Politics: Omicron surge poses political peril for Democrats

Arkansas' Republican governor thanked President Joe Biden for depoliticizing the federal COVID-19 response

  Arkansas' Republican governor thanked President Joe Biden for depoliticizing the federal COVID-19 response GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson made the comments during a Monday call between Biden and several governors to discuss the national response to Omicron.The Republican leader made the comments during a conference call held by the Biden administration with the governors of several states to discuss the national response to the worrisome Omicron variant, which has sparked a spike in cases across the country in recent days and prompted testing shortages and delays.

The latest surge in coronavirus cases is putting Democrats in a difficult position ahead of November's midterm elections as Americans voice frustrations over President Biden's response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant.

Omicron surge poses political peril for Democrats © The Hill Omicron surge poses political peril for Democrats

The Biden administration faces growing backlash over the nationwide testing shortage and its mixed and ever-changing messages on quarantine and isolation periods.

Last week Biden said states would need to take the lead on combating the latest surge in cases, a move that many of Biden's critics called an about-face after the president campaigned on a strong response from the federal government in 2020.

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The frustration could put Democrats, who have tied themselves so closely to Biden and his pandemic response, in a difficult position on the campaign trail. And Democrats already face a tough road with a president whose approval ratings are in the 40s, and the opposing party is historically favored to gain seats.

"The challenge for Biden is we've now seen this on several fronts where his core promise was that his team of pros were going to be competent as opposed to the Donald Trump 'Addams Family' cast and they failed at that," said veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye.

"There's not much room for error if you're a Democrat right now," he added.

Republicans argue that Biden's handling of the omicron surge, coupled with other issues like inflation and the situation at the border, will make it easy to target Democrats who have gone on record supporting the president.

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"Joe Biden and Senate Democrats ran on shutting down the virus," said National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee press secretary Katharine Cooksey Noyes. "They failed. Democrats have in fact failed on all fronts: inflation at a 40-year high, an ignored supply chain crisis, an unchecked border crisis, and a botched Afghanistan withdrawal. Whatever the task, Democrats can't get it done."

However, Democrats argue that it's premature to be talking about how the current pandemic woes will impact midterms 11 months from now.

The party has also hit Republicans for what it says is an irresponsible approach to the pandemic.

"House Republicans have been hellbent on prolonging this pandemic by promoting dangerous lies and misinformation at every turn, and their anti-science recklessness just continues to threaten the well-being of millions of American families and workers," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Nebeyatt Betre.

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The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee echoed the same sentiment in a separate statement.

Video: U.S. races to combat surging Omicron cases (CBS News)

"When Republicans were in charge they failed to crack down on the coronavirus - and then they unanimously opposed Senate Democrats coronavirus relief programs that has delivered vaccines, helped Americans get back to work and get kids back in the classroom," said DSCC spokesperson Jazmin Vargas. "The contrast between the two parties and their handling of the pandemic will be clear to voters, and they will go to the ballot box to hold GOP Senate candidate accountable for standing in the way of our nation's recovery at every turn."

But Republicans are zeroing in on the issue of the pandemic's impact on schools after shutdowns and virtual learning proved in many cases to have a negative impact on students' education in 2020.

Localities across the country are grappling with how to move forward on reopening in the age of omicron. Teachers unions, in particular, have been vocal in raising their concerns over coronavirus safety in the classroom.

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The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) hit Democrats and teachers unions over the school closures in a statement on Monday.

"Democrats and their teachers union donors are continuing their multi-year war on children," said NRCC spokesman Mike Berg. "The mental health challenges and learning loss associated with school closures are well-documented, yet Democrat politicians remain silent because they don't want to offend their big money donors."

The strategy appeared to pay dividends in last year's off-elections in Virginia, where Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) campaigned heavily on keeping schools open. It's unclear how the strategy will play at the federal level, where lawmakers have considerably less control over state and local policy.

"These people take a ton of money from teachers unions," said one national Republican strategist. "When they're silent on school closures and Republicans are the only ones talking about school closures, it's a pretty easy contrast to make."

But Democrats argue that measures taken by their party, like the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan, as well as the Biden administration's vaccination efforts, will ultimately ensure that children attend in-person school safely.

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"It is Democrats who have ushered in the resources on vaccines, to get folks back to work safely, to get kids back to school safely through the American Rescue Plan," said one Democratic operative. "Republicans stood in the way of that."

But Republicans say the about-face from Biden on state governments versus the federal government taking the lead on the pandemic has given them ammunition to go after the Democratic response to the pandemic.

"He literally ran an entire campaign based on the fact that the federal government's response to the virus, if done correctly, would shut down the virus," the national Republican strategist said.

Biden's supporters argue that his move putting them at the forefront of their states' pandemic response is an indication that the president is providing states with more resources to combat the effects of the virus.

"There were so many state leaders who under the last president felt like they didn't have access to federal help in order to get what their state needs, and then you have Republican leaders who say they don't want the federal government telling them what to do but yet they insist on getting whatever resources they need," said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced last week that his state has requested federal assistance to aid with coronavirus treatment and testing.

Still, Democrats say that increased vaccinations and greater public awareness surrounding the virus is a marked improvement from where the country was a year ago, when vaccines were only starting to be distributed to essential workers.

A CBS News survey released last week showed that 71 percent of Americans say they feel "hopeful" looking ahead to 2022, while 22 percent said they felt discouraged.

"If you ask the famous Republican question 'Are you better off today than you were last year at this time or any other time in recent history,' I think most people would agree from a holistic standpoint that things are better off," Seawright said.

Updated 6:28 p.m.

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