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'Lost in the shuffle': Republicans battle around Biden — for now

Biden has received high marks for his handling of the pandemic as he nears 100 days in office, but Republicans may look to capitalize on challenges like the border.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) arrive to deliver remarks on the American Rescue Plan at the White House on March 12, 2021.
President Joe Biden; Vice President Kamala Harris; Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., arrive to deliver remarks on the American Rescue Plan at the White House on March 12.Doug Mills / The New York Times via Redux file

Republicans have spent the past few months under President Joe Biden waging a campaign against "cancel culture" and locking horns with corporate America.

In state legislatures, GOP lawmakers have prioritized contentious bills to tighten voting access, crack down on protests, further limit abortion access and ban transgender athletes from school sports.

But in many of the battles the Republican Party has fought during Biden's early days in office, there's one person the GOP has largely ignored: Biden himself.

"It's not really a unified front against him," a Republican Senate aide told NBC News, adding that Republicans need to better link culture war issues enthralling the GOP voter base and progressive policies to the president. "He sort of gets lost in the shuffle sometimes."

Historical trends and the current House and Senate makeup present the GOP with an opportunity to gain seats and retake one or both chambers of Congress in the midterms. While Republicans have seen success in directly countering Biden on one major issue — his handling of the influx of migrants, particularly unaccompanied children, at the U.S. border with Mexico — some in the party have signaled that Democratic congressional leadership and progressives may remain a bigger, and possibly more effective, target.

"I think a lot of our messaging is going to be focused on Chuck and Nancy versus focused on Joe," a senior GOP congressional aide said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And we're just fine to have that fight."

There are a number of reasons why the GOP hasn't overly focused on Biden so far, Republicans and strategists said, but a major one represents the continuation of a dynamic from the 2020 campaign trail. Former President Donald Trump and his allies launched a barrage of contradictory attacks but ultimately found it difficult to define the longtime politician to voters.

"I think the messaging has been inconsistent from the Republican side," the Senate aide said. "And it was the same during the campaign, even with Trump. Not knowing exactly what to call him or what the right route of attack is because it's switching between, 'Oh, is he a socialist or is he an establishment Dem that's been around too long?'"

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said that "it's difficult to make him a scary figure to the American public."

"That's something that in the past, Republicans have relied on to drive up voter intensity in midterms," Curbelo said.

By the early days of former President Barack Obama's first term, for example, the conservative tea party movement in opposition to his presidency — and the economic stimulus package he pushed from the start — already gained steam ahead of a 2010 midterms that saw Republicans decisively flip the House. The racist birther lie was also on its way to becoming a deeply rooted belief among conservatives.

"It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted," Obama wrote in his latest memoir, "A Promised Land," published last year.

There has been no grassroots uprising against the president's agenda so far.

Another piece of the puzzle is that Biden, unlike Trump, has refrained from inserting himself in daily news cycles — much like he did during the campaign. In early March, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, posted a tweet that in some ways revealed the difficulty Republicans face in messaging against Biden.

"Three words to describe the first weeks of the Biden administration: boring but radical," he wrote.

Meanwhile, Biden's top policy pursuits so far enjoy broad popularity among people in both parties. The Covid-19 stimulus, enacted without any GOP support, was favored by a sizable number of GOP voters in polls. Biden's infrastructure proposal enjoys wide backing, as well.

In both cases, Republicans in Congress argued the packages contained "liberal wish list" items with inflated price tags to fund those priorities. They hope with Democrats having acted alone on Biden's biggest legislative accomplishment to date, Republicans can dent voters' views of Biden as a moderate.

"As Biden passes more of his agenda, and it's probably going to be more polarizing, there will be a natural sinking of his personal popularity," Matt Gorman, former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has sought to keep the party focused on criticizing those Biden policies and others. Yet in early GOP House and Senate campaign ads, Biden's name tends to earn only a cursory mention — or none at all.

"They're figuring out who their villains and boogeymen are going to be," Liam Donovan, a lobbyist and former Republican operative, said, "because Biden is not going to be particularly fruitful."

At the same time, Republicans are still dealing with the aftermath of Trump's loss and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. A former president keen on retribution and insistent on playing an active role in the party has led to a growing power struggle between him and the congressional Republican leaders responsible for winning back the House and the Senate, raising concerns that there's not enough focus on Biden, NBC News has reported.

With that playing out, Biden has enjoyed consistent approval ratings during his first 100 days. His aggregate approval has hovered between 53 percent and 55 percent, while his disapproval rating has topped out at approximately 40 percent.

Biden's best marks come for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent Monmouth University Poll found that 62 percent of U.S. adults approved of his job there, compared to just 31 percent who disapprove. Similar results were shown in a recent Quinnipiac poll of U.S. adults, which found that 64 percent approve of his handling of the pandemic, while just 29 percent disapprove.

Republicans know Biden's getting a big boost by leading the country over a major pandemic hurdle and argue that a return to normalcy means voters will have other issues top of mind.

"He has a longer honeymoon because of the country emerging from Covid," a second Republican Senate aide said. "But once things are back to normal, people will begin focusing more on other political issues."

Pointing to nationwide vaccinations, the senior GOP congressional aide said they believed Trump would have had similar success but Biden "was president when a lot of these vaccines happened, so he's going to take credit for that."

"And Republicans would do that as well," this person said. "So it is what it is."

Republicans have been most successful in shaping public opinion on the Biden administration's approach on the border. That Quinnipiac poll found that just 29 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the uptick in asylum-seekers. Speaking to Politico, Trump adviser Jason Miller promised Biden's management of the border will "be a massive issue ... in the midterms."

"The only clean shot at the Biden administration has been the border crisis," Curbelo said.

But for the most part, GOP attention has been focused elsewhere.

State legislatures have done the most to advance the Republican agenda. Those efforts center on voting restrictions following Trump's falsehoods about the accuracy and integrity of last fall's election. Additionally, there have been bills to limit the teaching of critical race theory, enhance criminal penalties for those arrested at protests and bar transgender athletes from competing in girls and women's sports. This winter's Conservative Political Action Conference was dubbed "America Uncanceled."

South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said the issues Republicans have concentrated on — particularly the cultural and immigration issues core to Trump's politics — will ultimately take a toll on Biden with the ever-shrinking group of voters in the center.

"This kind of stuff is like lead weights and then, like gravity, eventually it begins to bring you down from the people in the middle," he said.

Jeff Timmer, the former chair of the Michigan GOP who backed Biden last fall, said Republicans have so far focused on a broader strategy of grievance politics rather than anti-Biden messaging because there were signs last fall that this message — if not the party's main messenger — resonated. Republicans made significant gains in the House despite losing the presidency.

"The only thing they can hope to motivate their electorate in 2022 is going to be the same kind of grievance, the girding ourselves against the barbarians at the gate who want to change our country forever," he said, adding, "they have to continue this fear-mongering in order to give themselves a chance in 2022."

"And I'm not discounting their ability to do it because they defied gravity in 2020 by doing that," he said.