The debate was ostensibly over a stop-gap spending bill that would avert a government shutdown. But Chip Roy, a Republican congressman from Texas, seized the opportunity to accuse Democrats of supporting “unconstitutional” vaccine mandates, critical race theory, “woke gender ideology” and open borders. A vote to fund the federal government, he warned, was a vote to allow “tyranny over the American citizen”.

The speech infuriated congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio.

“Tyranny?” Ryan fumed on the House floor. “What are you people talking about? We’re talking about universal preschool, and they have it as a communist indoctrination of the American student. It’s insane.”

Ryan’s frustration crystallized a dilemma for Democrats as they defend paper-thin majorities in Congress next year: how to talk about their legislative victories when Republicans are talking about everything else.

Emboldened by a string of off-cycle electoral victories, Republicans are embracing the culture war battles that Donald Trump waged from the White House as a strategy for winning back control of the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

“Lean into the culture war,” was the title of a June memo from the leader of the House Republican Study Committee, Indiana congressman Jim Banks.

The “culture war” offensive comes as Democrats, facing deep economic malaise and historical headwinds, race to deliver on the president’s domestic agenda, which includes an ambitious social policy package that faces serious legislative hurdles, hampered by Democratic holdout senator Joe Manchin.

“We have a plan to give you a better country, and they have a ploy to win back power for themselves,” said New York congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We are tackling the tough problems of the economy and the pandemic. They seek only to win power and will say or do anything to achieve that.”

The party controlling the White House typically loses seats in the first midterm elections of a new presidency. With Biden’s plunging poll numbers, uncertainty over the centerpiece of his legislative agenda and Republicans’ redistricting edge, Democrats are increasingly dour about their chances. In the House, Democrats can only afford to lose a handful of seats; in the Senate they cannot afford to lose a single one.

Maloney said selling their economic achievements – a popular, bipartisan infrastructure law and a poverty-reducing pandemic relief package – is critical for Democrats. But he said the party must also aggressively confront the Republican cultural assault. He urged Democrats to call out the opposition party’s embrace of “dangerous and reckless conduct,” which includes amplifying Trump’s false claims of a stolen election and downplaying the seriousness of the 6 January attack on the US capitol.

On social issues, he believes that Republicans have pushed too far, particularly on the issue of abortion. As the supreme court considers whether to weaken or overturn the landmark Roe v Wade precedent, Democrats are loudly trumpeting their support for women’s reproductive rights, as they try portray Republicans as an increasingly extreme party determined to ban abortion.

“We’re dealing with a Republican party that wants to ban abortion in all 50 states, bring back mass incarceration and burn books,” he added. “We’re not just going to respond, we’re going to be on offense.”

Grievance politics is not a new strategy for Republicans. In 1968, Richard Nixon employed the “Southern Strategy” to exploit white racial grievances coded in language such as “law and order” and “states’ rights”. But as partisanship grows and the parties become increasingly hostile to one another, so too has the potential political benefit of cultural warfare that inflames division and energizes their base.

A recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution, titled “competing visions of America,” found that 80% of Republicans believe that “America is in danger of losing its culture and identity”. By comparison, just 33% of Democrats agree. Meanwhile, 70% of Republicans say “American culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s” while more than six in 10 Democrats say it has changed for the better.

As Democrats negotiate amongst themselves over how to pass Biden’s signature domestic policy bill, Republicans have been seeding outrage over – and fundraising off of – all manner of perceived injustices from cancel culture to Dr Seuss to the 1619 project. They are hammering the administration over its handling of immigration at the southern border and Democrats over rising crime rates in cities. And Biden’s efforts to pursue racial equity as part of his governing agenda has drawn accusations of racism from conservatives who say the efforts discriminate against white people.

Republicans are also leading the charge against the administration’s vaccine mandates for companies with more than 100 employees, which they say is an example of “radical” Democratic overreach.

On that issue, Republicans are speaking to their base, which is disproportionately unvaccinated. An NPR analysis found that the stronger a county’s support for Trump in the 2020 election, the lower its Covid-19 vaccination rate. But Republicans are betting that opposition to vaccine mandates, terms of personal liberty, will resonate beyond their base.

In legal challenges to the mandates, Republican leaders argue that the vaccine mandates will worsen the nation’s supply chain problems and exacerbate labor shortages that have arisen during the pandemic.

But with the omicron variant circulating, Democrats believe public sentiment is firmly behind them. Americans increasingly support vaccine mandates for workers, students, and in everyday public life, according to a recent CNN poll, which found 54% in favor of requiring vaccinations for employees returning to the office.

The challenge for Republicans is to avoid alienating moderate voters in the suburbs with their efforts to energize their supporters who are deeply loyal to Trump and have come to expect their politicians to loudly voice their grievances.

Republicans believe their unexpected success in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020, provides a playbook.

In November, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race for Virginia governor after pledging to ban it from the state’s public schools. Democrats were surprised by the potency over culture war fight over education, allowing Youngkin to rev up the conservative base while appealing to suburban parents’ frustrations over Covid-19 school closures and masking protocols in classrooms.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book,” said Anat Shenker-Osorio, a messaging expert and host of Words To Win By. “It’s creating some sort of an ‘other’ so that we don’t notice that they’re actually the cause of our problems.”

In Virginia and elsewhere, she said Democrats were caught “flat-footed” by concerns over critical race theory, a concept that, until recently, few outside of academia had ever heard of. Instead of confronting it, she said Democrats’ instinct was to deny support and dismiss the charge as a right-wing talking point, neither of which satisfied voters.

Democrats need “an explanation for the rightwing’s origin story of, ‘this is why you’re suffering white man in the post-industrial Midwest,” Shenker-Osorio said. “Unless we can talk about race, about gender, about gender identity, our economic promise isn’t going to land.”

Columnist Will Bunch, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, put it another way: “Once again, the Democrats showed up to a culture war gunfight brandishing a 2,000-page piece of legislation.”

While Democrats agree they have a problem, they are at odds over how to fix it.

Some argue that the party has moved too far left on cultural issues, a shift that has alienated non-college educated white voters and, increasingly, working-class Latino and Black Americans. Another cohort believes that instead of trying to recapture the voters who have abandoned the party, Democrats should find a message that appeals to a diversifying electorate.

Proponents of this approach believe Democrats should respond to the right’s attacks by adopting what they call a “race-class narrative”, which Shenker-Osorio helped develop.

The approach explicitly accuses Republicans of using racism or racial dog whistles as a divide-and-conquer tactic to sew distrust, undermine faith in government and protect the wealthy. When applied, the message not only defangs Republican attacks, it motivates and mobilizes voters of all races, its advocates argue.

“Our task is to make the idea of joining together across our differences – the idea of multiracial solidarity, as a means to collectively get these shared values that we all want – sexier than the grievance politics that the right is selling,” said Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Way to Win.

In a recently published memo, advocated candidates use the “blows are landing because our agenda and accomplishments remain so far undefined in the minds of voters”.

Among its messaging recommendations, the group urges Democrats to contrast the party’s economic vision with a “Republican party that is beholden to Maga extremism” while doing more to sell their legislative achievements and highlight the steps they’ve taken to combat Covid.

“The good news is that these are not insurmountable challenges,” the memo states.

An increasingly vocal coterie of liberal critics believe the outlook is grimmer: that Democrats are staring into the political wilderness unless they are able to win back some of the non-college educated voters who abandoned the party.

Ruy Teixeira, a demographer and election analyst, believes Democrats have moved too far left on social issues like crime and immigration and is in need of a complete rebrand. He said Trump’s gains with non-college educated Hispanic voters was a “real wake-up call” that Democrats need to change course.

“We need a durable majority,” he said. “You can’t build a durable majority by ignoring socio-cultural concerns and the values of these huge swaths of the population.”

Where Democrats agree is that they must deliver on their promises while in power.

“We’re really just at the beginning of what needs to be a substantial change in the way the American economic model works,” Teixeira said. “And to do that, it’s not enough to just win one election and pass some stuff. We need to win a number of elections and pass even more stuff … It’s not much more complicated than that.”