WASHINGTON — Unemployment is down to near pre-pandemic record lows and the U.S. economy is heating up, but Democrats are worried that perceptions about economic conditions could cost them the midterm elections.
Despite the improving statistics, Americans have soured on President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy, pointing to the high prices they’re paying for gas, groceries and other goods. An NBC poll last week found that 63 percent of voters disapproved of how Biden is dealing with the economy.
Seven months out from November, House Democrats facing tough re-election bids are desperate to turn those poll numbers around and change how voters think and feel about kitchen-table issues.
Their strategy: Show, don’t tell.
Democratic lawmakers are touring bridges around their districts to promote the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package that Biden signed into law last year. They’re also holding town halls and visiting small businesses to hear how the coronavirus pandemic, now in its third year, is still hurting constituents.
And House Democrats are passing small but significant bills, including one last week that would cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month for people with health insurance.
One thing they’ve decided not to do is tell voters that the economy is booming and that they should feel better about their lives, even as employers added 400,000-plus jobs for the 11th consecutive month in March and the unemployment rate dipped to 3.6 percent.
That’s close to the 50-year low of 3.5 percent right before the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
“If you try to come off saying that ‘oh, you don’t understand, you’re not looking at the statistics,’ they’re not only not going to listen to you, but they’re going to think you’re out of touch,” said Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., who represents a district outside Philadelphia that went for former President Donald Trump in 2020.
After congressional maps were redrawn in New Jersey, Kim’s district became bluer, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from targeting him in the November midterms. Kim said he approaches his job by “meeting people where they’re at,” both physically, with town halls and small-business tours, and “emotionally and mentally.”
Kim tested positive for Covid-19 last month and said the illness took a toll on his health, just as it has for many of his constituents.
“I’m a father of a 4-year-old and 6-year-old. I’ve got a lot of uncertainty and anxiety in my life. Others have it even more, and you have to recognize it,” Kim said. “If you come out and try to tell them what they are feeling is not consistent with what statistics are saying, you’re not going to engage them, you are not going to convince them otherwise.”
But the numbers aren’t in Democrats’ favor when it comes to the ballot box in November. In the House, Republicans need a net gain of only five seats to take back power. And historically, a president’s party typically loses dozens of House seats in his first midterm elections.
That’s not even taking into account the high levels of inflation and gas prices, coupled with Biden’s dismal approval numbers, which are an albatross around Democrats’ necks. A February poll by Navigator Research found that 37 percent of voters believed that the country had lost jobs during the past year, even though nearly 8 million jobs had been created under Biden at that point.
To curb sky-high gas prices, Biden said last week he would release about 1 million barrels of oil a day from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve for six months. Democrats hailed the move as real action to provide relief for families; Republicans panned it as a political stunt.
“President Biden’s superficial, shortsighted stunt will cripple our future readiness and won’t deliver relief from soaring prices,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., posted on LinkedIn. “Americans deserve solutions to lower gas prices, not Biden’s ridiculous political spin.”
Democrats like Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona acknowledge they face stiff headwinds between now and November. They argue that to win re-election, they need to build on legislative successes, including the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law and last week’s insulin bill, which the Senate has yet to take up.
“We need to keep delivering on public policy, making sure that people back home are aware that the actions we’re taking in Congress on infrastructure, in particular, are going to create great jobs and keep people employed in construction and other industries,” Stanton, a former Phoenix mayor who is now on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview.
“I’m not an expert on messaging, per se. The substance is what matters.”
A bill to boost domestic computer chip production would help Democrats like Stanton, whose district is home to a new Intel semiconductor factory, and many others would like to pass a slimmed-down climate and social spending package after the collapse of the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill last year.
The House Democrats’ campaign arm has designated Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., to help protect vulnerable incumbents like Stanton, even as the National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to flip Bera’s seat into the GOP column. Bera said his party needs to be empathetic to voters’ struggles over the last two years while also offering hope that things are returning to normal.
“We have to acknowledge the pandemic fatigue. A lot of people are tired. Parents are tired. Kids are behind in school. The economy is starting to heat up and get better. We’re seeing fewer job vacancies, but you’re still seeing a lot of them. … When folks fill up their gas tank, they’re still feeling the pinch,” said Bera, who was part of a group of centrist lawmakers who met with Biden at the White House last week.
“I think we have to start with empathy but then flip it around and say: ‘OK, we’ve got to get our lives back. We’ve got to get back to work. We’ve got to address supply chains and get inflation under control.’
“Let’s be able to be with one another,” Bera added.
“We’re trying to show, not tell.”
Rep. Lisa Blunt rochester, D-del.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., a top Biden ally and a former state labor secretary, won re-election in 2020 by more than 17 percentage points. But she indicated her political consultants warned her that it is a very different political environment from two years ago, making things tougher for Democrats, even in the president’s home state.
Over the winter, she launched a Delaware Bridge Tour to highlight projects that could get some of the $225 million the infrastructure package set aside for the state to replace and repair bridges, including the St. Jones River Bridge in the state capital, Dover.
“For me personally, it’s just going up and down my state and showing people what the impact of these infrastructure investments mean to them personally, what the impact of the investments and the work that we did on Covid relief means for getting kids back in schools and opening restaurants,” Blunt Rochester said.
“We’re trying to show, not tell.”