In this July 7, 2021, file photo, people wait in line for COVID-19 vaccinations at an event at La Bonita market, a Hispanic grocery store, in Las Vegas. Credit: John Locher / AP

WASHINGTON — Rising coronavirus cases across the country are threatening to upend both parties’ burgeoning midterm election strategies, as plans to focus on other political issues have been overshadowed by the ongoing pandemic.

Democrats and Republicans had been anticipating a “summer of freedom” from COVID-19, as President Joe Biden put it in June, with the country seemingly returning to a state of normalcy after more than a year of lockdowns, masks and social distancing. But that sense has faded in recent weeks due to the spread of the highly contagious delta variant and vaccination rates slowing compared to earlier in the year.

That has complicated plans from both parties to begin shifting the public’s attention to areas they see as politically advantageous ahead of the 2022 campaign. Democrats are seeking to build support for the infrastructure and spending plans Biden is attempting to push through Congress in the coming weeks, while Republicans have sought to highlight crime, inflation and immigration.

Now those issues are taking a backseat once again to a deadly virus that has proven unpredictable, as debates over vaccine and mask mandates return.

“We’re more concerned with how it’s going to be an issue than we were four weeks ago. It’s been that quick,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee aide. “The challenge is we’re in a place we didn’t think we’d be, but we just don’t know where things are going to go.”

Democrats are facing the political challenges of the COVID resurgence as they seek to build support for Biden’s policy agenda at a critical juncture. The Senate passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a $3.5 trillion budget bill championed by Biden this week. The House of Representatives is expected to begin considering those proposals later this month.

The party is launching public campaigns to promote those pieces of legislation, as well as the pandemic relief package that Biden signed into law earlier this year. The Democratic National Committee started a nationwide bus tour, while the Biden-aligned nonprofit Building Back Together released a series of TV ads in key battleground states.

Democrats say it’s imperative they make their case directly to voters who are paying more attention to the pandemic than their party’s agenda. A new Fox News poll found that 52 percent of voters said they were “very concerned” about coronavirus spreading, up from 41 percent in April. And 31 percent said coronavirus was “not at all” under control, up from 10 percent four months ago.

“There’s a lot of attention on COVID right now,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who leads the pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country. “There’s not as much awareness about some of the infrastructure components or some components of the relief package. That’s part of what we have to go out and sell.”

Democrats’ balancing act

Democrats are debating how to balance emphasizing their own party’s efforts to help mitigate the pandemic — such as the administration’s vaccine rollout or the pandemic relief law — versus placing blame on the GOP for the virus’ staying power. They point to some Republican politicians who have opposed mask mandates or expressed skepticism about the vaccine, and how cases are particularly rising in GOP-controlled states.

The White House, for instance, has recently sparred with Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, who have been among the most outspoken critics of mask mandates. And in remarks this week celebrating the Senate’s bipartisan passage of the infrastructure bill, Biden said it was “disappointing” more Americans were not getting vaccinated.

A new Politico/Morning Consult survey showed that a majority of voters favor local governments requiring vaccine and indoor mask mandates. And roughly half of those polled said they blamed the recent rise in coronavirus cases equally on unvaccinated Americans and elected leaders who don’t require COVID-related precautions.

Some Democrats see an opportunity to spark a backlash against the GOP, especially with 71 percent of adults who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have to not only tout our accomplishments, but underscore why Republicans can’t be let back into power and are dangerous,” said Ian Russell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deputy executive director. “Voters tend to vote more on fear and frustration than gratitude towards politicians.”

Other Democrats argue the party is on better footing when they highlight how they have helped Americans get through the pandemic. Polls consistently show Biden receives his highest marks from the public on his handling of the coronavirus.

“Generally speaking, Democrats are in a better place talking about their accomplishments rather than about people who are not moving the country forward,” said Dan Sena, a former DCCC executive director. “My recommendation to the Democrats is to focus much more on what you’re giving people than people who are not getting a shot.”

Republican response

Republicans, who had otherwise been more focused on inflation, crime and immigration as the keys to taking control of the House and Senate next year, have taken divergent approaches to the latest COVID wave.

One of the starkest examples has taken place in Kentucky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently used campaign funds to air radio ads encouraging his constituents to receive the COVID vaccine. Meanwhile, his fellow Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who has not been vaccinated, was suspended from YouTube for a week for claiming cloth masks are ineffective in preventing COVID.

While the rhetoric from Paul and governors like DeSantis and Abbott may play well with portions of the party’s base, who see mask and vaccine mandates as a violation of freedom, some Republican operatives warned they cannot risk alienating swing voters.

“Airing on the side of safety and caution is the smartest course of action,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.

Frank Luntz, another longtime Republican pollster, said that at the beginning of the summer, participants in a focus group he organized in Florida were not really paying attention to COVID. Now, he said, it’s the top issue in the state.

“This is not just an issue for Washington, this is an issue for governors all across the country,” said Luntz, noting that 36 gubernatorial elections are set for 2022. “They have to make very difficult decisions now that they will be held accountable for a year from now.”

Whether COVID will be top of mind for voters in an election 15 months away is unclear. But the strategists in both parties say the recent resurgence serves as a reminder that it could linger as a political issue longer than expected.

“It’s America’s Groundhog Day,” Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said.

Story by Adam Wollner, McClatchy Washington Bureau.