Partisan lines drawn in Georgia over coronavirus relief

Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who could be facing a tough battle for reelection near, happily touts the benefits of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Photo provided by Sen. Warnock's office.
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Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who could be facing a tough battle for reelection near, happily touts the benefits of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Photo provided by Sen. Warnock's office.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock might be the most vulnerable Senate Democrat up for election in 2022. He also might be one of the loudest cheerleaders of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

It’s setting up to become a key issue when he seeks reelection, as Republicans tear into the recovery plan with claims of excessive spending in areas unrelated to the virus, funding a liberal wish list and rewarding states, unlike Georgia, that mismanaged their economies.

Warnock is happy to take on that fight.

In recent stops across the state, he’s met with mothers to stress how expanded child tax credits could lift 170,000 Georgia children out of poverty. He’s toured a pop-up vaccine clinic to talk up the $20 billion going toward health care infrastructure. And at a south DeKalb County hospital he’s zeroed in on a $2 billion sweetener aimed at enticing the state to expand its Medicaid program.

“Americans are paying attention, and they like what they’re hearing,” Warnock said. “And I submit that over the next few weeks they’re also going to like what they’re seeing.”

Warnock and other state Democrats are placing an early bet that the sweeping plan, made possible because Georgia voters ousted Republican incumbents in January’s Senate runoffs, will be a transformational restructuring of the national economy that will carry them to victory in the 2022 elections.

About our coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is tracking the money coming into Georgia from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. Journalists from across the newsroom will document how the money is administered and spent, whether it accomplishes its goals and whether it creates any unintended consequences. It is part of our commitment to hold government accountable and show our readers how government action affects their lives. Our journalists work hard to be fair and will follow this complex story as it unfolds in the coming months and years.

Latest coverage of the $1.9 trillion stimulus

What the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus means for U.S., Georgia

That starts with Warnock, who mentions the far-ranging measure in nearly every public appearance. He narrowly defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler in January and faces a 2022 race for a full six-year term against a still-developing field of challengers. But it also extends far beyond him, to other Democrats eager to translate the legislative triumph into political victories.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath of Marietta held a telephone town hall Thursday night to talk about the relief package and allow constituents to ask questions about how to access its benefits. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux of Suwanee held a similar event earlier in the week with Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff did an interview with Spanish-language news channel Univision, providing an opportunity to extend that message to Georgia’s Spanish-speaking voters. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in remarks Thursday, said this type of communication is helping broaden support for the bill.

“As Americans learn more and more about the American Rescue Plan, the more popular it becomes and the more optimistic Americans feel about our economic recovery,” Schumer said.

Much is riding on this wager. Georgia Republicans are racing to turn public opinion against the coronavirus package, calling it an expensive effort that will explode the national deficit and overcompensate larger states with struggling economies at Georgia’s expense. They say the package was stuffed with liberal priorities that have nothing to do with coronavirus relief.

The battle lines have already been drawn as Democrats make the case that the $1,400 relief checks, extensions of unemployment insurance, billions of dollars in funding for vaccine distribution and school safety initiatives, and new tax credits for students will fuel an epic American rebound.

It’s at the center of a broad advertising campaign financed by Democrats and their allies, trying to broaden the appeal of a far-reaching legislative package that coincides with a growing vaccination campaign and a still-sluggish national job market.

On Monday, the Democratic National Committee began financing a 60-second TV ad on Atlanta airwaves featuring clips from President Joe Biden’s “Help is Here” speech touting the economic benefits of the stimulus. Another outfit cut digital ads supporting the incumbents in two metro Atlanta swing districts: McBath and Bourdeaux.

Dr. Rich McCormick is confident the frenzied focus on the stimulus measure will backfire. The Republican physician, who was narrowly defeated by Bourdeaux in November to represent the Gwinnett County-based district, plans to make her support for the measure a driving point for his 2022 rematch.

“There is so much wrong with that bill that, like usual, it doesn’t make up for the little good it does,” said McCormick, who took aim at attempts to limit states from using the stimulus funding to finance tax breaks and echoed critiques that it rewards states with less robust economies.

“She and her friends see no limit to how much money they can spend, despite its impact on us and our children,” he said.

Congressional Democrats have put Bourdeaux, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. House, at the forefront of the debate. On Wednesday, her bill for an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses sidelined during the pandemic was approved in a bipartisan vote.

“I’m here to work — not for Democrats or against Republicans, but for the people of Georgia’s 7th District,” Bourdeaux said after the measure passed, noting that she was the first freshman lawmaker to see a bill brought to a vote.

Help or punishment?

Even down the ticket, the stimulus plan has emerged as a stark dividing line in Georgia politics.

Democrats need little reminder of the backlash over President Barack Obama’s most sweeping legislation — the Affordable Care Act and an economic stimulus — that was criticized by some liberals as too compromising and slammed by Republicans as a government overreach.

“We want to let our constituency know this act is for you,” state Rep. Erica Thomas, one of the top Democrats in the Georgia House, said at a Statehouse press conference. “This act is going to help millions of Georgians get back on track.”

Still stinging from losing the November presidential election and the January runoffs, Republicans are racing to frame the stimulus package as a broad giveaway. But the party is gripped with its own internal battle over the legacy of former President Donald Trump, who also supported big spending that broke with a generation of GOP orthodoxy over fiscal restraint.

Gov. Brian Kemp, facing an expected rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams next year, has made it his mission to sully the stimulus plan, excoriating it at nearly every speech he gives — even vaccine-related press conferences.

Like other GOP state leaders, Kemp has laced into the funding formula that he said amounts to a “blue state bailout” because it provides more money for larger states with struggling economies and gives Georgia the short shrift.

“People want and deserve COVID relief, and I certainly support that in a targeted way. Unfortunately, Georgians are treated unfairly in the relief bill,” Kemp said after a ceremony this week celebrating the construction of a new convention center in Savannah.

“The states that have done better economically, that made the tough choices to methodically open their economies are getting punished,” Kemp said. “Georgians are the losers in this.”

Even as Democrats note that the GOP’s proposed relief plans didn’t include any direct payments to state and local governments, Republicans have amplified their critiques that characterize much of the $1.9 trillion package as “fluff.”

One often-repeated talking point, especially from members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, is that only 9% of spending went to actual COVID-19 relief. The remaining 91% includes the state and local dollars, stimulus for families and businesses, money for schools and other extended unemployment insurance.

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro, is among the members who have repeated this 9% statistic.

“This is just a horrible bill,” he told Newsmax recently. “And it’s continuing down a path of bankrupting our country when we need to be opening our economy.”