“Polls show voters liked direct payments from President Biden’s 2021 economic rescue bill. But they have become fodder for Republican inflation attacks.
In the midst of a critical runoff campaign that would determine control of the Senate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock promised Georgia voters that, if elected, he would help President-elect Biden send checks to people digging out of the pandemic recession.
Mr. Warnock won. Democrats delivered payments of up to $1,400 per person.
But this year, as Mr. Warnock is locked in a tight re-election campaign, he barely talks about those checks.
Democratic candidates in competitive Senate races this fall have spent little time on the trail or the airwaves touting the centerpiece provisions of their party’s $1.9 trillion economic rescue package, which party leaders had hoped would help stave off losses in the House and Senate in midterm elections. In part, that is because the rescue plan has become fodder for Republicans to attack Democrats over rapidly rising prices, accusing them of overstimulating the economy with too much cash.
The economic aid, which was intended to help keep families afloat amid the pandemic, included two centerpiece components for households: the direct checks of up to $1,400 for lower- to middle-class individuals and an expanded child tax credit, worth up to $300 per child per month. It was initially seen as Mr. Biden’s signature economic policy achievement, in part because the tax credit dramatically reduced child poverty last year. Polls suggested Americans knew they had received money and why — giving Democrats hope they would be rewarded politically.
Liberal activists are particularly troubled that Democratic candidates are not focusing more on the payments to families.
“It’s a missed opportunity and a strategic mistake,” said Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook and a senior fellow at the Institute on Race, Power, and Political Economy at The New School, who is a co-founder of the liberal policy group Economic Security Project Action. “Our public polling and our experience suggest the child tax credit is a sleeper issue that could influence the election, a lot more than a lot of candidates realized.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has surveyed voters in detail on the child credit, said data suggest the party’s candidates should be selling Americans on the pieces of Mr. Biden’s policies that helped families cope with rising costs.
“We have a narrative on inflation,” Ms. Lake said in an interview. “We just aren’t using it.”
Many campaign strategists disagree. They say voters are not responding to messages about pandemic aid. Some Democrats worry that voters have been swayed by the persistent Republican argument that the aid was the driving factor behind rapidly rising prices of food, rent and other daily staples.
Economists generally agree that the stimulus spending contributed to accelerating inflation, though they disagree on how much. Biden administration officials and Democratic candidates reject that characterization. When pressed, they defend their emergency spending, saying it has put the United States on stronger footing than other wealthy nations at a time of rapid global inflation.
Republicans have spent nearly $150 million on inflation-themed television ads across the country this election cycle, according to data from AdImpact.
In Georgia alone, outside groups have hammered Mr. Warnock with more than $7 million in attack ads mentioning inflation. “Senator Warnock helped fuel the inflation squeeze, voting for nearly $2 trillion in reckless spending,” the group One Nation, which is aligned with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, says in an ad that aired in the state in August.
Democrats have tried to deflect blame, portraying inflation as the product of global forces like crimped supply chains while touting their efforts to lower the cost of electricity and prescription drugs. They have aired nearly $50 million of their own ads mentioning inflation, often pinning it on corporate profit gouging. “What if I told you shipping container companies have been making record profits while prices have been skyrocketing on you?” Mr. Warnock said in an ad aired earlier this year.
Candidates and independent groups that support the stimulus payments have spent just $7 million nationwide on advertisements mentioning the direct checks, the child tax credit or the rescue plan overall, according to data from AdImpact.
Far more money has been spent by Democrats on other issues, including $27 million on ads mentioning infrastructure, which was another early economic win for Mr. Biden, and $95 million on ads that mention abortion rights.
Mr. Warnock has not cited any of the rescue plan’s provisions in his advertisements, focusing instead on issues like personal character, health care and bipartisanship, according to AdImpact data.
For months after the rescue plan’s passage, Democratic leaders were confident that they had solved an economic policy dilemma that has vexed Democrats and Republicans stretching back to the George W. Bush administration: They were giving Americans money, but voters weren’t giving them any credit.
Tax cuts and direct spending aid approved by Mr. Bush, President Barack Obama and President Donald J. Trump failed to win over large swaths of voters and spare incumbent parties from large midterm losses. Economists and strategists concluded that was often because Americans had not noticed they had benefited from the policies each president was sure would sway elections.
That was not the case with the direct checks and the child tax credit. People noticed them. But they still have not turned into political selling points at a time of rapid inflation.
As the November elections approach, most voters appear to be motivated by a long list of other issues, including abortion, crime and a range of economic concerns.
Mr. Warnock’s speech last week to a group of Democrats in an unfinished floor of an office space in Dunwoody, a northern Atlanta suburb, underscored that shift in emphasis.
He began the policy section of the rally with a quick nod to the child credit, then ticked through a series of provisions from bills that Mr. Biden has signed in the last two years: highways and broadband internet tied to a bipartisan infrastructure law, semiconductor plants spurred by a China competitiveness law, a gun safety law and aid for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. He lingered on one piece of Mr. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act: a cap on the cost of insulin for Medicare patients, which Mr. Warnock cast as critical for diabetics in Georgia, particularly in Black communities.
The direct payments never came up.
When asked by a reporter why he was not campaigning on an issue that had been so central to his election and whether he thought the payments had contributed to inflation, Mr. Warnock deflected.
“We in Georgia found ourselves trying to claw back from a historic pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetime, which created an economic shutdown,” he said. “And now, seeing the economy open up, we’ve experienced major supply chain issues, which have contributed to rising costs.”
Direct pandemic payments were begun under Mr. Trump and continued under Mr. Biden, with no serious talk of another round after the ones delivered in the rescue plan. Most Democrats had hoped the one-year, $100 billion child credit in the rescue plan would be made permanent in a new piece of legislation.
But the credit expired, largely because Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia and a key swing vote, opposed its inclusion in what would become the Inflation Reduction Act, citing concerns the additional money would exacerbate inflation.
Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, was one of the Senate’s most vocal cheerleaders for that credit and an architect of the version included in the rescue plan. His campaign has aired Spanish-language radio ads on the credit in his re-election campaign, targeting a group his team says is particularly favorable toward it, but no television ads. In an interview last week outside a Denver coffee shop, Mr. Bennet conceded the expiration of the credit has sapped some of its political punch.
“It certainly came up when it was here, and it certainly came up when it went away,” he said. “But it’s been some months since that was true. I think, obviously, we’d love to have that right now. Families were getting an average of 450 bucks a month. That would have defrayed a lot of inflation that they’re having to deal with.”
Mr. Biden’s advisers say the rescue plan and its components aren’t being deployed on the trail because other issues have overwhelmed them — from Mr. Biden’s long list of economic bills signed into law as well as the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade that has galvanized the Democratic base. They acknowledge the political and economic challenge posed by rapid inflation, but say Democratic candidates are doing well to focus on direct responses to it, like the efforts to reduce costs of insulin and other prescription drugs.
Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster, said talking more about the child credit could help re-energize Democratic voters for the midterms. Mr. Warnock’s speech in Dunwoody — an admittedly small sample — suggested otherwise.
Mr. Warnock drew cheers from the audience after he called the child tax credit “the single largest tax cut for middle- and working-class families in American history.”
But his biggest ovation, by far, came when the economics section of his speech had ended, and Mr. Warnock had moved on to defending abortion rights.“]