The 2022 midterm elections already promises to be a tough one for Democrats, but Rudy Salas could be a bright spot.
The California state lawmaker might end up as one of the few Democrats to flip a Republican-held congressional seat. He is running against GOP Rep. David Valadao in a central California district recently redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats.
In a sign of the tough environment, Valadao has largely refrained from attacking the centerpiece of President Joe Biden and Democrats’ agenda: the trillion-dollar social spending and climate policy called the Build Back Better Act.
Salas might be expected to cast himself as a reinforcement who would support ambitious bills like the Build Back Better Act—currently stalled in the Senate and facing an uncertain future. Instead, he’s done something else: he has not tweeted or posted on Facebook once about the legislation. (His campaign did not respond to emailed questions about whether he would have voted for it.)
Salas is far from the only Democratic challenger with a Build Back Better-sized hole in his campaign message: at least seven other Democrats who are running in the most competitive GOP-held House districts—from New York to Iowa to Maryland—have said nothing or vanishingly little about Build Back Better.
Most of those candidates have not so much as mentioned the name of the bill in their social media posts and campaign materials. And though these Democrats frequently tout their commitment to advancing the goals set out in the bill—like lowering prescription drug costs, fighting climate change, and improving child care—many don’t explicitly acknowledge that there is, currently, a bill that would achieve those goals.
Meanwhile, some Democrats running to break the 50-50 partisan deadlock in the Senate have avoided talking much about the legislation currently languishing in that chamber.
For example, former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), seeking to take on seven-term Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has not mentioned the bill on her Facebook or Twitter feeds.
And Cheri Beasley, the North Carolina Democrat who is the party’s frontrunner to flip the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr, has not mentioned Build Back Better by name. Instead, she has touted specific aspects of the bill, such as extending a new monthly child tax credit benefit and expanding child care, without explicitly indicating her support for the package that contains those and other reforms.
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Beasley campaign spokesperson Dory MacMillan did not mention the Build Back Better Act or say whether Beasley supports the legislation. Beasley, said MacMillan, “supports policies that lower costs for North Carolina families” and pointed to her support for instituting nationwide paid family leave and extending the child tax credit.
A spokesperson for Finkenauer did not respond to similar questions from The Daily Beast, including whether or not she would vote for the bill if she were a senator.
Less than 10 months out from Election Day, Build Back Better occupies a peculiar place in the Democratic political ecosystem. Democrats running in 2022 might be expected to cast themselves as reinforcements for a bill that contains dozens of proposals that the party has campaigned on for years.
While those proposals poll quite well on their own, Democrats have struggled to craft a cohesive message around a $1.75 trillion package that aims to do everything from end child poverty to fund a historic stand against climate change. In that vacuum, the legislation—which takes its name from Biden’s 2020 campaign slogan—has become deeply linked to the president’s own brand. And increasingly, his declining popularity is becoming the greatest threat to Democrats trying to win competitive congressional races in 2020.
The vulnerable incumbents who voted for the House bill in November may be tied to Biden and his marquee bill, no matter what happens to it. But candidates do not necessarily have to be—and Democrats say they might be wise to back down from embracing it right now.
Republicans, said Kristen Hawn, a strategist who has advised congressional candidates, “are going to want to hang the noose of whatever bill around” challengers, and said that while Build Back Better is a good bill, there is plenty of GOP attack fodder included in its thousands of pages.
Some candidates, Hawn explained, are inclined to say they’d support or oppose a bill they were not in a position to vote on. “I’d say, don’t own that vote,” she said. “You weren’t there—it’s huge.”
This dynamic is completely different with the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed into law in November.
That package includes historic new funding for road, rail, broadband, water, and other critical infrastructure, straightforward items seen as such obvious political winners that a number of Republicans disregarded Donald Trump’s objections and joined nearly all Democrats in voting for it. Which may help explain why that bill made it to Biden’s desk while Build Back Better is trapped in political limbo.
Several of the Democrats who have been mum on Build Back Better talked early and often about the infrastructure bill—and were eager to use their GOP opponents’ votes against that bill as political ammunition.
Democratic House candidate Christina Bohannan, for example, hammered her opponent, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA), for opposing the infrastructure legislation.
After the House passed the measure last fall, Bohannan leveraged the vote as a point of contrast between herself and the incumbent. “You can help send me to the U.S. House, where I will vote FOR policies and programs—like the #infrastructure bill, signed into law today!—that help Iowans,” she tweeted.
But when their GOP opponents voted against the Build Back Better Act later, candidates like Bohannan did not leverage it as an opportunity to go on the attack. Bohannan’s campaign did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast.
There are plenty of reasons, Democratic strategists and staffers say, for candidates to avoid talking about Build Back Better right now.
First and foremost is the bill’s uncertain fate. Before Christmas, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—the party’s main obstacle in enacting the plan—announced he had too many concerns about the legislation to continue negotiating with the White House.
Democrats may be lucky to persuade Manchin to agree to a far-scaled down version of the bill that passed the House. But until that happens, and the final details of the package are worked out, it doesn’t make much sense for candidates to sell their voters on Build Back Better, said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who helped craft the party’s messaging around the Obamacare fights of the 2010s.
“Campaigns have to differentiate between motion in Washington and progress in Washington,” Ferguson told The Daily Beast. “Voters don’t care about motion, they care about progress, and the moments where progress happens are where you’ll see candidates engage on reforms like the infrastructure bill or the economic plan.”
Other Democrats privately say that candidates’ reluctance to talk about Build Back Better is equally explained by thornier factors.
The massive legislation, explained one Democratic aide, is so “nebulous” that it’s “risky” for a candidate to associate themselves vaguely with the entire package because, then, Republican opponents could link them to the less popular parts of the massive bill. The aide, speaking anonymously to candidly describe strategy, also acknowledged that Biden’s sinking poll numbers are also making candidates more hesitant to embrace the bill.
Not all of the party’s top 2022 recruits have shied away from Build Back Better. Other Democratic candidates—particularly those in contested primaries or running in more Democratic states and districts—have clearly positioned themselves as champions of the sweeping economic, social, and climate reforms in the $1.75 trillion package.
When Manchin announced he opposed the bill in its current form, Mandela Barnes, the Wisconsin lieutenant governor seeking to take on GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in 2022, took aim at Manchin and explicitly said he would be a reinforcement for Build Back Better.
Other Senate candidates, like Pennsylvania lieutenant governor John Fetterman have explicitly and frequently positioned themselves as Democrats’ “51st vote” in the chamber to push through major legislation.
House candidates facing tough races have been a little more circumspect, but some have leaned into their party’s marquee bill.
Max Rose, the fiery Democrat running to get his old job representing GOP-leaning Staten Island, tweeted that “this legislation would be the biggest game changer for working class families in a generation.”
And Jay Chen, a Democrat challenging Rep. Michelle Steel (R-CA) in a Biden-won Orange County district, focused on the bill’s provisions to curb the cost of insulin and said Steel’s opposition meant she was “only interested in helping large corporations.”
That’s the kind of messaging that Democrats feel will be most effective in 2022—zeroing in on specific aspects of a vast bill, especially ones that bolster broader Democratic ideas on the economy, health care, and other issues.
Hawn, the Democratic strategist, said she would advise candidates to focus on three aspects of the legislation that would resonate most in their districts—and stick with them instead of embracing or rejecting the bill as a whole.
“There are parts of Build Back Better that are very popular with voters who voted for Trump and then Biden,” Hawn said. “There are things that, across the board, people can get on board with.”
The party’s top campaign officials have not indicated Build Back Better would take a back seat to the infrastructure bill as Democrats try to hold their narrow Senate and House majorities. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), chair of House Democrats’ official campaign arm, has said that both bills would be central to the party’s messaging.
Democrats like Ferguson predict that, if Build Back Better does pass in some form, Democratic candidates’ current silence on the bill will turn into a loud roar. And he sees them working to make GOP no votes on the plan as politically costly as no votes against the infrastructure package.
“There’s a scenario in which you’re seeing a lot more ads in fall 2022 that are about prescription drugs and health care premiums and child care than ads about roads and bridges,” Ferguson said.