Tight congressional races across the nation are quickly turning into battlegrounds over a key economic question: whether President Joe Biden’s spending agenda is the chief culprit for inflation concerns gripping the country.
Republicans are latching onto heightened anxiety tied to the nation’s sharpest inflation spike in three decades. Democrats, meanwhile, are scrambling to preempt the attacks by focusing on broader benefits of the multitrillion-dollar packages. The opposing bets on the infrastructure and social spending plans are laying the groundwork for a year of sparring tied to voters’ growing worries about the economy.
“I’ll be honest with you: My constituents are frustrated,” Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) said in an interview. “Ordinary Americans, they’re worried about filling up the gas tanks. They’re worried about what’s on the shelves at the grocery store and how much it costs at the checkout line. A lot of folks don’t feel like Washington is doing anything about that.”
Democrats like Craig hoping to hold onto their seats in next year’s elections are striving to convince voters that their infrastructure and social spending plans will lift up middle-class families and boost an economy still struggling to emerge from the coronavirus shutdowns. At the same time, they’re facing withering attacks from Republicans that their expensive proposals will only make things worse, charges that Craig, a two-term lawmaker, dismisses as “scare tactics.”
As Democrats work to get their climate and social spending package through Congress, the Republican counter-programming has been fierce. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said Friday that Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “want the American people to believe that if the government spends trillions more of taxpayer dollars that will fix inflation. They could not be more detached from reality,” he said in a statement.
GOP candidates looking to flip Democratic districts are aiming to capitalize on widespread anxiety over price spikes — three in four voters are dissatisfied with the cost of gas and consumer goods, polls show — and their attacks may be landing. The widely watched University of Michigan consumer sentiment index tumbled on Friday to its lowest level in 10 years, driven in part by inflation concerns. And 62 percent of voters say Biden’s policies were somewhat or very responsible for increasing inflation, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found last month.
“People are seeing that my opponent is supporting trillions and trillions in new spending,” said Tom Kean Jr., a New Jersey state Republican lawmaker who is running against Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). “They understand that’s out of control, and the creation of these new areas of growth in government is way too expensive, unsustainable and the wrong direction to go.”
A spokesperson for Malinowski did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our voters are nervous about this government spending and the impact that it’s having on inflation, and especially because of the Build Back Better legislation that is coming through,” said Monica De La Cruz, a Republican running in South Texas for an open seat.
“The Democrats are in control of the White House. They’re in control of the House,” De La Cruz said, and voters “see it as their fault that the cost of gas and the cost of groceries is increasing and putting an undue burden on Americans.”
Many economists, however, say that neither the infrastructure nor the social spending package are likely to stoke inflation because the spending will be spread over years and will be mostly paid for, a point that Democrats are making in their pitch to voters.
Democrats also point to the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that Biden signed Monday as evidence of their ability to govern, highlighting the $550 billion in new federal spending for roads, bridges, broadband and other priorities as an investment that will create jobs and help restore the country. They tout the social spending package of $1 trillion or more, which is still being negotiated, as a historic plan to overhaul the country’s social safety net, help families afford child care and increase access to medical care.
And even though Democrats’ policymaking has been a slog, lawmakers are counting on voters to reward the party that they say is working to resolve supply chain issues and pull the country through the coronavirus crisis, rather than the one that’s largely voting against the legislation.
“People really, they voted for Biden for moderate governance and corporate governance,” said Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.). “And we need to deliver on that.”
While Biden’s ratings have dropped — a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 41 percent of voters approve of his performance — the infrastructure package and the climate and social spending bill remain broadly popular. Both received more than 60 percent support in a Monmouth University poll earlier this month.
“People are going to reward either side if they’re doing more than complaining and criticizing,” said Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who is now running for Senate in his state. “People can tell the difference when someone is actually trying hard to get something done, even if it’s not pretty.”
All the lawmakers interviewed for this story have been designated by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as frontliners for 2022, meaning their districts are expected to be among the most competitive next year, and winning them will be crucial to keeping the party’s majority.
And they say it’s the tangible impact that Democratic-led legislation has had — or will have — on people’s lives that will help them hold onto their seats.
Bourdeaux said she has talked with scores of small businesses in her district who were able to keep their doors open because of the Paycheck Protection Program and assistance offered through the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion relief bill that Biden signed in March. Lamb said he met a small market owner who was seeing sales drop as the price of goods rose but who still credited Biden for trying to help solve the issues.
Rep. Haley Stevens, who represents a Detroit suburb with a heavy concentration of auto suppliers, said constituents have thanked her for helping pass the infrastructure package and for the billions of dollars for electric vehicle charging that comes with it.
“All the work isn’t done with one bill,” Stevens (D-Mich.) said. “But my goodness, an infrastructure bill feels very good for the people here.”
Control of Congress could hinge, though, on whether that bill and the social spending package remain as well-liked after implementation as they may seem now to voters. If Americans don’t feel the real-world effects of the legislation in their own lives — or, perhaps more importantly, if the economy continues to struggle — then Democrats will be far more vulnerable to attacks. And key provisions of the social spending bill, including a reduction in prescription drug prices, won’t kick in till after the election, POLITICO has reported.