Democrats saw a string of welcome victories in Ohio, Virginia and Kentucky last week as voters in the state handed down key GOP defeats tied mostly to the issue of abortion rights.
Left activists in Virginia and Ohio in particular appeared energized by their victories, a much-needed boost to confidence and optimism after heartbreaking losses for the party in 2022 and 2021. Ohioans saw the election of the author and Trump to turn JD Vance into the US Senate, while Virginians witnessed the downfall of Terry McAuliffe, their state's former governor, as he tried to defeat Republican Glenn Youngin. Both were seen as blows to Joe Biden for different reasons — in Virginia, Mr. McAuliffe ran with Biden and was soundly defeated just months into the Biden presidency, and in Ohio the president lost a much-needed opportunity to pick up a vote for agenda in the US Senate.
But 2024 is on the horizon, and Democrats are looking ahead — though not without some significant sense of unease. Their current president is still in serious trouble, if the poll is to be believed, based on concerns about his age and his ability to represent America in a time of multiple global crises. At the same time, the prospect of a Trump victory — with the former president openly planning to unleash the powers of the federal government on his political enemies — is a real cause for concern for the country's future.
Buoyed by the party's victory on a ballot initiative enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, Ohio Democrats are mindful of the fact that no such issue will be as directly on the ballot next year. What this means for Joe Biden and other Democrats is simple: they will stake their own political reputations and that of the national Democratic Party.
If you listen to former Congressman Tim Ryan, this is a real problem.
“The problem is the brand is so bad,” Mr Ryan said The independent in an interview on November 16.
“People are with us on most of the important issues that are important in their lives,” said the former lawmaker, who was defeated by Mr. Vance in last year's Senate race. [But] If you put a ‘D' on any of that and all the baggage that today's modern Democratic Party and President Biden carry, you lose it all.”
Mr. Ryan is no stranger to sounding these alarms. He did so again in 2022, when he called on his party to focus on culture war issues, which he argued alienated them from voters worried about their financial future, or what he called “pocketbook issues”. At the time, he predicted he could win back Trump supporters from the GOP by focusing on a message of economic empowerment and pro-worker policies. After all, he did slightly better than Mr. Biden when he campaigned in the state in 2020. Still, it's important, without significant investment from his party.
As he reflected on his last year outside Washington, he lamented the state of Congress and the downward spiral on which American politics seems to rest.
“It feels great on a personal level,” Mr. Ryan said of not being caught up in the latest drama, which involves an Oklahoma senator threatening to fight a union boss and the former House Speaker being accused of physical assault.
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“But it makes me very, very concerned about where the country has gone.”
While he was no stranger to ousting party leaders, he did not have kind words for the group of Republicans who ousted former Chairman Kevin McCarthy after he cut a deal with Democrats to avert a shutdown.
“It's like, what do you think? Will you get everything you want? Do you have the house? Barely. You don't have the Senate. You don't have the Executive Branch. You won't get everything you want. Grow the f***,” he said. “It's like 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 in Kentucky: “You know, he was like a regular Democrat who could, who knew the people of the state. It had a moderate-progressive message. He had focused on Kentucky, not Washington. That kind of message really works.”
But he had another message for Joe Biden, one the president certainly doesn't want to hear: listen to the voters. Move over.
“We are Democrats, the pro-democracy party. We shouldn't be afraid of democracy, and look: the voters are trying to tell us something,” Mr. Ryan said. “In all the polls, in all the data, they don't want a Biden-Trump rematch.”
To that end, he advised his colleagues: stop trying to shut down Dean Phillips, the Democratic congressman from Minnesota who is 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 comes in [the race] let's have a chat and let it burn,” he lamented.
Mr. Phillips has won praise from commentators such as HBO's Bill Maher and other critics of the president for his decision to run despite strong odds to win the nomination. The 54-year-old praised the president's successes in office, but says Mr Biden should embrace a new generation of leaders as he faces unprecedented and intense concerns about his ability to serve (due to his advanced age) held by most voters in both parties.
His one-issue bid bears striking similarities to Ryan's own effort to oust former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic caucus leader in 2016, though he cautioned in an interview that there were also key differences, mainly the discontent with the Democratic leadership in the immediate aftermath 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 state in the presidential race and is also set to host one of the most heated Senate races in the country. Incumbent Sen. 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 has been polling ahead of presumptive GOP challengers, though those margins are likely to tighten when the GOP field coalesces behind one candidate next year.