A month after Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race and just squeaked out a victory in New Jersey, they’re trying to retool their message on “kitchen table” issues and working to tout the benefits voters will reap from President Biden’s agenda, as they prepare for 36 governor’s races in 2022.

They’re shying away from the topic of former President Donald Trump, after years relying on him to motivate Democratic voters to get to the polls. That approach flopped with swing voters in Virginia, who helped elect Republican Glenn Youngkin to be the state’s next governor.

“We’ve got to find our way into more kitchen tables. We have to get into the conversations at night that families are having about what government does, what it means to them, to make it less abstract and more real,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who won his reelection in New Jersey by 3.3%, a figure he admitted was tighter than he expected it would be.

Democrats have been battered by the political headwinds from Mr. Biden’s falling approval ratings, an uncertain economy with high inflation and the threat posed by constantly new COVID-19 variants. But they’re still optimistic that progress on his agenda, particularly the infrastructure bill, could yield tangible results incumbent governors and Democratic candidates will be able to point to when the campaign season heats up.

“The policies that the Biden administration has been able to help implement, are really going to be hitting the streets here in the next few months and years,” said North Carolina Governor and chair of the Democratic Governors Association Roy Cooper. “And the president, his administration and other Democrats will benefit significantly because of that.”

Cooper, who was speaking at the group’s annual policy and fundraising meeting in New Orleans, said incumbents and candidates need to focus on the direct impact they can have on voters’ lives through childcare, healthcare or education, and point to what they’ve done to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats are defending 16 governor’s seats in 2022. They’re anticipating incumbents in Kansas, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Minnesota and New Mexico will face the most competitive races. In these seven states, Mr. Biden had a similar or smaller margin of victory than he did in Virginia. Trump won Kansas by about 15 points in 2020, by slightly less than in 2016.

“The Biden agenda consists of unpopular, job-killing government mandates, a self-created humanitarian and security crisis at the border, and nearly 40-year high inflation that’s causing real American wages to go down,” said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez. “If that’s the agenda Democrat governors are confident leaning into, we’re all for it. It’ll make our win in Virginia look like child’s play.”

In Virginia Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe’s race for a second term this year, he tied his GOP opponent Glenn Youngkin to Trump at every opportunity, trying to motivate the base in a state Trump lost by 10 points. Cooper didn’t rule out using Trump as a voting issue, but said it would depend on the political makeup of the state, and on whether Trump is involved in a GOP primary. In any case, he would not be the main  focus.

There are 11 Republican incumbent governors facing primary challenges. No incumbent Democrat faces a notable challenger.

In states Democrats are targeting, Trump is backing challengers or candidates more aligned with his brand, rather than any in the mold of a Youngkin. In fact, in a couple of states Trump is creating headaches for his party because he’s backing challengers to Republican incumbents or preferred mainstream GOP candidates. 

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is facing a primary challenge from former Senator David Perdue, who was encouraged to run by the former president. In Arizona’s open race, Trump has backed former news anchor Kari Lake, who called his backing “the most powerful endorsement in the history of politics.”

In Massachusetts, Trump is backing former Republican state representative Geoff Diehl against popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker, before he announced he wouldn’t seek a third term. Democrats now see the heavily Democratic state as their most likely pickup. 

“They’re at war with themselves and they’re doing it very well,” Cooper said of Republican incumbents facing challengers. “If one of Trump’s candidates is nominated or beats an incumbent Republican governor, I think that’s news. I just don’t think it needs to be the central focus. I don’t mean to say you would ignore [Trump], because you can’t. But what you can do is continue to focus on your issues.”

He added that Trump’s continued focus on the 2020 election, as well as the movement of Republican state legislators pushing for further restrictions on voting, is “deeply concerning” but that it falls into a bucket of “political process” issues that aren’t top of mind for voters.

“We cannot ignore Trump because he’s obviously trying to support people who will believe what he wants them to believe,” he added. 

After McAuliffe’s loss in Virginia, Democrats are also adjusting their approach to education. Cooper said his party has to acknowledge the frustration of parents who have dealt with the difficulties and stress of a year of virtual learning for their children at home, often while they were also working remotely. He pointed to more investments in schools to address learning loss, such as summer school. Cooper thinks that shortcomings in Democrats’ handling of that issue also fueled Youngkin’s win. 

“Parents obviously do, and should, have input in what their children do in school,” he said. 

Abortion may also emerge as an issue, too, since the Supreme Court’s blockbuster decision on Mississippi’s abortion case is expected to be issued in June or July, in the middle of the campaign. Several Democratic governors call themselves the “last line of defense” for abortion rights and are preparing for the possibility that the landmark case giving women the right to have an abortion, Roe v. Wade, could be overturned. 

Should that happen, the right to have an abortion would be decided individually by each state. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has called for the repeal of an old state law that criminalizes abortion, and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers has vetoed multiple bills that would place limits on abortions. 

But the best way for Democrats to motivate their voters to show up is still an open question for the party. The DGA attributed the high Republican turnout to an “ecosystem of disinformation” with right-wing news outlets inflaming Republican partisans and noted that Democrats don’t have an equivalent method to drive their voters to the polls. 

For now, Cooper believes Biden’s agenda is popular enough for Democratic governors to run on, and wants Democrats in Washington to continue “getting things done and worry about messaging later.”

“It’s that old adage of you got to tell people what you’re going to do, tell them that you’re doing it and then tell them that you did it. We’ve got to do all three pieces of that,” added DGA political director Marshall Cohen. “If people don’t know what you’ve actually done then you can’t really blame the other side for not being involved.”