As their marquee bill to overhaul U.S. elections met the buzzsaw that is the U.S. Senate, Democrats were beginning to grapple with one possible silver lining of this expected failure: turning it into a political weapon.
On Tuesday, all 50 Senate Democrats voted to begin debate on the For The People Act, perhaps better known by its bill number, S.1. But all 50 Senate Republicans voted to block it. And with 60 votes needed to move to the bill under current Senate rules, the bill Democrats describe as “existentially” important met a swift but expected death.
But, according to Democrats, all was not lost. For one, they are holding out hope that senators opposed to ending the 60-vote threshold to pass bills—notably Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)—will be moved by the urgency of passing S.1 and decide to extinguish the filibuster to make it happen.
As a more realistic consolation, Democrats believe the GOP’s uniform opposition to the bill will come back to haunt them in the 2022 midterm elections.
“It’s just critically important that folks have an opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), who chairs Democrats’ official Senate campaign arm. “And for folks that want to take that away, I would hope there would be a repercussion at the polls on Election Day.”
Asked if she saw political repercussions for the GOP’s filibuster of the bill, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) responded, “I hope so.”
If S.1 does not pass in this Congress, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), “naturally, it will be front and center for 2022.”
Republicans—convinced that S.1 is toxically unpopular with the public—would be more than happy to have this legislation front and center in 2022. Top party officials are already working to put it there.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chair of the GOP’s official Senate campaign arm, nodded immediately when asked if Tuesday’s vote would figure into their strategy to unseat a handful of swing-seat Democrats they are targeting.
“We’ve already run ads,” Scott told The Daily Beast. “And we’re going to do more.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) argued this was a tough vote for Democrats, pointing to S.1’s provisions on voter ID requirements and public financing of campaigns. “That’s a hard sell,” he said.
For both parties, a great deal rides on how these arguments land with voters. Democrats know that their chances of nuking the filibuster—and passing much of their agenda—go way up with each seat they add to the majority in 2022. If S.1’s failure becomes a longer-term political bludgeon, that could pave the way for more favorable terrain for the bill in 2023. Republicans, meanwhile, see a chance to manipulate a top Democratic priority to ensure it never gets enacted.
But the dynamic is arguably more pressing for Democrats, who are already hearing the clock tick on Joe Biden’s presidency and their tenuous grip on Congress. It’s a widespread belief within the party that failure to pass some kind of federal voting legislation will doom them in future elections, due to the raft of GOP-authored voting bills that have passed since Republicans’ losses in the 2020 election.
To the progressives demanding action on S.1, that threat means it’s moot to talk about what the bill’s failure could mean for Democrats at the polls.
“If people aren’t allowed to vote,” said Rahna Epting, executive director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn, “then it doesn’t matter who they’re voting for, or why, or what Democrats delivered. If they’re purged off voting rolls, if they can’t get there, it doesn’t matter.”
Notably, the For The People Act was originally written in 2019 to bolster Democratic messaging on cleaning up politics and making voting easier—not to become law, with Donald Trump then in office and the Senate in GOP hands.
After the House’s failed vote on the measure that year, Democratic candidates around the country campaigned on the need to pass it. And plenty of them, notably Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Raphael Warnock (D-GA), won their races doing so.
Some Democrats welcome the prospect of Republicans making free and fair elections a core 2022 issue after their party’s leader, Donald Trump, encouraged a violent attempt to overturn the 2020 election results. The core issue for voters in 2022, said Democratic strategist Cole Leiter, will be the recovery from the COVID public health and economic crises. But if Republicans want to go down the election integrity route, Leiter said, “that’s a massive misunderstanding” of the issue.
With that context in mind, some Democrats scoff at the notion that Tuesday’s vote, or any further votes on S.1, will hurt Democrats facing tough races.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), a former chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, called the Republican argument that S.1 is a tough vote for Democrats “dead wrong.”
“If you talk to people around the country, protecting our democracy and access to that voting booth is very popular,” said Van Hollen. “And just as popular, if not more so, is getting rid of secret money in politics.”
Warnock, who faces Georgia voters again in November 2022, has been among S.1’s most vocal proponents even as he sits atop the GOP’s Senate target list. Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, he gave a speech on the Senate floor imploring Republicans to allow debate.
“I sincerely believe that what we do or fail to do will have long-lasting and far-reaching implications for the health, viability and vitality of the world’s greatest democracy,” he said.
But just minutes after the vote, the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced new TV ad campaigns hitting Warnock and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) for their votes to advance S.1, focusing in particular on the bill’s creation of a public financing system for federal political campaigns.
Privately, Democrats admit they can see GOP attack ads packing a punch, and there’s a wing of the party that believes the path to keeping power in Congress rests on relentlessly reminding voters that they used their power to give out stimulus checks, expanded child bonuses, and a slew of other pocketbook benefits.
“Stimulus checks were a powerful example of, we need to run on really specific tangible things that are happening. This is pretty abstract,” said one Democratic operative, speaking anonymously to candidly discuss the issue. “Do I think it’s not great for vulnerable Democrats to be on the record voting for this? Yeah.”
But this operative argued the nature of the GOP’s attacks over S.1 probably wouldn’t change no matter whether the vote was held or not. “At the end of the day, it kind of doesn’t matter,” this strategist said.
Generally, Republicans have decried S.1 as a Democratic “power grab” on the federal level. While that branding conspicuously avoids engaging with what the party is doing on the state level, the GOP has pointed to polling indicating that aspects of S.1 are not especially popular. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats and independents support, for example, requiring photo ID to vote, according to a recent Monmouth University poll. S.1 would not ban such ID laws, but give citizens alternative options to prove their identities.
“Any polling you see on provisions in this bill shows it’s wildly unpopular with voters,” said a senior GOP aide. “They are following woke Twitter rather than actual constituents.”
But Democrats, of course, have their own polling on the bill. And some specific planks of it have been found to be very popular, like expanding access to absentee voting and ending partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts. And overall, the idea of implementing some federal-level voting guidelines—the animating idea behind the whole bill—nabbed 69 percent support in the Monmouth poll.
“Given how strong public support is for the elements of the bill, nothing I’ve seen would make me think Democrats aren’t pushing this because they believe it’s both good policy and good with voters,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “Republicans claim to be excited about running on this because they're scared of it actually passing.”
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) indicated all options are on the table for advancing S.1.
Some have speculated that parts of the bill could be broken up and subjected to separate votes. A revised version could get another vote later in the summer. Either way, any of those options would ensure Democrats—and Republicans—will continue to have more fodder for their messaging battles over elections.
“We will not let it go,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. “We will not let it die.”