The GOP Is Voting Against Its Base

An illustration shows the GOP leading its voters off an incomplete bridge. The party and its constituents are represented by cartoon elephants.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

With their opposition to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they’ve made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.

Last month, every House and Senate Republican opposed Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, even though it delivered significant benefits to working-class white voters, the GOP’s foundational voting bloc, including increased health-care subsidies and expanded tax credits for families with children. That pattern is repeating with the infrastructure plan, even though it directs billions of dollars to rural communities, which are indispensable to Republican political fortunes.

That resistance represents a political gamble, because the proposed benefits—including $1,400 stimulus checks, and rural broadband in the infrastructure plan—are large enough and visible enough that voters may be more likely to feel them in their daily life than most legislative actions. Republicans “are going to have to explain how they are voting against the interests of their base, because I think there [would] be meaningful impacts” on their voters from the plans’ provisions, says Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant who led a research project last year that tried to improve his party’s performance among rural voters.

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For now, at least, the GOP appears utterly undeterred. Republican consultants I’ve spoken with express confidence that, despite the two plans’ benefits, they can discredit them—either by focusing on elements of the plans that may be unpopular with conservative audiences, or by changing the subject to culture-war confrontations, such as the surge of undocumented minors at the border.  

Biden “is going to be disappointed” in how GOP-leaning constituencies react to these programs, David Kochel, a veteran Republican consultant based in Iowa, told me. “All of the negative partisanship and cultural motivation is going to be out of his control, and Republicans and the conservative-media machine [are] going to continue to fill” GOP voters’ heads “with all of these left-wing priorities” that are part of these packages. Both plans “are so big, there is so much in there, they will be a target-rich environment,” Kochel continued. “And voters will be able to rationalize that ‘I did like getting this new bridge, but I don’t like that we had to spend $2 trillion to get it.’”

Even many Democrats, such as Link, agree that Republicans may not immediately suffer for opposing these initiatives. But longer term, Democrats see more of an opening because assistance will be flowing so visibly that voters may note tangible effects contradicting the negative portrayals from GOP leaders and conservative-media voices. When policies are still being debated and “we are talking about hypotheticals, it is very hard for Democrats to get past the right-wing media landscape,” says Matt Hildreth, the executive director of RuralOrganizing.org, a group that argues for progressive causes in rural America. “After things pass, I think [it’s] a fundamentally different thing, especially when we are talking about policies that will impact people in their daily lives.”

Both the stimulus package and the infrastructure proposal are so expansive that they essentially replace “either/or” politics with “both/and”: They provide large-scale benefits to traditionally Democratic groups as well as to Republican communities and constituencies.

For progressives, for instance, the stimulus’s major calling card is that it’s expected to drive the largest reduction in child poverty since at least the Great Society of the 1960s. But the bill is also unusual in how far its key benefits reach into the middle class, including its $1,400 stimulus payments, its provisions increasing Affordable Care Act subsidies (while simultaneously broadening eligibility), and, above all, its huge expansion of the child tax credit, which will be fully available to married couples earning up to $150,000 annually.

Low-to-middle-income white Americans, many of them without college degrees, will be among the major beneficiaries of those programs, social-policy analysts predict. According to an analysis provided to me by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy, at Columbia University, 95 percent of children in families headed by a white parent without a college degree will receive benefits from the expanded child tax credit. The average benefit for those families will be more than $1,800 over the next year. That’s a higher share of beneficiaries than among white people with a college degree—and a larger benefit. Non-college-educated white people will derive benefits from the plan that are comparable to those that Black and Latino families will receive, the analysis found. “The child allowance is going to be a near-universal program, and in the short term, people well into the middle class will benefit," Irwin Garfinkel, the center’s co-director, told me.

The expanded ACA subsidies likewise substantially reduce premium costs for low-income working families, many of them white Americans without a college degree. “The increased premium help benefits a broad cross-section of the population buying their own insurance, from workers in low-wage jobs without benefits to middle-class small-business owners and farmers,” says Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

The infrastructure plan that Biden unveiled last month shows the same expansive reach, channeling substantial aid to both Democratic- and Republican-leaning places. Mark Muro, the policy director at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told me that it would provide an enormous boost for the country’s major metropolitan areas, which have become the backbone of the Democratic coalition in virtually every state. “There seems to be clear effort to [make] overdue investments in the nation’s core big-city productivity platforms,” Muro said. He cited repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges, public transit, and airports, all of which “are critical for the productive economy of big cities on the coasts and in the interior.” Big metros, he said, will also gain from the plan’s significant investment in research and development, which could catalyze further growth in the Information Age industries driving cities’ and inner suburbs’ growth.

At the same time, many other measures are structured to “help heartland midsize cities gain traction,” Muro told me. Biden’s plan includes a Great Society–style alphabet soup of programs to promote innovation and community development in rural areas (such as new regional innovation hubs outside major population centers), and huge sums for big, New Deal–style rural public-works projects: $10 billion for upgrading water systems in rural or tribal communities; $2 billion for affordable rural housing; and $20 billion for fixing smaller, rural bridges. (With its heavy climate emphasis, the plan focuses on repairing existing roads, rather than carving out new highways, which rural leaders often support.)

Towering over all those commitments, the bill’s most visible component in rural communities is likely to be Biden’s call for spending $100 billion to ensure 100 percent broadband access, which is now completely unavailable for about one-third of rural residents and spotty for many more. Although local-government officials in rural America have long lamented the lack of broadband access, the deficiencies have become more glaring since the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to shift their operations online and forced kids to learn remotely. “It’s a huge issue,” says Link, who is based in Des Moines. “Part of the reason why Iowa pushed so hard” to get in-person schooling back in place “is because they didn’t want to expose the fact that there are so many people without internet access … It’s just not possible to do distance learning for thousands of families.”

Even that doesn’t exhaust the list of potential benefits for rural places in the two big economic plans Biden has announced so far. His call for requiring all utilities to generate 100 percent of their electricity from carbon-free sources would spur huge investment in solar and wind power, much of which is in rural communities and has already become a major source of income for farmers in states such as Iowa and Kansas. The second half of his jobs plan, which will be released sometime this spring, is expected to fund two years of tuition-free community college, a crucial source of economic advancement in many small towns.

The question for Democrats is whether all of these programs build a ladder tall enough to lift them from a very deep hole in rural America. Although Biden performed slightly better among rural voters last year than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, he still carried only one-third of the vote in America’s most rural counties, according to The Daily Yonder, a website that focuses on rural issues. Kochel says so many factors reinforce the GOP’s advantage among rural voters that Democrats are unlikely to overcome them even with substantial direct assistance. “I’m not sure politics is working like that right now,” he argued. “It’s much more cultural, particularly for these rural voters, so I don’t think there is a price to be paid” for voting against it.

Many Republican legislators with big rural constituencies, such as Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, are already building a defense for an eventual “no” vote: They claim they would support the portions of the plan most popular among their voters, but are opposing the package because it also includes “every progressive wish list item under the sun,” as Ernst wrote recently. And as debate over the infrastructure bill intensifies in the weeks to come, Republicans may focus less on trying to discredit the proposal than on diverting their voters—by keeping their attention on disputes that widen the cultural gulf between them and the Democratic Party, such as undocumented immigration and police reform. “Don’t underestimate the power of conservative media to shape this into a [cultural] narrative Biden cannot fight,” Kochel told me.

One asset Democrats have in this struggle is time. However successful Republicans are at tarnishing Biden’s programs at the outset among core GOP voters, Biden has an opportunity to change those perceptions through the actual implementation of his plans. Even during the putative honeymoon period at his presidency’s start, Biden’s approval rating among rural and non-college-educated white voters has remained stuck at only a little over one-third. But the stimulus package has drawn substantial support in polls even from Republican voters, and those numbers could rise even more as families feel the effects of the aid. Likewise, if Democrats can pass Biden’s infrastructure program this summer, that will leave plenty of time before the next two elections to start repairing bridges and roads, and to break ground on new water systems, new wind and solar installations, and new broadband facilities. Even small gains in nonurban areas from such initiatives would fortify Democrats’ position in states near the tipping point of American elections, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia, Hildreth told me. “I think we are maybe a decade from having a majority in critical rural counties, but we just need to cut margins right now,” he said. “Literally the motto is ‘Lose less.’”

By proposing these mammoth economic plans that direct substantial assistance to Democratic and Republican constituencies alike, Biden is placing his own bet, one that Democrats from Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey’s generation would recognize: that he can win back blue-collar and rural white voters drawn to conservative messages on culture and race by addressing their kitchen-table economic concerns. It’s difficult to imagine how a Democrat could put more money behind that stake than Biden has in his stimulus package and is proposing in his infrastructure plan. It’s also difficult to imagine how Republicans could place a bigger bet on their capacity to discredit or distract from new federal programs that directly benefit so many of their own supporters. Few dynamics may shape the 2022 and 2024 elections more than which side’s wager pays off.