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Next stop for Biden’s agenda: The campaign trail

Democrats to embrace major policy overhauls, drawing lesson from 2010 midterms

Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan touted the "Build Back Better" bill after touring a medical campus in Cleveland.
Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan touted the "Build Back Better" bill after touring a medical campus in Cleveland. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After touring a medical campus in Cleveland on Monday, Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan stressed the importance of getting one of President Joe Biden’s signature policy achievements across the finish line. 

“There’s a variety of things in here that are going to be very, very helpful,” Ryan, who is running for Senate, said at a press conference. 

Ryan was referring to the more than $2 trillion package known as the “Build Back Better” bill, which passed the House on Friday and includes a litany of Democratic priorities, such as restored or extended tax cuts and expansions to the social safety net. All but one House Democrat supported the bill, which now heads to the Senate. 

Democratic Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, a GOP target in 2022, touted the spending package as “support for working families across Minnesota” in an interview over the weekend with a local CBS affiliate.

The push to tout the sweeping social spending bill, along with a bipartisan infrastructure package that Biden signed earlier this month, marks a departure from the last time voters weighed in on the agenda of a first-term Democratic president whose party controlled both chambers in Congress.

Back in 2010, the focus was on President Barack Obama’s overhaul of health insurance, and an economic stimulus package he signed shortly after he was inaugurated. Each law came under attack, and many candidates struggled to convince voters how they stood to benefit. That year, Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House. The party also lost six Senate seats, but held on to control.

This cycle, Democrats say they plan to run on their major policy accomplishments, not run away from them.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York said actively touting these packages is a lesson learned from the 2010 elections.

“The lesson is: People don’t know if you don’t tell them. And no matter how popular your policies, people have to know you did it and they have to understand in most cases, every Republican voted against it,” Maloney said in a brief interview off the House floor last week.

“You’re either on offense or defense, and I want to be on offense,” Maloney later added. “We’re doing great things. We have a great story to tell, but that message has not reached enough people yet. We need to tell them.”

Maloney announced last week that every House Democrat in the coming weeks would hold five events on the infrastructure and spending packages, culminating in at least 1,000 events by the end of the year. Biden has also started to travel to tout the policies. 

Democratic outside groups are also becoming engaged. The group Build Back Better Together announced a $10 million effort to air TV and digital ads supporting Biden’s agenda in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Pennsylvania, all critical Senate battlegrounds. House Majority Forward, the nonprofit arm of the super PAC House Majority PAC, is increasing its investment in promoting Biden’s agenda to $20 million, launching ads, mailers and field programs in battleground House districts. 

“You’re seeing the Democratic side go on offense in a much, much different way than we did in 2010,” said Democratic strategist Martha McKenna, whose firm is making ads for the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country.  

2010 rewind

Before the health care vote in 2010, then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s campaign conducted a poll that showed supporting the bill would end the North Dakota Democrat’s career. 

“In the end, I voted for it,” Pomeroy said in a recent phone interview. He would go on to lose reelection by 10 percentage points in 2010. 

“I do think that the Affordable Care Act vote had something to do with it,” Pomeroy said. “And I have no regrets whatsoever about voting for it.” 

While Pomeroy supported the law, he said voters struggled to understand it amid an onslaught of attacks from Republicans and insurance companies. Pomeroy tried to defend the law in his campaign, running a TV ad that highlighted support from local hospitals and medical professionals. It didn’t work. 

In a move that was emblematic of the challenge facing vulnerable Democrats navigating attacks, Pomeroy made an ad looking directly into the camera, telling voters, “I know I’ve disappointed you with a vote here or there, but you can always count on the fact that I do what I do for the right reason, for the people of North Dakota.” 

Pomeroy said the ad was referring to his vote to pass the health care law. But he was optimistic that Democrats running in 2022 won’t face the same dilemma when it comes to the infrastructure and social spending packages.

“I think these programs offer a real messaging opportunity — specific accomplishments that voters can understand and they largely approve of,” Pomeroy said. “So it’s very different than a health care bill that was very complicated, had been defined by the opponents, and people were worried that it would hurt their families’ coverage.” 

Lessons learned

There’s also a different president. Pomeroy said that in 2010, Democrats did not get much help selling the health insurance overhaul on the campaign trail from the Obama administration — which included Biden as vice president. 

“We had no air cover,” Pomeroy said. 

Democrats said a lack of presidential engagement was a key lesson from 2010, which Biden has taken to heart. 

“Joe Biden was there in 2010,” said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who lead the Democratic National Committee during those midterms. “I bet he got an earful from people in Congress [who were] like, ‘Hey, we need you out there selling more.’”

“We’ve got to get the message right,” Kaine later added. “But we’re not going to be lacking in a White House that’s really invested in touting accomplishments. And that makes it easier for the 2022 candidates to talk about them a lot.”

Democrats are also optimistic that voters will see and feel the benefits from infrastructure investments and the spending package, including an expanded child tax credit, more quickly than they did from the insurance law.

Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said the two packages on this year’s agenda could see “more immediate results.” 

“I was all for the ACA,” Durbin said, “but it really took a while for people to start to feel the good things about it.” 

Democrats are planning to quickly engage to tout two packages and attack Republicans who voted against them. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is working with state parties to focus local media attention on two senators in battleground states who opposed the infrastructure package: Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Florida’s Marco Rubio

The infrastructure package could prove particularly difficult for Republicans to attack, given 17 Republicans in the Senate and 13 in the House voted for it, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel dodged a question about the infrastructure package during a breakfast with reporters last week hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. She focused instead on the social spending package, dubbing it “Build Back Broke.” 

McDaniel criticized the bill for including “a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans,” referring to a provision in the House-passed measure that raises the cap for state and local tax deductions. That provision faces an uncertain future in the Senate. 

“Their poll numbers aren’t good right now, right?” McDaniel said of Democrats, later adding, “This is of their own making.”

Republicans have already started to attack vulnerable Democrats over the spending package. American Action Network, the nonprofit arm of the GOP super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, has spent $14 million attacking the bill, launching television and digital ads aimed at vulnerable House incumbents. 

To counter GOP attacks, Democrats have to “flood the zone,” said McKenna, noting that Democrats are making their case on the airwaves, in local news interviews and with events on the ground. 

“You’re going to see all hands on deck communicating about promises made and promises kept,” she said.