Dems kick off a tricky nationwide sales job on Biden’s Covid aid plan

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KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — Rep. Chrissy Houlahan sat down at a sunshine-drenched picnic table and gave her best sales pitch to two single moms who’d just had one hell of a year.

The women at the town park listened politely as the Pennsylvania Democrat outlined some of the benefits they’ll see from President Joe Biden’s nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief package. Jobless benefits, stimulus checks, child tax credits: Houlahan unspooled her list, then added: “Did we get it right? Did we miss some stuff?”

But the two moms weren’t up for giving Congress a report card on Democrats’ popular legislation. They wanted their congresswoman to tell them how long the government’s help would last, and when more would come.

“A lot of families were struggling before Covid,” said a third woman at the table, Cheryl Miles, a local housing advocate whose nonprofit has seen surging demand even in some of the state’s wealthiest counties.

Houlahan is one of more than 80 House Democrats who returned home this spring recess for a high-stakes legislative promotional tour — trying to educate voters about the billions of dollars in new benefits that their party’s coronavirus recovery plan would bring, with its fragile House majority at stake next fall. But a four-day swing across the Keystone State to visit three of its potentially vulnerable House Democratic incumbents showed that their sales pitch is more complicated than the classic political victory lap. After all, the pandemic isn’t over, millions are still out of work and the pace of vaccinations remains uneven.

Houlahan’s park bench sit-down in a tiny southeastern Pennsylvania suburb was one of multiple constituent talks she held during a multiday trip across her district to showcase Biden stimulus money at work and check on its progress. She met with working parents who’ve lost jobs and child care centers with staff shortages, showing some voters are a long way from hopeful as a huge tranche of federal aid is still trickling out.

And Houlahan’s constituents weren’t alone during the recess: Rep. Susan Wild fielded questions at a tele-town hall about backlogged rent bills despite the eviction moratorium and met with restaurateurs struggling to recruit staff. Rep. Matt Cartwright heard an advocate at a children’s health center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., describe the Democrats’ bill as only a “first step.”

As these Democrats traversed their districts, most holding their first in-person events in over a year, they talked with grateful health officials, mayors and shop owners who heaped praise on the $1.9 trillion aid bill — even as nearly all said that more would need to be done.

This month’s rollout of the pandemic aid bill in districts across the country amounts to an opening salvo in the messaging battle over Biden’s recovery plan, which will likely play out over the next two years as the two parties jockey for control of the House next November. The bill is so broadly popular that many Democrats believe it could help stave off the midterm blowback that typically hits the party in the White House during a president’s first term, and many in Biden’s party say they’ve learned lessons from Obama-era messaging flops that played a role in 2010’s GOP House takeover.

But strong public buy-in aside, Democrats are bound to face challenges using the same messaging campaign in districts as different as those along Pennsylvania’s eastern side. Houlahan, Wild and Cartwright are defending turf in shrinking blue-collar neighborhoods, lush green farmland, and bustling college towns, all battling dramatically different side effects of the pandemic.

Sometimes the conundrum is mostly logistical: Several of the Biden aid package’s most significant provisions, such as an expansion in the Child Tax Credit, are the hardest to explain to constituents. Other benefits in the massive bill haven’t arrived yet, and many Pennsylvanians seemed more focused on the spotty vaccine rollout or the governor’s tight Covid restrictions.

Other townships, deep in the state’s Donald Trump country, offer a political hurdle. There, Democratic incumbents must combat GOP arguments that Biden’s Covid bill is a “liberal wish list” poised to rack up debt and drive up inflation. Republicans — who unanimously opposed the aid measure in Congress — have bought billboards and other ads in districts, including Wild’s, to hammer Democrats on school reopenings.

“There’s this narrative of, ‘Oh, this isn’t Covid relief’, or ‘Some small part of it went to the disease.’ Fair enough,” Houlahan said in an interview during a stop in an area of West Reading, Pa., with a high concentration of poor families. “But the consequences of this pandemic have just been so expansive, that the response to it has to be, too.”

The “ginormous and complex” scope of the bill, she added, is why she planned recess visits to locations as diverse as a mushroom farm racing to vaccinate its workers, a brewery that stayed afloat with a pandemic relief loan, and a Head Start center that’ll use its aid funds to hold in-person summer sessions.

Democrats are fighting GOP attacks more broadly, too, with the caucus’s campaign arm and allied outside groups spending big on ads to promote the mammoth rescue bill in Pennsylvania and other battleground states.

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