Conservatives know they likely don’t have the votes to block President Joe Biden’s pick to run HHS, Xavier Becerra. But they’re launching new ad blitzes and pressure campaigns targeting Senate Democrats up for reelection and others they believe can be swayed, aiming to make a vote to confirm him a political liability.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has led Republican opposition to Becerra in the chamber, is spending tens of thousands of dollars of campaign funds on digital ads starting this week, when Becerra will appear before two Senate committees. The ads, which were first shared with POLITICO and will run until Becerra’s confirmation vote on the Senate floor, urge voters to pressure Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) to vote against Becerra.
A political adviser to Cotton said the two swing state senators were chosen because of their perceived vulnerability as they seek reelection, and the campaign may spread to more states in the weeks ahead.
“We want them to know that there is a political cost to voting for Becerra and if they vote yes, they’ll see it in 100 ads between now and 2022,” the adviser said. “Everything that goes wrong with health care over the next couple years, and there will inevitably be things that go wrong, can be tied back to this vote.”
Republicans opposing Becerra cite his support for abortion rights and “Medicare for All” and have tried tying him to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s troubled pandemic response. Becerra has also drawn opposition from a trio of leading conservative groups that in recent days launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to sink his nomination, along with that of Biden’s pick for associate attorney general.
The anti-abortion advocacy group Students for Life is also launching digital ads this week targeting Hassan and Warnock, along with a group of eight moderate Democrats and Republicans: Sens. Joe Manchin, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Bob Casey Michael Bennet, Jon Tester, and Kyrsten Sinema. The group is also planning to hold rallies this week outside those senators’ offices.
“We’ve identified Becerra as someone who could be defeated and should be defeated,” said Kristi Hamrick, the spokesperson for the group’s political arm.
The Senate HELP Committee will question Becerra on Tuesday, followed by the Finance Committee on Wednesday — though only the latter will vote on advancing his nomination to the Senate floor. And despite the GOP’s fervent opposition to Becerra, Democrats remain confident he’ll have the votes to get confirmed — even if it’s by a narrow margin.
“I haven’t heard any grumblings or warning signs or alarm bells,” a senior Democratic aide said. “I have no reason to believe there’s a problem.”
Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden transition, called Becerra a “tested, qualified” leader in a statement highlighting his bipartisan work as California’s attorney general on expanding access to Covid treatments and confronting opioid manufacturers.
“We look forward to his hearings and confirmation votes,” Bates said.
Democrats also predict that Republican efforts to block Becerra will backfire, both because he would be the first ever Latino to hold the post and because of the urgent need to install the government’s top health official during a still-raging pandemic.
“Regardless of party, anyone who wants the Biden-Harris Administration to succeed in ending this pandemic should support getting Attorney General Becerra, a qualified and experienced nominee, confirmed as quickly as possible so he can get to work leading our nation’s health department,” said Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Becerra has met virtually with over 40 senators from both parties and will hold at least two more meetings Monday, according to the Biden team working on Cabinet nominations. In those meetings, Becerra has been emphasizing his health policy experience from 12 terms in the House, which included his work on the Affordable Care Act, and his role as California’s top legal officer defending the ACA and prosecuting opioid manufacturers and tobacco companies. He’ll offer a similar message during this week’s Hill testimony.
Democrats are also skeptical that Becerra’s nomination will resonate as a campaign issue more than a year from now.
But Republicans plan to put that theory to the test. On a recent call with the anti-abortion groups Students for Life and Susan B. Anthony List, Cotton and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) acknowledged that Becerra’s defense of abortion rights may not bother many Democratic lawmakers, and urged conservatives to target different senators with different messages.
“We don’t need 51 senators to all agree on why they say no, we just need 51 senators to say no,” Cotton told the activists.
This week’s confirmation hearings will “be death by a thousand cuts,” one GOP Senate aide predicted. “Some senators will focus on how many times he sued their states. Some will focus on Medicare for All. Some will focus on abortion and Covid lockdowns. He just keeps giving us a lot of stuff to work with.”