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Rocky Road

Michael Bennet Authored the Democrats’ Most Successful Pandemic Aid Program. Why Is His Senate Reelection Shaky?

The expanded child tax credit lifted millions of kids out of poverty, but Congress failed to extend it. Now the Colorado senator is facing the difficulty of running on an expired policy.

Michael Bennet may not have the greatest name recognition outside of his home state of Colorado. Until his brief, ill-fated bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Bennet was the textbook definition of a mild-mannered politician with an under-the-radar presence in the Senate. He had the reputation of the accidental senator, first appointed in 2009 and surviving two difficult elections. Once he emerged on the national stage, he was known as one of the more moderate Democratic contenders, jousting with Senator Bernie Sanders over Medicare for All. He dropped out after receiving 0.3 percent—952 total votes—in the New Hampshire primary.

But perhaps his greatest contribution to that race, and to Democratic policymaking over the past five years, has been his advocacy for expanding the child tax credit. His years pushing the cause led to perhaps Bennet’s greatest victory, as well as bitter disappointment. As he defends his legacy in his third election race, Bennet insists the fight is not over—and alongside his policy goals, the fate of his future in the Senate, and even of the Democratic majority, hangs in the balance.

Imagine this: Congress embarks upon a rare social experiment, temporarily implementing an ambitious program that dramatically cuts child poverty. The effects are almost immediate. Within six months, 3.7 million children are lifted out of poverty, and food insecurity decreases for families.

This is the story of the expanded child tax credit, established by the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan in March 2021. For six months, between July and December, families received regular payments of up to $300 per month for children under age 6, and $250 per month for children between the ages of 6 and 17, depending on income. The full credit was also available for the first time to parents too poor to pay income tax. Census data found that child poverty fell 46 percent from 2020 to 2021, dropping from 9.7 percent to 5.2 percent, due in large part to the program.

But now, imagine that the policy is opposed by congressional Republicans, many of whom thought it was not targeted enough, or too permissive without work requirements. It’s also opposed by the one Democrat who most matters in the current Senate. The evenly divided chamber couldn’t extend the program without at least 50 votes, and it expired at the end of 2021, as Senator Joe Manchin was unwilling to support an extension due to his worry that recipients were using the credit to purchase drugs. (The preponderance of data shows that people primarily spent the money on necessities such as food, bills, and childcare.)

“The burden that people feel when they’re in an economy where they can’t get a lift, no matter what they do—that was at least somewhat ameliorated by the child tax credit,” Bennet told me in an interview this summer nearly 2,000 miles from Washington. Almost nine months after the expanded credit expired, Bennet stood on the sun-drenched patio of a restaurant in Eagle, Colorado, making the case for his reelection. He ran through the laundry list of Democratic accomplishments he believed voters could be proud of, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the final form of the bill that began as the Build Back Better Act. The IRA did not include an extension of the child tax credit.

Despite Colorado skewing Democratic—the state hasn’t had a Republican governor in over 15 years, and in 2020 Joe Biden won it by 14 percent—Bennet’s reelection this year is no guarantee, thanks to state Republicans bucking the national trend and selecting a less controversial opponent rather than someone hailing from the more extreme wing of the party. Colorado may be more purple than outsiders realize, and a moderate Republican can present a threat in a statewide race.

In two campaign events I attended with Bennet that day in late August, the child tax credit was not mentioned in his initial spiel about Democratic accomplishments and Republican threats to democracy, although he raised it in response to voter questions. “Tragically, I couldn’t persuade Joe Manchin at the end of the year to extend it,” Bennet said.

After this event for local Democrats, Bennet told me that he hadn’t given up on reinstating the credit. “I think that would have been a very important, substantive departure from what I view as 50 years of basically Reagan’s trickle-down economics. And I think it would have been an important political statement for the Democratic Party to make,” he said, imagining the alternative where Democrats had locked in the program for the future. “Unfortunately, that didn’t get done as part of this package. But I’m gonna go back and fight for that.”

Bennet has centered his reelection campaign on a message of economic fairness, an umbrella that covers the child tax credit. But there is some trickiness inherent in this argument: How do you campaign on a popular program that cuts child poverty, but whose expired benefits are no longer being felt by constituents?

Bennet may not be the obvious candidate for pushing Democrats to implement one of the most consequential expansions of the social safety net in decades. He was raised in Washington, D.C., the son and grandson of influential government officials; he received his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University, where his father later served as president; and he ended up as editor of the Yale Law Review.

Bennet’s interest in child poverty, and the ways in which structural disadvantages can allow kids to fall through the gaps of society, largely stems from his time as superintendent of Denver Public Schools. He was working as the chief of staff to John Hickenlooper—a fellow Wesleyan graduate who was then Denver’s mayor and is now a Senate colleague—when he was tapped for the job, a surprise pick given Bennet’s lack of experience with school administration.

Bennet’s tenure was not without controversy; he oversaw the closure of an underperforming high school, a move that roiled the local community. That experience proved formative for his conception of what poor children are owed. He attended numerous town halls to hear the perspectives of the affected families, and knocked on hundreds of doors to ensure that displaced students would still attend their new school in the fall. Amid a somewhat fraught tenure marked by large-scale reforms, he was credited with improved enrollment and graduation rates.

“I think all the time about the families that I met in working in Denver Public Schools, whose kids I worked for, who were working two or three jobs, often—the family, you know, and sometimes the kids themselves—and couldn’t get their kids out of poverty,” Bennet told me in an interview after his event in Eagle. “It seems to me that the least we could do, if we could do it, is trying to make their lives a little bit less challenging. And that is why, when I first heard about the enhanced child tax credit, I immediately thought, ‘Wow, this is going to make a big difference for the kids that I used to work for in Denver.’”

In 2017, Bennet and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown unveiled the American Family Act, their idea for an expanded child tax credit that later formed the backbone of the provision in the American Rescue Plan. The proposal was well-received in social policy circles, but initially had little political impact, although it gained more than two dozen additional co-sponsors when it was reintroduced in 2019. It was revived again in the early days of the Biden presidency, a brief era of grand policy ideas to rival the New Deal, marked by the optimism of a Democratic Party yet to fully grasp the political implications of their razor-thin majority.

“I think running for president probably made him a better messenger on this and more effective when he came back to Congress,” said Daniel Barash, the campaign manager for Bennet’s presidential bid. “I think he really learned how to talk and organize around it, and there was more of an appetite when he came back to it.”

It’s easy to understand a 46 percent drop in child poverty in the abstract, but more difficult to recognize the humanity of the recipients behind the statistics. After watching Bennet stump for his reelection, I spoke with Colorado parents who saw their fortunes change with the extra money last year.

Kaite Dunn, a social worker and Denver-based parent of a young son, told me that the monthly $300 disbursement gave their family “breathing room,” helping them address childcare costs, groceries, housing, and the other bills, big or small, that quickly stack up to overwhelm even a middle-class family. But beyond their personal experience, Dunn, who uses they/them pronouns, could see the credit’s effect in the lives of their low-income clients. “Being able to just offer a little bit of support, that makes a huge difference, a real difference in people’s lives,” Dunn said.

For George Davis, a single parent in Denver, the expanded child tax credit didn’t just offer financial stability for himself and his two children: It allowed him to invest in his family’s future. “Of course, it helped out with gas, groceries, bills. OK, on the surface, it was great. Under the surface, it helped with deeper planning … being able to invest time with my children,” he told me in a phone call, his children playing in the background. Davis, who works in security and is active in parent advocacy, said his purpose is to make sure “Team Davis,” as he calls his family, keeps “TCB”—taking care of business.

Neither Dunn nor Davis was surprised when the credit expired. “It was just kind of like, a resigned sigh,” Dunn said about their reaction. “I don’t know that I blamed anyone in particular, it’s just like, ‘of course.’” Davis had never thought the credit would last forever, but for a moment, it felt as if the politicians in Washington cared about him and his family. “The biggest thing emotionally was like, ‘Dang, it is kind of cool when you have a system in place that’s especially looking out for you,’” he said.

Both Dunn and Davis intend to vote this year, and while they did not offer details about their plans, they said that knowing about Bennet’s support for the credit more inclined them to think well of him. “Michael Bennet’s advocacy for the child tax credit was like, ‘Yeah, he’s got our back.’ That’s a good feeling,” Davis said. “Parents are used to being that person. It’s cool when someone else is that person with you.”

Bennet is no stranger to difficult campaigns. He was tapped to fill Senator Ken Salazar’s vacated seat in 2009 after the latter left to serve in the Obama administration, an unexpected pick that left pundits nonplussed. Bennet overcame relative anonymity to win on his own merits in 2010, an election year that otherwise was a bloodbath for Democrats nationally. He then won his 2016 race by a 6-point margin, which was closer than many polls predicted.

He is still the favorite to win this year’s race against GOP challenger Joe O’Dea, but the election is perhaps tighter than national Democrats, or Bennet, would like. O’Dea, a businessman, may be benefiting from his lack of controversy and his capacity to stay on message; Herschel Walker, he is not. “[Republicans] actually nominated a fairly moderate person for a competitive race, who is not particularly pro-life, and not particularly supportive of election conspiracy theories, and actually sounds fairly sane,” said Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “Not that it’s going to be easy to take Bennet down, but if you do, it’s this kind of candidate that would do it.”

Bennet has told reporters and potential voters alike that he is in negotiations with Senator Mitt Romney for a potential compromise. But Romney told me in mid-September that he had not spoken to Bennet about the issue “in some time,” saying that the alternative child allowance plan he’d proposed was “on the back burner.” “I anticipate that that will have its time again, but not right now,” Romney told me. Democrats have also broached the idea of reinstating the credit as part of an end-of-year deal with Republicans on tax extensions; several lawmakers, including Bennet, reiterated in a September statement: “we should not extend corporate tax breaks at the end of this year without also extending the expanded Child Tax Credit.”

Bennet argued to me that Coloradans needed to send him back to Washington in part because O’Dea would not support the expanded child tax credit. But O’Dea has expressed openness to the idea of a targeted credit. In a statement, O’Dea contended that the credit had expired because Bennet had failed to compromise on issues such as a work requirement and targeting the benefit, as Manchin had mandated in order to garner his support. O’Dea also pledged to work with Manchin and Romney on the issue. “The child tax credit is a good policy, provided it is targeted at working-class families. Higher-income earners shouldn’t be eligible, and there must be a work requirement,” O’Dea said. “Joe Manchin told Michael Bennet and Joe Biden the same thing, but they refused to negotiate.”

Senator Cory Booker, who was also an unsuccessful 2020 presidential candidate and is another major champion of the child tax credit in the Senate, highlighted the presidential campaign as evidence of Bennet’s dedication to the cause. “When we ran in the Democratic primary, I just loved listening to him speak, because he was one of the few people talking about child poverty,” Booker said. If Bennet lost his reelection bid, Booker said, it would “darken our abilities” to implement the credit permanently. “I just hope that Colorado understands that, when it comes to the well-being of American families, there’s no senator better than Michael Bennet.”

When we spoke in August, Bennet told me that he understands the frustration of parents who lost the credit. “I obviously don’t know what their reaction is going to be,” he said. “But I hope that it’s: ‘This was something that worked well, this is something that lifted stress off my family, and this is why we need to make sure that we do vote, because we’ve got to make it permanent.’”