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After Build Back Better’s collapse, Democrats still struggling with how to message the midterms

By Lauren Fox, CNN

In the four months since West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin torpedoed the President’s signature Build Back Better plan, Democrats have struggled to rally around a cohesive midterm message.

Many members facing tough reelections have sought to forge their own paths, run against Washington and at times even distance themselves from President Joe Biden. But rank-and-file Democrats acknowledge that time is running out to get everyone on the same page and more needs to be done to help boost their colleagues who could lose their seats without a more succinct vision.

“We all need to work harder about delivering the message on reducing costs, making sure we are empowering small businesses and working families,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. “We’ve been doing that from the get go, but we just don’t talk about it enough.”

As the country stares down skyrocketing gas prices and inflation, members are taking matters into their own hands as best they can. Some are urging their leadership to do more: Put more legislation on the floor that can pass and give members something to run on. On Thursday morning, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced a plan with Republican colleague Brian Fitzpatrick to tackle seven areas ripe for bipartisanship, including legislation to increase funding for policing and another bill to block the administration from overturning Title 42, a pandemic-era order that allowed border patrol to return migrants immediately to their home countries citing a public health emergency.

“We need to focus on commonsense, bipartisan action that can actually get done and bring folks together,” Gottheimer told CNN.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, among the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle, acknowledged the challenge of getting legislation through.

“You know I served in organizations that had missions and goals and you worked to achieve that. It was rather straightforward. This place doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t function well,” said Kelly, a Navy veteran and former astronaut.

The twin challenges of a 50-50 Senate and an ideologically diverse caucus has been — at times — a liability for Democrats seeking a cohesive message. After Democrats campaigned for years on increasing the corporate and wealthiest individual tax rates to make the tax code fairer, one member, Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, drew a red line against it last year. Manchin’s opposition to several social programs, including an expanded child tax credit, doomed the Build Back Better plan. And even now, there are major divides between Democrats on student loan debt forgiveness, immigration and the most effective way to lower energy costs making it harder for the party to hold the House and Senate in November.

“I have always had a cohesive message. It’s not in sync with the other 49,” Manchin said when asked if he thought Democrats had a unified message.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate held a news conference on their plans to penalize gas companies for what they said has been price gouging at the pump. But those plans face long odds of passing in the Senate, where Democrats would need 10 GOP votes and the backing of Manchin to move legislation.

Sinema told CNN, “I think you should ask someone else,” when asked if Democrats had a clear message for the midterms.

Many Democrats interviewed for this story touted what Democrats have done with their majority: They confirmed the country’s first Black woman to the US Supreme Court, passed a massive Covid-19 relief package swiftly after Biden took office, found a way to work with Republicans to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, and are worth with Republicans on ironing out House and Senate differences on la bill aimed at making the US more competitive in industry with China.

But the big-ticket items that can drive Democratic voter enthusiasm, such as lowering the cost of child care, prescription drugs, climate legislation, a path to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants and raising taxes on corporations, are still undone.

“We dithered around too much on things like Build Back Better, and we gotta show we can make a decision,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said. “We’ve gotten some good things done, but I think we gotta get more things done.”

It’s not clear, though, what big-ticket items could actually pass with just Democratic votes at this point. Manchin’s staff had been engaged with the White House on energy policy earlier this month, but so far those talks haven’t yielded an agreement. Instead, Manchin has begun working with a bipartisan group of members on an “all of the above” energy and climate package that would address energy policy on a bipartisan basis and likely fall short of the kind of climate bill progressives had once hoped for.

For their part, Republicans are largely getting more bullish about their chances in the midterms, citing Democrats’ lack of cohesive messaging as one reason.

“There are a whole bunch of Democrats who are feeling really in a bad spot right now. I am just gonna say that is my observation. They are in a lot of trouble politically and their President isn’t helping them. He is in fact hurting them a lot,” North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer said.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott blasted Democrats for not being responsive enough to voters in their messaging.

“They are not reacting to what the public is talking about,” Scott said. “They are not being responsive on inflation, they have no message on what happened in Afghanistan. They have no message and they aren’t doing anything about energy independence.”

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CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.

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