Democrats Look to Prove Economic Credentials in Battle for Midterms

Republicans have long presented themselves as the best guardians of the US economy. Demanding lower taxes and lauding themselves as champions of small businesses, Republicans have for decades generally enjoyed an advantage with American voters when it comes to economic issues.

That advantage could prove hugely consequential this year, as Democrats attempt to hold on to their narrow House and Senate majorities in the midterm elections.

With Americans fretting over record-high inflation and the possibility of a recession, Democratic lawmakers and progressive groups are trying to reframe the narrative and convince US voters that Republicans should no longer be seen as a party of good economic governance. Democrats’ success or failure on that front could determine who controls Congress after November’s crucial midterm elections.

“The pandemic and the economic disruptions have put pocketbook issues at the forefront of voters’ minds,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution. “At the end of the day, voters are looking to vote for politicians who will raise their standard of living.”

Republicans know that economic concerns could drag down Democrats’ midterm prospects, and they have taken every opportunity to hammer Joe Biden and his party over rising prices and their impact on families’ budgets.

“Hardworking Americans are living paycheck to paycheck thanks to Joe Biden and Democrats’ higher prices,” Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, said Friday. “As long as Democrats continue to rubber-stamp Biden’s agenda and waste taxpayer dollars on their radical policies, families will continue to struggle to afford everything from gas to school supplies to groceries.”

Republicans’ attack strategy builds on the political work of Donald Trump, who promised to transform his party into a “worker’s party” when he first ran for president in 2016. As he rose to the presidency, Trump bemoaned the outsourcing of US manufacturing jobs and pledged to deliver a raise for American workers.

“Republicans have been incredibly masterful in positioning themselves as economic populists,” Geevarghese said. “They have succeeded in at least creating the perception that the Republican party is the party of working-class voters, and that is the central challenge for Democrats to overcome in the midterms.”

Democrats’ recent success on Capitol Hill could significantly aid their efforts to challenge Republicans’ populist reputation. Last month, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a spending package that includes massive investments in climate initiatives and numerous provisions aimed at lowering Americans’ healthcare costs.

Not a single congressional Republican supported the law, and Democrats have gone to great lengths to highlight their opposition to the spending package.

“Every single Republican voted against lowering prescription drug prices, against lower healthcare costs, against tackling the climate crisis, against lower energy costs, against creating good-paying jobs, against fairer taxes,” Biden said at a rally hosted by the Democratic National Committee late last month. “Every single American needs to return the favor when we vote.”

In addition to their legislative accomplishments, Democrats are quick to point out that the US economy is performing very well in a number of respects right now.

The August jobs report showed that the country added 315,000 jobs last month, bringing the unemployment rate to 3.7%, which is close to a 50-year low. Gas prices have also fallen from their record highs in June, providing some relief to Americans who have been struggling to refill their cars.

But that progress will not help Democrats at the polls in November unless voters actually feel the difference in their own lives, said Sarah Baron, campaign director for Unrig Our Economy.

“Even if GDP is good and the unemployment rate is good, if you’re struggling to buy your groceries or you’re still struggling to put gas in your car or take your kids to school, you’re not feeling so optimistic about the party in power,” Baron said. “I think it’s incumbent on progressives, on Democrats to make people feel who’s fighting for them.”

Baron’s group, which launched in March, is dedicated to highlighting Republicans’ voting records and rethinking the conversation around policy solutions to everyday financial struggles. The group recently completed its Constituents Over Corporations Week of Action, holding events to cast a spotlight on House Republicans who voted against the Inflation Reduction Act. Those Republicans are running for reelection in battleground districts across the country that could determine control of the House.

David Valadao, who is facing a difficult reelection race in California’s 22nd congressional district, was one of the House members invited to participate in a town hall hosted by Unrig Our Economy. Valadao refused to attend, but the group went ahead with the event anyway to draw more attention to his vote against the Inflation Reduction Act.

“We genuinely believe that elected representatives should have to answer to their constituents,” said Alice Walton, an organizer with Unrig Our Economy based in California. “If someone is going to vote against a bill, I think voters deserve to know why.”

Walton argued that such events can help reshape voters’ conceptions of Republicans as champions of working-class Americans.

“Republicans have talked about the economy from a business perspective,” she said. “We’re trying to talk about it from a personal perspective and helping constituents to see the economic pain that they feel can potentially be alleviated by some of these policies coming out of DC.”

Groups like Unrig Our Economy are instead trying to recast Republicans as allies of large corporations, the pharmaceutical industry and oil and gas companies. Republicans’ opposition to the Inflation Reduction Act has given progressives a new opening to press their case.

“For way, way, way too long, corporations have driven the agenda, certainly for a lot of folks in Congress, including Representative Ashley Hinson here in Iowa,” said Matt Sinovic, another Unrig Our Economy organizer. “We want to make sure that the economy works for working people and working families.”

If those outreach and messaging efforts are successful, Democrats could avoid the widespread losses usually seen by the president’s party in midterm elections. With so much on the line, it is imperative for Democrats to change the narrative about which party is better for the economy, Baron argued.

“This trend has been happening for decades, where increasingly Republicans are voting against increasing wages, against unions, increasingly for corporations, and yet somehow seem to be pulling one over on so much of the American people,” Baron said.

“At a certain point, it’s got to be on progressives and the Democratic party to make clear where they stand and go on offense on the economy.”

This article first appeared in the Guardian.