No economic package? No problem: Even without a budget deal, parties already shaping their messages

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WASHINGTON – No one knows for sure what will be in the Democrats' massive economic package, or whether they will even pass one – but that hasn't stopped them or the Republicans from developing campaign messages about a government overhaul that could decide the 2022 elections.

Their success in reaching voters could decide the fate of Joe Biden's presidency and partisan control of Congress.

With Democrats holding oh-so-slim majorities over Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate, both parties are furiously trying to find the right message to resonate with voters for the 2022 midterms.

And those new messages will get drummed into voters: The parties will likely have more money to spend than ever before. The cost of the 2022 congressional elections is expected to exceed the $5.9 billion spent in the 2018 midterms, a record sum for federal elections as calculated by the nonpartisan campaign finance tracking website OpenSecrets.

Biden and the Democrats describe the bulk of their plan as "Build Back Better"; to Republicans, it's "Build Back Broke."

Shaping a message when nothing's final

Republicans and Democrats know that Biden's plans will be big issues in 2022, but they don't know exactly how they will play out when most voters start to pay attention in the weeks before Election Day on Nov. 8.

Legislators are negotiating the final details of Biden-backed economic legislation – which might not even pass. Candidates also don't know what the condition of the economy will be in the fall of 2022, or the status of the COVID-19 pandemic or any other major issue that might pop up between now and then.

"The elections in 2022 are all about conditions in the country," said nonpartisan political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "How is the economy? How is COVID? ... Things like that."

Still, campaign officials in both parties say they need to be ready to make their cases now.

"They're going to have to pass something – they have to," Rothenberg said . "A huge part of the discussion will be about the package."

More: Can the true cost of Biden's budget plan really be 'nothing'? We take a closer look.

Democrats hope to pass a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, a debt ceiling increase and so-called social infrastructure bill full of progressive priorities. That last bill is still under intense negotiations and could come in anywhere between $1.5 trillion and $3.5 trillion.

Even with the final results up in the air, Republicans already are casting Democrats as "tax and spend" elites; Democrats plan to stress specific programs in the bill such as child care and free community college while hitting the GOP for trying to block those kinds of initiatives.

Hunting for pork

Economist Stephen Moore, who heads up a coalition of more than 40 groups to oppose the Biden plan, said activists are scouring the proposed bills for examples of pork, waste and bad programs that can be spotlighted on the campaign trail.

The GOP and its associated political organizations are already zeroing in on a Biden plan to increase IRS enforcement. The anti-tax group Club For Growth, which this month financed a $250,000 ad buy targeting six vulnerable House Democrats, said Biden wants to give the IRS "almost unfettered access to your personal and private financial information."

Democrats said the proposed changes are designed to crack down on tax cheating and to make sure wealthy people pay their fair share – a key part oft their own campaign on behalf of the proposed Biden economic plan.

The parties often highlight discrete parts of massive legislation during campaigns. During the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans attacked "midnight basketball" programs for inner-city young people, part of Democratic President Bill Clinton's anti-crime bill. Never mind that GOP lawmakers had supported midnight basketball programs in the past; the issue helped the GOP take control of Congress with the 1994 elections.

When it comes to 2022, Republican Party spokesperson Emma Vaughn said, "now is not the time for trillions more in inflationary spending and higher taxes, which will continue to leave working families behind."

Republicans will get a lot of outside help when it comes to pushing that message.

The American Action Network, a conservative issue advocacy group that is targeting vulnerable House Democrats, announced in September a $7.5 million ad campaign to "stop" the Democrats' "$3.5 trillion tax and spending proposal." The ads that attack Democrats in two dozen congressional districts say that "liberals spend your money but take care of themselves – it's a cynical Washington game."

These campaign plans assume the Democratic-run Congress will pass something over the next two months. If not, Republican candidates plan to assail the Democrats as in disarray, unable to get anything done.

Touting tax increases

Democrats, meanwhile, are looking at a relatively new tack for next year: promoting tax hikes. The tax question has made Democrats skittish in the past, but campaign officials say they will stress Biden's plans to have the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes while actually cutting taxes for other Americans.

Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said there's no longer any reason for Democrats to fear the tax question – polls show most Americans support a fairer and more equitable tax system. In this case, he added, the Democratic plan is aimed at people making more than $400,000 a year, while tax reductions will benefit low-income and middle-class Americans.

"The problem for the Republicans is people want the wealthy to pay more and working people pay less," he said.

More: Joe Biden wants to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure and jobs. These 4 charts show where the money would go.

Jazmin Vargas, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats "are working to address Americans’ most important priorities," while Republicans are trying to block things like tax relief for families, job creation and lower health care costs.

"It’s a losing position for Republicans," Vargas said.

As they brace to defend the Senate and the House, Democrats plans to stress specific items in their legislation, programs they say address long-neglected needs: home-based care for seniors, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, clean energy and universal child care.

"It is a vast bill," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It has a lot in it, and we will have to continue to make sure the public does. But whether they know it or not, they overwhelmingly support it."

More: House votes to raise debt ceiling, sending bill to Biden and setting up another fight over borrowing limit

More: McConnell to Biden: Don't expect GOP help to avoid the next potential government default in December

Like their conservative counterparts, outside progressive groups are gearing up to campaign in support of Biden.

Some are already at it. Tax March and allied progressive groups announced a $2 million campaign to pressure Republicans in competitive states like Ohio and Wisconsin to support Biden's economic plans.

Like their Republican counterparts, Democrats are already making their 2022 campaign cases.

A group of North Carolina Democrats called a news conference this week, a year before a key U.S. Senate race, to promote the Biden program and castigate Republican opposition.

"Democrats have a vision to not only bring us out of the pandemic but invest in our future," said Bobbie Richardson, chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party. "Republicans have set their sights on obstruction."

President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats are struggling to pass a massive economic and social spending plan.
President Joe Biden and fellow Democrats are struggling to pass a massive economic and social spending plan.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's economic package: How Dems, GOP campaign on issue show divides

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