Democrats start blitz to sell infrastructure

Democrats are readying a full court press to sell President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package to voters and protect their most vulnerable members in next year’s midterms.

On Tuesday, Biden participated in a virtual grassroots event with Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison where the two discussed infrastructure legislation. The committee projected images highlighting the infrastructure plan on a hotel in downtown Baltimore ahead of Biden’s visit to the Port of Baltimore on Wednesday. 

State parties are also getting in on the action, promoting the package and targeting Republicans who voted against it. 

Wisconsin’s Democratic Party and the state’s labor leaders held a press conference Wednesday to sell the plan to Wisconsin voters and hit incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for his vote against the legislation. Meanwhile, the North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania Democratic Parties held virtual press calls to sell the legislation. 

“It is part of our job to let people know exactly what Congress did for them in making this extraordinary investment,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.). “We have a lot of educating to do.” 

Strategists and lawmakers from both parties are drawing comparisons to 2010, when the GOP was able to seize on then-President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and the unpopular Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the surging Tea Party movement to send a wave of conservative lawmakers to Congress. On top of that, the party was fresh off a gubernatorial victory in Virginia, which is traditionally seen as a bellwether for midterms. 

Eleven years later, Republicans are looking at President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan and his Build Back Better spending plan. GOP operatives also say they see similar grassroots energy in what has become a parental rights movement against school boards. The party is also back in control of the governor’s mansion in Richmond.

The GOP is hoping to get a repeat of their 2010 wave, while Democrats hope they’ve learned some lessons.

The loss in Virginia last week sent shivers down Democrats’ spines, echoing the 2009 loss the party suffered in that year’s gubernatorial race. On top of that, Democrats are trying to sell signature legislation — a recently passed infrastructure bill and a sprawling social and climate spending bill still being negotiated — just like they did with the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010.

Those struggles come amid dwindling approval ratings for President Biden, whose figures are below those then-President Obama suffered from in 2009. Obama’s dismal approval ratings helped spark the Tea Party movement in 2009, while backlash against Biden is fueling a nascent but mushrooming groundswell among Republicans and independents over education issues.

Republicans argue that Biden’s dwindling approval ratings drove the Republican victory in Virginia last week and a closer-than-expected gubernatorial race in New Jersey. A Suffolk University survey released earlier this week showed Biden’s approval rating at 38 percent. 

Party operatives say they are banking on this trend to continue next year. 

“What we were tracking most closely was Obama’s popularity and our magic number was 46,” said veteran GOP strategist Doug Heye, who was working at the Republican National Committee in 2010. 

“We felt that if he was at or below that, we’d take back the House.” 

Republicans also largely reject the notion that infrastructure will save the party ahead of 2022, arguing that the national mood is already set. 

“It’s one thing to pass legislation. It’s another to connect to a mood,” said Tucker Martin, who served as strategic adviser to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) winning 2009 campaign. 

“I think that what Democrats have to be able to do is somehow connect their legislation to how people are actually feeling,” he continued. “Because this talking in the beltway jargon, that’s not how you connect to voters who are tired from a long pandemic, frustrated with public education, think the country’s going in the wrong direction.”

“They’ve lost a connection with just where voters are right now in terms of how they feel and I think you saw that in this campaign,” he said, referring to last week’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign. 

However, Democrats say this time around the kitchen table issues, like infrastructure and health care costs, will ultimately make for better, tangible messaging to voters. Strategists say that this differs from 2010 when more complicated topics like cap and trade and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act. 

“Unlike in 2010, this cycle Democrats have a strong, concise, and clear message that addresses voters’ top priorities,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director David Bergstein, who worked on a congressional race in 2010. 

“We’re growing jobs through investments in infrastructure, we’re lowering costs like health care and we’re cutting taxes for working families. These are popular proposals and the fact that Republican Senate candidates are opposing all of these ideas will lead their campaigns to defeat in 2022,” he continued. 

Democrats also suggest there are key differences between 2009 and 2021, chiefly the lack of a movement in opposition to Biden that equals the sudden and sizable influence enjoyed by the Tea Party at the time.

“To me the biggest difference is that in 2009/2010, you did have the emergence of the Tea Party that caught fire. It mobilized their side and our side was depressed,” said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy. “And there is the MAGA crowd, but we do not have some emerging movement brewing and elevating the danger of Biden’s, Democrats’ policies in the way you did then. For all of the ambitious policy items Dems and Biden are working on, there has been no real revolt from the other side.”

On the policy front, Democrats are also optimistic that they will be able to pass their social and climate spending plan before year’s end, whereas ObamaCare wasn’t passed until 2010. And while the current reconciliation package contains provisions that remain popular even after contentious negotiations, ObamaCare faced approval ratings in the basement after the fierce partisan fight over the bill.

“[T]he sausage-making never helps. Democrats need to get on to showing people that the sausage was high in protein. There’s a major difference to 2009 in that these plans are overwhelmingly popular by nearly 20 points while the Affordable Care Act was underwater by the time it passed. So Democrats have a major imperative to show people that we’ve delivered an economic agenda in these plans, but we don’t have the wind in our face,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson.

Ferguson said those differences indicate that while Democrats certainly face headwinds next year, all hope is not lost for the House and Senate, noting that last week’s disappointing loss by McAuliffe and surprisingly narrow victory by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) were still better results than in the same two races in 2009.

“The past is not prologue here. Between 2008 and 2009, there was a 23-point shift away from Democrats. This time around in Virginia, there was a 12-point shift. Similarly, in New Jersey, in 2009, Democrats lost, and in 2021, we narrowly held,” he said. “This is going to be a tough midterm and we have a lot of work to do to right the ship, but at the same time, it’s not too late and the die is far from cast on where we’re gonna land.”

Tags Barack Obama Jaime Harrison Joe Biden Madeleine Dean Phil Murphy Ron Johnson

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