WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden had a simple message when he met with 30 of the nation’s governors on Monday.
“We’ve sent you a whole hell of a lot of money,” Biden told them, referring to the $195 billion in state aid included in a coronavirus relief package Democrats passed on a strict party line vote roughly 11 months ago.
The governors didn’t need reminding.
Almost every state executive, regardless of party, is bragging about the politically popular measures they’re advancing using federal dollars: bonuses for teachers and law enforcement, tax cuts, one-time investments in long-standing problems.
Nearly a year after Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, Biden’s approval rating has slumped significantly amid an ongoing pandemic and economic malaise, and the other marquee items on his legislative agenda are stalled or dead. That’s left the rescue plan as the president’s signature accomplishment.
Voters overwhelmingly approved of the package, which included $1,400 checks for most Americans, and Biden’s approval rating peaked around the time of its passage. But now, political operatives in both parties see little evidence voters are still giving credit to Biden or congressional Democrats.
Instead, governors seem likely to reap the election-year benefits of the law, a frustrating dynamic for Democrats, as GOP officials take advantage of legislation their party unanimously opposed.
At the same time, Democratic governors are using the money to fund schools and law enforcement, hoping to fend off Republican attacks on education and crime ahead of a 2022 midterm cycle that will likely be painful for Democrats.
More than 25 states have gubernatorial elections in 2022, with both parties aiming for pickups. Democrats hope to flip open seats in Massachusetts and Maryland while doing their best to oust GOP incumbents in Georgia, Florida and Ohio. Republicans, meanwhile, are targeting Democratic incumbents in Maine, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, Colorado and Nevada. Both parties view open seats in Arizona and Pennsylvania as major opportunities as well.
How each governor uses the billions of dollars handed to them by the federal government could play a crucial role in determining the outcome of these elections.
“Governors are going to have a lot to talk about,” said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chairman of the Democratic Governors’ Association, who said his state has put the money towards advancing rural broadband and giving bonuses to teachers and first responders. “People will actually see the results by November.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), who has a high approval rating but could nonetheless face a stiff GOP challenge in a blue-tinted swing state, went on a bipartisan statewide tour to gather feedback on how to deploy the money. The answer: Invest in affordable housing in a state that has seen real estate prices and rent skyrocket, and fund improvements to mental health services.
“This money has put every state in a very strong fiscal situation,” Polis said during an interview ahead of the National Governors’ Association meeting in Washington this past weekend. “We want to get this right. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
The opportunity is significant enough that Republicans aren’t turning it down. While many GOP governors railed against the stimulus package — and the party voted against it unanimously in Congress — many are now boasting of what they were able to do with the cash.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), for instance, called Democrats’ alterations to funding formulas to help states with higher unemployment rates “Washington at its worst” and said Florida’s congressional delegation should vote against the legislation. But he’s using $3.8 billion Florida received to give bonuses to police officers and provide a temporary cut to the state’s gas tax.
“The inflation we’re experiencing right now is largely the result of monetary and fiscal mismanagement coming out of Washington, D.C.,” Chris Spencer, DeSantis’ budget director, told the state legislature last month. “We’re not using Florida tax dollars to offset that gas tax. We’re using some of the state’s fiscal recovery dollars.”
Other GOP governors, including Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, touted federally funded projects in their state budget addresses. Other GOP states are using the money to cut taxes — something Democrats tried to explicitly prevent when writing the American Rescue Plan.
Cooper said Democrats will work to make it clear which party actually deserves credit for the cash-flush states.
”It’s typical for a number of politicians to refuse to do the hard work to get laws passed, but then want to take credit for the fruits of the labor,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope the money can alleviate potential political vulnerabilities. As the GOP continues to allege Democrats want to “defund the police,” Biden has pushed for states and cities to use federal money to hire more police officers, a call he is expected to repeat during a trip to New York City on Thursday.
Democrats have honored Biden’s wishes: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plans to dedicate $32 million to recruiting and retaining police officers, while New Mexico Gov. Michele Lujan Grisham has proposed a 20% pay increase for state police officers.
Similarly, the party is hoping additional funds for education can stave off GOP attacks on the issue related to school closings and fraught debates over how to teach students about race. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, who may face the toughest reelection race in the country, plans to spend more on student mental health services and teacher training.
Other Democratic governors are talking a more direct page from the playbook of both Biden and former President Donald Trump, and plan to directly send money to their constituents. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who is up for reelection, has proposed sending $175 to every Minnesotan under a certain income threshold.