Both parties gear up for midterm battle over COVID-19 relief

Remembering 2010, Democrats plan to actively promote the bill

Polls have shown the COVID-19 relief bill is popular with voters, but Republicans say that support could be temporary. Both sides are signaling that the measure will be a midterm issue. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Polls have shown the COVID-19 relief bill is popular with voters, but Republicans say that support could be temporary. Both sides are signaling that the measure will be a midterm issue. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 5:00am

The sweeping COVID-19 relief bill that Democrats expect to send to Joe Biden’s desk Wednesday is not only the first major legislation of the president’s term. It could also define the 2022 midterm elections, which will be a referendum on Biden’s first two years in office. 

Both parties are sending early signals that the $1.9 trillion package will be an issue next year, with Republicans launching digital ads knocking Democrats for supporting the legislation while Democrats target GOP lawmaker who voted against it. 

Republicans believe voters will reject the relief bill, which the GOP describes as a liberal wish list of unnecessary spending that doesn’t address the coronavirus crisis. The measure faces a final vote in the House, scheduled for Wednesday, after passing along party lines in the Senate over the weekend. Democrats believe that Republicans’ en masse opposition to the bill will come back to haunt them in 2022, when Democrats are defending slim majorities in both House and Senate. 

“We are going to be campaigning on this legislation,” Michigan’s Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters on a press call Monday. “And we are going to show meaningful results for people in need.”

A familiar fight 

Republicans have argued that there will be political pushback to the bill, even as direct payments of up to $1,400 hit voters’ mailboxes. 

“Unfortunately, there’s going to be a sugar high because free money is very popular,” said Texas’ John Cornyn, a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “But people are going to realize that only a small portion of the money was actually directed toward COVID-19. … So this may be temporarily popular, but it’s going to wear thin over time.”

Democrats point to national polls showing the bill is popular, including among Republican voters. An analysis by The Economist found that the relief bill was among the most popular pieces of major legislation in decades. And 70 percent of the more than 12,000 adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center from March 1-7 supported the package.

A Navigator poll of 1,007 registered voters, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Global Strategy Group from Feb. 25 to March 1, found 71 percent of respondents supported “passing an emergency legislative package that includes a new round of economic stimulus, vaccine funding and other pandemic-related measures.” That description had support from 67 percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans. 

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“Whomever is able to win independents is likely to have a leg up in the midterms,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said. “So Republicans doubling down on the worst possible position with independents is probably not a winning strategy.”

Republicans have criticized polling of the bill as misleading, noting that questions about stimulus checks or increasing funding for vaccines would naturally garner broad support. Democrats say GOP assertions of unnecessary spending in the bill are inaccurate and come from a playbook Republicans used when campaigning against an economic relief bill passed in 2009 during President Barack Obama’s first term.

“They're taking up their kind of knee-jerk critique about the bill, forgetting that this crisis is different than the last one,” said one Democratic strategist who works on congressional races. “And it’s very easy to understand whether or not this bill works.”

Lessons learned 

Democrats are drawing some lessons from the debate around the 2009 economic stimulus bill and the 2010 midterms, when they lost control of the House.

Biden told House Democrats at their retreat last week that they should “continue to speak up and speak out” about the COVID-19 relief bill, known as the American Rescue Plan. He said that in 2009, Obama did not want to “take a victory lap” and that hurt Democrats at the ballot box. 

“We paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility,” Biden said. 

Peters said Monday that the relief package will sell itself. But some Democrats warned that the party has to actively promote it. 

“One of the most important things we can do is then to sell it,” said Ferguson, adding that Democrats did not do so after the 2009 stimulus. 

“Democrats cannot assume that people have read the policy white paper from a think tank on this and know what is in the rescue plan and what was delivered,” Ferguson said. “We have to pass the rescue [plan] and then lean into making sure people know about it.” 

A long way to go 

Both parties have already started to campaign on the issue. 

This week, the American Action Network, the nonprofit affiliated with the House GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, expanded its digital ad buy targeting 11 Democrats on the relief package. The DSCC also launched digital ads against GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin for voting against it. 

With roughly 20 months to go until the midterms, it’s unclear whether this sweeping legislation will remain front of mind for voters. 

“It’ll be close to two years in the rearview mirror,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman. “So my personal belief: It’s not going to make a lot of difference in November of 2022.”

It is possible for early legislative fights to remain campaign issues. The 2010 health care law was signed in March of that year and went on to define the midterms several months later. Republican efforts to repeal much of that law and pass tax cuts in 2017 dominated Democratic messaging in the 2018 midterms. 

Cole was still optimistic that history was on Republicans’ side. 

“I don’t see any reason why the normal midterm trend of the party out of power picking up seats won’t reassert itself. That’s been a very unusual circumstance. It would take something like a 9/11 to reverse that,” he said. (After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the GOP bucked historic midterm trends by picking up congressional seats the following year.) 

Next year Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control of the House and one seat to regain the Senate. The 435 House districts will also be reapportioned among the states once the results of the 2020 census are released, and those changes are expected to produce a net shift of seats from blue states to red states.

But some Democrats believe recovering from the current health and economic crisis could upend traditional midterm dynamics. 

Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist and DSCC veteran, acknowledged that the COVID-19 bill’s impact on the midterms is difficult to predict. 

“But steady, competent leadership that keeps people safe, brings an end to the pandemic and helps build the economy, that is a powerful combination that will be rewarded at the ballot box,” McKenna said.

Chris Cioffi and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.