed the downfall of Terry McAuliffe, their state’s former governor, as he sought to defeat Republican Glenn Youngkin. Both were considered blows to Joe Biden for different reasons — in Virginia, Mr McAuliffe ran aligned with Mr Biden and was beaten soundly just months into the latter’s presidency, and in Ohio the president lost a much-needed opportunity to pick up a vote for his agenda in the US Senate.
But 2024 is on the horizon, and Democrats are looking ahead to the future — though not without some considerable sense of unease. Their incumbent president remains in serious trouble, if the polling is to be believed, based on concerns about his age and ability to represent America through a time of multiple global crises. At the same time, the prospect of a Trump victory — with the former president openly plotting to unleash the powers of the federal government on his political enemies — presents a real reason to be concerned about the country’s future.
Enthusiastic as they are about the party’s victory on a ballot initiative enshrining abortion rights in the state’s constitution, Ohio Democrats are cognizant of the fact that no such issue will be as directly on the ballot next year. What that means for Joe Biden and other Democrats is simple: they’ll be running on their own political reputations, and that of the national Democratic Party.
If you listen to former Congressman Tim Ryan, that’s a real problem.
“The problem is, the brand is so bad,” Mr Ryan told The Independent in an interview on 16 November.
“People are with us on most of the important issues that are important in their lives,” said the former congressman, who was defeated by Mr Vance in last year’s Senate race. [But] if you put a “D” by any of those, and all the baggage that the current modern Democratic Party and President Biden carry, you will lose all of them.”
Mr Ryan is no stranger to sounding these alarms; he was doing so in 2022 as well, when he called out his party for focusing on culture war issues which he argued alienated them from voters who were worried about their economic futures, or what he called “pocketbook issues”. At the time, he predicted that he could win back Trump supporters from the GOP by focusing on a message of economic empowerment and pro-labour policies. In the end, he performed slightly better than Mr Biden did when he campaigned in the state in 2020; though, importantly, without major investment from his party.
As he reflected on the last year out of Washington, he lamented the state of the Congress and the downward spiral on which American politics appears to be set.
“It feels wonderful on a personal level,” Mr Ryan said of not being caught up in the latest drama, which includes a senator from Oklahoma threatening to fight a union boss and the former Speaker of the House being accused of physical assault.
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“But it just makes me very, very worried for where the country’s gone.”
Though no stranger to bucking party leaders himself, he had no kind words for the contingent of holdout Republicans who ousted former Speaker Kevin McCarthy after he cut a deal with Democrats to avert a shutdown.
“It’s like, what the f*** do you think? You’re gonna get everything you want? You have the House? Barely. You don’t have the Senate. You don’t have the Executive Branch. You’re not gonna get everything you want. Grow the f*** up,” he said. “It’s like this is basic, like, human interaction.”
The solution for Democrats in the face of such chaos was simple, he explained: just be normal.
He pointed to Andy Beshear’s re-election victory in Kentucky: “You know, it was like a normal Democrat who was able to, who knew the people of the state. He had a moderate-progressive message. He was focused on Kentucky, not on Washington. That kind of message really works.”
But he had another message for Joe Biden, one the president surely does not want to hear: listen to the voters. Step aside.
“We’re Democrats, the pro-democracy party. We should not be afraid of democracy, and look: the voters are trying to tell us something,” said Mr Ryan. “In all the polling, in all the data, they don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch.”
On that end, he advised his fellow colleagues: stop trying to shut down Dean Phillips, the Democratic congressman from Minnesota now openly challenging the president for his party’s nomination, “right out of the chute”.
“I mean, we preach that we’re the pro-democracy party, you know, and then somebody gets in [the race] to have a conversation and gets torched,” he lamented.
Mr Phillips has won praise from commentators like HBO’s Bill Maher and other critics of the president for his decision to run, despite the long odds of him winning the nomination. The 54-year-old has praised the president’s successes in office but says that Mr Biden should embrace a new generation of leaders as he is confronted by unprecedented and steep concerns about his ability to serve (due to his advanced age) held by majorities of voters in both parties.
His one-issue candidacy bears striking resemblances to Mr Ryan’s own bid to oust former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic caucus in 2016, though he cautioned in his interview that there were key differences as well, the main being dissatisfaction with Democratic leadership in the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s first White House victory that year.
Ohio is set to be a major battleground in 2024, as it remains a key swing state in the presidential race and is also set to host one of the most hotly-contested Senate races in the country. Incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is running for re-election in a state where Republicans won the last such race and the last two presidential elections.
Mr Brown, according to polling, leads his hypothetical GOP challengers though those margins are likely to tighten once the GOP field coalesces behind one candidate next year.