CLEVELAND — When President Joe Biden announced student loan debt relief this week, his allies celebrated.
But a string of Democrats in tight races across the country want little to do with it.
That’s because the president may have just handed Republicans a new line of attack at a moment when Democrats were strengthening their positions in swing states and signs were emerging that the party could stave off what was to have been a GOP sweep in the midterm elections, campaign officials, party members, pollsters and national strategists in both parties say.
Republicans are betting there will be a backlash against debt forgiveness in states or districts where college attainment is low. That includes Nevada — where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto faces one of the toughest contests in the country and the state is second to last in the country for residents with four-year degrees.
Mike Noble, who has conducted extensive independent polling in Nevada and Arizona, among other states, said the timing of Biden’s announcement was a “head-scratcher,” given that Democrats were just hitting their stride: Gas prices are coming down, the Republican Party is increasingly divided, Donald Trump is dominating headlines again, and abortion rights are fueling fundraising and party enthusiasm.
“It doesn’t make strategic sense. They were in a good position. All the momentum was going in their favor,” Noble said of Democrats. Noble said debt forgiveness tends to be most popular with younger voters, while a far older electorate votes most consistently in midterm elections.
“Why forgive debt on a group that never turns out to vote in the first place? The people who vote are the ones who paid their loans back or never had loans to begin with.”
Biden took executive action Wednesday to forgive up to $10,000 in debt for individual federal loan borrowers who make less than $150,000 a year and up to $20,000 for recipients of Pell Grants, which are intended for students facing the greatest financial need. He was running up against a deadline of next Wednesday to extend an existing moratorium on student loan payments.
It added to a string of major acts by Biden, which included pushing through a package to boost efforts to address climate change and signing into law the Inflation Reduction Act, which lowered the cost of prescription drugs, allowing the government to negotiate the prices of drugs and capping costs, including those for insulin. But Biden remains unpopular, battling low favorability ratings and lagging his fellow Democrats. And in battlegrounds where Democrats are trying to run to the middle, they could face attacks from Republicans that they’re saddling average taxpayers with other people’s debt.
While plenty of Democrats have applauded Biden’s executive action and there are early signs of voter support, Democratic candidates for the Senate, like Cortez Masto in Nevada and Rep. Tim Ryan in Ohio, outright panned the move, saying it ignored working-class residents who didn’t go to college and failed to correct the root problem of college affordability.
Cortez Masto said in a statement Wednesday that she didn’t agree with Biden’s executive action and that “we should be focusing on passing my legislation to expand Pell Grants for lower income students, target loan forgiveness to those in need, and actually make college more affordable for working families.”
Clark County, the home of Las Vegas, is packed with working-class constituents in the entertainment and food industries.
“This puts her in a terrible position. A lot of her state’s workers will be paying for gender studies degrees next door in California,” a Republican source familiar with the party’s Senate strategy but who wasn’t authorized to speak about the race on the record, said of the kinds of attacks likely to be lobbed at Cortez Masto. She is in a tight race with former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt.
The White House has already signaled an appetite to aggressively push back against Republicans who are railing against the move. In a series of tweets Thursday, the White House called out individual Republicans who criticized Biden’s loan forgiveness — including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — by highlighting that they have had thousands of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program loans forgiven.
Ryan noted in a statement how he’s “paying off my own family’s student loans” but asserted that “waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.”
Ryan has made overtures to independent and GOP voters while distancing himself from Biden in other areas, including trade with China, an effort that has put him within striking distance of Republican venture capitalist J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” in Ohio’s Senate race.
“I think it’s really important that we continue to focus on how you win in Ohio, not how you win on Twitter,” said Chris Redfern, a former Ohio Democratic Party chair, noting that for all the demand online and on the progressive left for student loan forgiveness, less than 20% of the U.S. population has student loan debt.
“Tim Ryan needs to continue to run the campaign that Tim Ryan’s running,” Redfern added, “and not run in some other congressional district or some other state because somebody on Twitter is complaining that he’s not using Joe Biden’s name in every other sentence.”
Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for the Senate in Pennsylvania, made more nuanced arguments that the relief was only a first step.
The campaign of Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who was leading Republican Sen. Ron Johnson by 7 points in a recent poll, didn’t respond to requests for comment on Biden’s plan.
Johnson’s campaign quickly linked debt forgiveness to the “radical left.”
“Mandela Barnes cleared the field of other Democrats because of his adoption of the policies of the radical left,” Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning said. “That’s why Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him. Of course he supports this. Any notion from him otherwise is a lie.”
Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said that in Wisconsin over the last decade, voters without college degrees, particularly white men, have fled the Democratic Party.
“Here, the political divide has been more along education lines,” Franklin said, adding that in 2012, men without college degrees tended to vote for Republican over Democratic candidates by 4 points.
Now, it’s 25 points, Franklin said.
“It’s a group that would absolutely say: ‘Why am I paying for their college loans?’”
He added, “Certainly the argument has been that Democrats have not paid as much attention to that group of voters.”
Fetterman, a Democrat whom polls show leading the Republican celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz in the state’s Senate race, backed Biden’s action — with caveats. Fetterman also wants to see other measures to promote affordable education, such as waiving tuition at two-year community and technical colleges, according to his campaign.
“John has always been clear that we need to cancel some of the student loan debt that’s crippling Pennsylvanians, especially for folks who are struggling,” Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello said.
“But we also need to support people who chose not to go to college, to make sure that you can get a good job with good pay without having a degree.”
B.J. Martino, the president and CEO of Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, chalked up Democrats’ expressions of wariness about loan forgiveness to their “groping for some distance from President Biden on something,” particularly where Biden’s approval numbers are weak. And because Biden issued an executive order, sitting House or Senate members can criticize the move without having to vote on it.
Ryan, Martino said, has consistently voted with Biden’s agenda. “So this gives him an opportunity to plant a flag somewhere where he doesn’t have to take a vote and can create some of that separation, because right now he needs voters to say, ‘I disapprove of Joe Biden, right, but I would still vote for Tim Ryan.’”
Natasha Korecki reported from Chicago and Henry J. Gomez from Cleveland.