OXON HILL, Md. – The crowd hung on his every word, cheering him on and booing his opponents. At one point, emotions ran high enough that someone in the crowd bellowed “Lock him up!”
This was no Donald Trump rally featuring the former president vowing to use prison to settle political scores. This cry came as President Joe Biden addressed top Democratic leaders at a riverside resort outside Washington, warning about “Trumpers” attempting to destroy U.S. democracy.
And, rather than urge bipartisan civility, Biden didn't miss a beat.
“We have to win this off-year election," the president said, "for more reasons than just being able to move our agenda forward.”
The boisterous mood of the Democratic National Committee's recent summer gathering at National Harbor, just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, follows a new, sharper tone from Biden as he warns that the GOP's Trump wing is a threat to core American values. The atmosphere signaled an emboldened party less than two months from Election Day, sensing that a year of political liabilities ranging from the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan to rising inflation is finally easing.
The Supreme Court's decision invalidating a woman's constitutional right to an abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade may prove to be a turning point that energizes Democratic voters in November, the party argues. Since then, Republican Kansas rejected a statewide abortion ban, and Democrats notched notable victories in special House elections in New York and Alaska.
“There’s a real sense that Republicans kicked the bee hive,” said Ben Wikler, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which wants to flip a Senate seat held by Republican Ron Johnson while retaining the governorship.
But as the party navigates an unexpected sense of momentum, it risks tapping into the same divisiveness Trump and his supporters relish — and that Democrats have said is undermining democratic norms. Democrats, however, insist that they must be clear about the stakes of the campaign.
“Republicans use fear as a tactic,” said Democratic Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly. “It seems like, a lot of times, that we might have to do a little bit of that, too.”
Biden, who rarely referred to his predecessor during the opening phase of his presidency, is increasingly vocal about the need to confront Trump. “This guy never stops and we’ll never stop, either," he told the DNC.
Vice President Kamala Harris told the conference, “We refuse to let extremist so-called leaders dismantle our democracy.”
“Democrats, we, here, rise to meet this moment,” Harris said.
Making his own rounds at the DNC, Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, used sarcasm to slam even more moderate Republicans who have dared break with Trump on key issues like denouncing year's deadly mob attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“We’ve got some Republicans who are saying the right things on say, I don’t know, treason? Like, as if pushing back on treason is somehow, you should be honored," Emhoff told the DNC’s Midwestern conference to hoots of laughter and cheers. “That was in the oath of office that we all took. That’s the job.”
Trump rose to power with a divisive approach to politics. He encouraged violence against protestors at his rallies during the 2016 campaign and branded the media the “enemy of the people.” As president, he said several liberal congresswomen of color should go back to the “broken and crime infested” countries they came from, ignoring the fact that all are American citizens and three were born in the U.S. The final days of his administration were consumed by efforts to remain in office, including Trump's personal role in sparking the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Republicans who were largely silent then are now blasting Biden and Democrats for picking political fights.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel has called the president “the divider-in-chief” and dismissed "the current state of the Democrat Party: one of divisiveness, disgust, and hostility towards half the country.”
While Democrats are increasingly optimistic about their prospects, there's still plenty of reason for caution. The party's grip on Congress is already tenuous and many of the races that could determine control on Capitol Hill may be decided by narrow margins. Democrats have also missed signs of strong GOP turnout in the past several elections — leading to surprise setbacks in places like South Florida.
More fundamentally, the party that wins the presidency almost always loses congressional seats the next cycle, and inflation remains at near-record highs despite some recent indications it might be cooling. Biden's approval ratings, while improving, remain low.
Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and DNC vice chair, suggested that the key to midterm gains doesn't have to be confrontational and can just mean trumpeting the accomplishments of Washington under Democratic control.
“Everywhere I go, I see Democrats hanging their head, wringing their hands, wondering, ‘Well, What are we going to do to win?’ You know what you need to do to make sure we win? Tell the story,” Martin said of promoting the party’s achievements. “President Joe Biden has led the way, delivered on almost every single promise.”
But Martin also suggested that simply staying positive may not be enough, adding that Democrats must “be willing to fight for our president” and “fight for our party.”
Wikler, the Wisconsin state Democratic chairman, said his party turned the GOP playbook back on Republicans to boost turnout in local elections throughout the state.
Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin’s harnessing parental frustration over schools that were closed during the pandemic helped key his upset win of the state's governorship last year. Wikler said Democrats successfully argued in the latest round of local elections that so-called parental activism was actually built on conservative attacks on teacher authority, transgender students and how history is taught — with the ultimate goal of shifting taxpayer funding away from public schools.
“Explaining why the other side is doing what they’re doing can take the sting out of it,” Wikler said.
DNC Chair Jamie Harrison suggested his party has regained some of its political swagger nationally, calling the coming election “Roe-vember” as a way of predicting that support for abortion rights will lift Democrats.
But, as he traveled around the conference meeting with smaller caucus groups, Harrison also reminded them that Democratic leaders in critical swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan helped safeguard the electoral system from Trump's lies about widespread fraud that did not occur in 2020. He said winning key races in such states this year is the best way to ensure the system holds after 2024's presidential race results are in.
“If we are not successful in those elections,” Harrison said, “God help us all.”