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With Biden's help, House Democrats are working to win over voters ahead of midterms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

House Democrats' political fate is tied to President Biden's. He's facing record high inflation and managing the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine. Biden is not on the ballot this fall, but he traveled to Philadelphia to pump up lawmakers who are.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This off-year election, in my view, may be the most important off-year election in modern history.

CHANG: NPR's Deirdre Walsh reports on how the party is dealing with political headwinds.

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BIDEN: Thank you. Please, sit down.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: The president was in his element addressing members of the House Democratic Caucus, who gathered to plot strategy for the midterm elections. Biden praised what Democrats have accomplished in his first year in office, but he also warned what would happen if they lose power.

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BIDEN: We know the fundamental change that shifts if we lose the House and Senate. The only thing I'll have then is a veto pen.

WALSH: Most political oddsmakers and even some lawmakers expect the historical trend for midterm elections to hold true this year - that the party in power will lose seats. It's New York Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney's job to stop a Republican red wave. He's chair of the House Democrats campaign committee and represents a swing district.

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SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: I'm a player coach.

WALSH: Republicans are already running an ad in his district.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "PAIN AT THE PUMP (NY-18)")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Sean Patrick Maloney and Joe Biden crippled American energy production.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Gas prices started to rise the moment the president got into office.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Gas prices here in the U.S. hit record levels.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Now you're paying the price.

WALSH: Maloney says Democrats need to talk like real people and pass what he calls the Maloney brothers test.

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MALONEY: If you go home for Thanksgiving and your brothers think you sound like a jerk, you know, what your grade point average was, it doesn't matter to them. You have to show up and be a human being in relationship with your voters.

WALSH: Another Democrat in a purple seat, Congresswoman Susan Wild skipped the conference with the president in her home state. She said it was more important to be in her district so her constituents know she's working to address the issues they care about.

SUSAN WILD: One of those things will be the rising cost of gasoline and other products. I need to talk about what we are doing to make sure that the shortages that we are seeing in the grocery stores and that kind of thing are being addressed.

WALSH: She said she can point to the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the progress coming out of COVID, but says her own party made a mistake pledging a sweeping social spending bill which stalled out.

WILD: It's always a problem when overpromises are made, and I do think that there was a problem with some things being overpromised.

WALSH: Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington State, who chairs the Progressive Caucus, pushed back at that.

PRAMILA JAYAPAL: I don't understand the overpromising thing. You know, elections are won on people believing your vision.

WALSH: It's a reminder that the tension between the party's centrists and progressives, who couldn't agree on the price tag for Biden's signature legislative package, is still very real.

JAYAPAL: I think it isn't that we have to be able to get every single piece of our vision done, but we do need to show that we understand the pain that people are facing, and we have to be able to show that we're working on it and we're trying to get it done.

WALSH: Congressman Gregory Meeks, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently returned from a trip on the border of Poland and Ukraine. He's being upfront about why his constituents have to pay higher prices at the pump.

GREGORY MEEKS: I'm asking the people of the United States to also make this sacrifice because in the long run, democracy is at stake.

WALSH: And the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Hakeem Jeffries, said at a time when people are grappling with inflation, his party has to talk about what it's done and what it still wants to do.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES: President Biden and House Democrats have a record of results and a plan for progress. It's important to talk about both.

WALSH: And he has a prediction for the fall.

MEEKS: It's my view that we will keep the majority in 2022 and even be able to grow it.

WALSH: With not a lot of time left to pass major legislation before the midterms, Democrats are pivoting to push Biden to advance immigration reforms, voting rights and efforts to cut costs through executive orders.

Deirdre Walsh, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.