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There are many distractions heading into midterms. How can Democrats refocus?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much trouble are Democrats in this fall? The party controls the White House and, by narrow margins, Congress. But the president's approval rating is well below 50%, and many lawmakers face tough campaigns. Now the White House is tangled in another round of the politics of COVID, appealing a judge's ruling that threw out a mask mandate on public transportation. Joel Payne joins us next. He's a Democratic strategist with the progressive advocacy firm The Hub Project. Good morning.

JOEL PAYNE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So this is a matter of law, but it's also a matter of politics and public opinion. As the administration appeals this ruling, throwing out the mask mandate - suppose they win the appeal. Is there any chance people would mask up again if told?

PAYNE: You know, it's interesting. I think they want to get caught trying. I'm not sure how much they actually want to win this appeal. You can look at the president's comments the other day. I think the politics on COVID have changed. I think if we were 15 months ago, you'd probably have a lot more gung-ho support for going all the way back to all of the best practices of public health and early COVID. I'm not sure if we're there publicly right now.

INSKEEP: Meaning that even if you talked to Democratic voters, you might not find a lot of enthusiasm for the strictest measures at this point.

PAYNE: Yeah, I really do think the center has changed on it. Even look at some of the Democratic governors over the last few months. They've really backed off some of the, again, early COVID, you know, good practices of public health related to COVID - Governor Polis in Colorado, Governor Murphy in New Jersey. You look at what happened actually in November with the Virginia governor's race, with Glenn Youngkin beating Terry McAuliffe and Phil Murphy narrowly surviving in New Jersey. They really struggled to get voters to move beyond COVID. And I think that a lot of Democrats are feeling that pressure right now.

INSKEEP: I'm just going to mention, I'm enjoying hearing the birds in the background, wherever you are. It sounds very bucolic. It's very nice. Let's put this in a wider context.

PAYNE: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Let's put this in a wider context, if we can. How tough is the environment for Democrats this fall?

PAYNE: The environment is tough. Look, even in the best of circumstances, Steve, the environment was going to be tough. I think, you know, I was in Harry Reid's Senate leadership office 12 years ago. Democrats had one of the strongest first two years of a presidency that you could ever have, and still Democrats lost seats. So even in the best of circumstances, I think Democrats are going to have a hard time. I think they're going to have an even harder time this cycle because, again, the president has really been able - has really had a hard time struggling to center the progressive coalition, the Democratic coalition, around an agenda. And I think you're going to have a lot of Democrats that are looking to see, OK, how do you get Republicans to back off of some of these, you know, COVID precautions that we're talking about?

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mentioned 12 years ago. You're talking about 2010, when Democrats were clobbered - a historic defeat for them, a historic series of wins for Republicans. Do you look at 2022 and think it could be that bad for your party?

PAYNE: Well, remember, President Obama called it a shellacking. I don't know if it'll be a shellacking this time, in part because you look at some of the redistricting things that happened over the last two years. I think Democrats have a better chance to hold serve in the Senate than they do in the House. But again, it's always a tough environment when you're the in-party and you're looking at your midterm coming up.

INSKEEP: You were in Harry Reid's office in 2010, though. He's a guy who survived 2010 when so many others were defeated. If you were giving one sentence of advice to Democrats for this fall to survive, what would it be?

PAYNE: Simple, easy, narrow message - don't complicate it. Make sure voters understand you're fighting for them and that you're not worried about just branding voters as - branding Republicans as Donald Trump's party. I think voters are tired of thinking about, you know, Republicans as being the party of Trump. I think Democrats have to have a positive message that they can go forward with as well.

INSKEEP: Joel Payne, Democratic strategist, thanks so much.

PAYNE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.