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The resurgence of the coronavirus has reshaped the early contours of the midterm elections, with some Democrats beginning to distance themselves from the Biden administration and more directly blame Republicans, reflecting their growing alarm on an issue that long played to their political advantage.
Democrats had hoped to pivot from Biden's success on the pandemic to pitch the party's economic agenda, including sweeping proposals on infrastructure and social programs. But the rise in covid-19 cases is suddenly complicating that strategy.
North Carolina state Sen. Jeff Jackson, who is running for U.S. Senate, said the virus - after all but vanishing from the conversation - now overwhelms all other subjects on the campaign trail.
"You can see it in the comments section on social media, frankly," Jackson said. "This disappeared as something that people were commenting on, and then it reappeared marginally - and now massively. So no matter what subject we post on, what you're going to see in the comments section is people asking us to talk about this."
Jackson also said pointedly that he does not approve of the Biden administration's response, singling out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has become a favorite target of Republicans. "We really need crystal clear messaging from the CDC, and I don't think we've had that," Jackson said.
Democrats have also begun saying more directly that it's Republicans who are prolonging the pandemic, while they are urgently trying to end it. President Joe Biden and his aides are criticizing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, for opposing mask mandates in schools, a switch from their previous reluctance to stoke fights with Republicans over the coronavirus. The House Democrats' campaign arm is encouraging candidates to call out Republicans for making false or misleading statements about vaccines and masking.
Meanwhile, Republicans, after largely avoiding the subject of the pandemic for much of this year, have begun going after Biden's handling of it, saying he "spiked the football" prematurely and asserting, with little evidence, that a surge of migrants at the border is fueling the spread of the virus.
"I think the American people are tired of masks," said Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., who is gearing up for reelection in a swing area after capturing a Democratic seat in 2020. He argued that the CDC's recently revised guidance - urging even vaccinated people to wear masks in public indoor places, if they are in a high-transmission area - could dissuade vaccine skeptics from getting shots.
Gimenez said his own message on covid-19 is simple - "Get vaccinated" - but, like other GOP candidates, he said the virus is only one among many issues he intends to discuss. Many Republicans are continuing to focus mostly on inflation, immigration, and violent crime as they seek to depict a country descending into chaos under Biden.
"Economic fears driven by inflation and anxiety about rising crime are top of mind for voters, and voters blame Democrat policies as the root of the problem," asserts a previously unreported memo from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC dedicated to helping Republicans recapture the House.
Yet Republicans are hardly invulnerable to criticism on the pandemic. Biden is trying urgently to get Americans to embrace the masks and vaccines that public health experts say are necessary to defeat the coronavirus, while many Republicans often dismiss those efforts, mock them or in some cases spread falsehoods about them.
It is GOP-led areas that generally have the highest proportion of unvaccinated people and are suffering most from the new surge; Florida is an epicenter, potentially posing political dangers for both DeSantis and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who face reelection next year.
One of the central questions looming over the midterms is whether Democrats can retain their grip over moderate swing voters, particularly in the suburbs, or whether Republicans will win them back. If these voters lose confidence in Biden's handling of the pandemic, it could dash Democrats' hopes of keeping their majorities. But if Republicans are seen as impeding the recovery, their pitch on other issues may not resonate with these voters.
The president and his aides, recognizing the stakes, have begun more aggressively emphasizing how much of latest outbreak is unfolding in Texas and Florida, both led by Republicans who have frequently boasted of disregarding federal health guidance.
Biden, in comments Friday, appeared to be test-driving a new message - that the country had soundly defeated the original coronavirus and will now do the same with the delta variant. It was a subtle but unmistakable reframing of the notion that the country simply failed to conquer the virus in the first place.
Strategists in both parties caution that the election is still 15 months away and that current developments could well be overshadowed later on. But for the moment, Democratic operatives are more worried than their GOP counterparts about the delta surge, since history shows that the party controlling Washington gets the credit or blame for what's happening in the country.
Beyond that, the president's party almost always gets walloped in the midterms, and a GOP advantage on redistricting has increased those odds further. Most Democrats, defending a tiny three-seat majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate, are bracing for a gloomy 2022.
But most of all, they know their fortunes are tied to Biden's success, and a central promise of his presidency has been a return to routine after the turbulence of the Trump era. "I heard someone say the other day that the three best words in the English language are 'back to normal,' " said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is up for reelection next year. "There is a real hunger for it."
For months, Americans gave Biden high marks for his handling of the pandemic, as shots went into arms at a fast clip, infections fell sharply and mask mandates and lockdowns were lifted. That helped boost his overall image, even as he received less-than-stellar marks on issues such as immigration and crime.
But now, the cornerstone of Biden's popularity is staring to erode. A recent Gallup poll showed his approval rating dropping to 50%, the lowest of his presidency. Gallup also found a stark shift in views on the pandemic, with the percentage of Americans saying it was getting worse rising and those saying it was getting better falling.
A Quinnipiac University survey showed Biden's approval rating on the pandemic, while still positive, dropping by double digits, and an Economist/YouGov poll showed a smaller dip.
The first six months of Biden's coronavirus strategy culminated in an in Independence Day celebration at the White House. "Today, we're closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus," the president declared that day, even as he warned that the virus had not been fully vanquished.
Republicans intend to use those words against Democrats in the midterms. "Part of the political challenge is the way that they spiked the football over the last few months," said Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "I think that will come back to bite them."
Biden began taking a more triumphal tone after allies urged him to emphasize that vaccinations and other health measures were producing real benefits. But it is not just Republicans who are taking issue with the administration's messages: A House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, used a profane term to describe the CDC as messed up and accused the White House of sending confusing signals by having to clarify some comments.
Jackson, the Senate candidate from North Carolina, agreed that communications were problematic. "We just need to make sure that everyone in the federal government is on the exact same sheet of music, because we know we're up against a whole lot of misinformation on the other side - and what that misinformation likes to do is find discrepancies," he said.
CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said the agency bases its public messaging solely on the best data.
"CDC makes decisions based on science, and we communicate the latest evidence and recommendations to the public as swiftly as possible to save lives and keep Americans safe," Nordlund said. "That's our focus and will continue to be, as we fight this historic and evolving pandemic."
White House officials said they have opened numerous lines of communication in an effort to provide coherent, current information on the pandemic, including biweekly calls with Capitol Hill, regular calls with governors and repeated efforts to educate the public and urge people to get vaccinated.
Tim Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Democratic candidates need to be more explicit in laying blame at the feet of Republicans.
"They should remind people or point out, like, 'Hey, Tennessee,'" said Persico, referring to a state where Republican legislators have been particularly aggressive in opposing vaccination campaigns. Perisco said the DCCC has conducted polling suggesting such a strategy could work in battleground areas.
But many Democrats fear that the worst of the resurgence - and the blame that could come their way - is yet to come. Some incumbents said they hear frequently from constituents about the need to get children back in schools without any unforeseen disruptions.
"I personally have a lot of concerns about where we're going to be this fall. I think it's imperative that we open schools," said Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., who might face a competitive reelection race.
She said she hopes children will not have to wear masks in school. But the CDC, in recently revised guidance, is now urging all students and teachers to mask up inside school buildings, regardless of their vaccination status.
White House officials have been underscoring the steps the government is taking to enable students to return safely. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, speaking to reporters at the White House this past week, promoted a "Return to School Roadmap" and voiced confidence that schools could safely open this fall for in-person learning.
In some ways the debate is about who is acting to restore normalcy - and who is thwarting those efforts.
Biden recently urged Republican governors not to block school mask mandates and other precautions designed to minimize infections. "Please help," he said Tuesday. "But if you aren't going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing."
DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, hit back, warning the president to stay out of his state. He and other Republicans have stepped up their efforts to blame the covid-19 surge on the increase in migrants at the border, wagering that unhappiness with Biden's immigration policies will give such attacks more potency.
Some House Republicans are also now running on promises to curtail the CDC. "House GOP needs to make reforming and reining in the powers of the CDC one of our top priorities when we win back the majority next year," Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in a recent tweet.
Operatives from both parties said voter attitudes will be determined most of all by the course of the outbreak in the months ahead, and whether the current spike feels like a speed bump on the road to recovery - or something worse.
On Friday, Biden said this surge does not detract from a victory that has already been won. "America can beat the delta variant," he said. "Just as we beat the original covid-19."