WASHINGTON — Democrats hope the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that received final approval on Wednesday won’t just boost the economy and help Americans cope with the pandemic, but also will serve as the key to defending their congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections.
That’s because not a single Republican voted for the legislation, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks for most households along with aid for businesses and local governments, despite the bill’s overwhelming popularity with the public.
Democrats are already seizing on that GOP obstruction with acerbic ads painting Republican politicians as callous. At the same time, President Biden is planning a public relations push to sell the bill, starting with a primetime address on Thursday, hoping to avoid repeating Democrats’ failure to win votes with their 2009 stimulus bill.
“Republicans are going to have to explain to their constituents who have bills to pay and children to feed why they voted against helping them out,” Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison told reporters this week. “Voters will never forget who stood up for them during this unprecedented time — and who stood in the way.”
But Republicans, who traditionally would be expected to gain seats in the midterms as the opposition party, insist they are not sweating it. They are mounting their own campaign to brand the bill as a partisan giveaway laden with Democratic priorities that are unrelated to the pandemic, and are using their own unanimous opposition to the bill as proof that COVID aid, which was supported by both parties under Donald Trump, is partisan.
“Spending $2 trillion on a party line vote is not going to be popular,” predicted Republican strategist Michael Steel, who was a top aide to former House speaker John Boehner.
But if that prediction is going to come to pass, Republicans have a lot of work to do. A recent Pew poll found that 70 percent of Americans favor the bill, including 41 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Just 42 percent of Americans said they believe Republicans are making a “good faith” effort to work with Biden on the bill. One poll from the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that more Americans wanted the relief bill than a new puppy.
That popularity opens up an opportunity for Democrats to paint Republicans as uncaring about the needs of everyday Americans during a pandemic.
“The rescue plan is literally more popular than puppies,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said. “People want this plan more than they want a puppy and Republicans just voted against it.”
Democrats also note that their party picked up two Senate seats in traditionally red Georgia in January after the GOP-controlled Senate scaled down the size of relief checks in the last COVID aid bill — painting a potentially ominous picture for Republicans after this move.
“What are they going to say? The $1,400 check is too big?” said Mark Longabaugh, a former top aide to Senator Bernie Sanders, about the Republicans’ midterm message. “That ain’t going anywhere.”
In Congress, Democrats have warned Republicans not to try to take credit for the latest rescue bill in the future.
“I hope that we don’t see some of my Republican friends show up at announcements announcing money and resources for schools and cities . . . trying to take credit for something they’ve voted against,” Representative Jim McGovern of Worcester said during House debate on the bill Tuesday.
If Republicans don’t seem nervous, it’s because they say they’ve heard this song before — in 2009, when the GOP largely stood together to vote against a $787 billion stimulus bill negotiated by Biden, then the vice president, at the nadir of the Great Recession. Democrats predicted Republicans would suffer for their obstruction, but instead, the party made historic gains in the 2010 midterms, buoyed by anger over the Affordable Care Act, which passed in early 2010.
“In 2010 I’d be on TV with [DNC spokesman] Brad Woodhouse and he’d say, ‘Not a damn Republican voted for this bill and they’re going to lose,’ ” recalled Doug Heye, a Republican National Committee spokesman at the time. “And I’d be like, ‘OK, Brad, I think we’re going to have a good year.’ ”
Biden and other Democrats appear haunted by the aftermath of that stimulus, and the president has been pressing Democrats to aggressively sell the benefits of the bill.
“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done. Barack [Obama] was so modest,” Biden told House Democrats at their virtual conference last week. “I kept saying, ‘Tell people what we did.’ He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president would likely travel around the country to tout the bill.
“We certainly recognize that we can’t just sign a bill again,” Psaki said. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”
But the White House is passing on one key way to sell the bill — putting Biden’s name on the checks that will reach Americans. Trump ensured his name was on the “memo” line of checks the Treasury Department distributed; Biden will not be doing the same.
“This is not about him; this is about the American people getting relief — almost 160 million of them,” Psaki said.
Democrats believe that several factors are different now than in 2009 and 2010, when Republicans did not pay a political price.
For one, Democrats have such narrow congressional majorities it’s unlikely they will squeeze through another major piece of legislation like the health care bill, which rallied the GOP last time. The COVID aid bill also includes direct cash relief, unlike the tax credits of the 2009 stimulus, which Americans might not have even realized they received. And finally, Republicans do not appear to be putting forward alternative solutions to COVID relief, instead changing the subject to culture war issues, which Democrats believe voters will see as a cop-out.
“The Republican Party doesn’t stand for anything right now,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist and former political director for the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “They spent last week talking about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. It’s tougher for them when the American people need help and they’re just saying no.”
But in the end, Republicans will still go into the midterms with several structural advantages as a party.
Democrats’ weakness in rural areas and gerrymandering of congressional district boundaries give Republicans an edge in the House. The Senate’s Republicans also represent 42 million fewer Americans than the Senate’s Democrats despite the chamber being evenly divided between the two parties, according to a calculation by Vox. That means congressional Republicans need to convince fewer voters to back them to have the same political power as their Democratic colleagues, lessening the risk of spurning popular policies.
The midterm elections are also nearly two years away, which leaves plenty of time for new crises to reshape the political environment and potentially erase the COVID aid bill from voters’ memories.
“Good luck on making any predictions on anything happening in America in 20 months,” Heye said.