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GOP Incumbents in Key Districts Are Vulnerable for Wanting to Slash Unemployment Benefits

Majorities of Republican voters don’t want jobless benefits cut.
 
 
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House Republicans are going to find voters—including from their party—will remember and punish them if they allow long-term unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans to end three days after Christmas, a new survey by Public Policy Polling has found.

The survey, conducted Dec. 19and 20, looked at four swing-districts with incumbent GOP Congressmen and at House Speaker John Boehner’s district. It found clear majorities of voters back continued benefits for people unemployed more than six months. Majorities of Republicans in those districts disagreed with House GOP leadership, who want to let the funds expire.

“Representatives who vote to cut off extended unemployment benefits could pay a high price at the polls next year,” the survey said. “In all four of the swing districts we looked at voters who say they will be less likely to vote for the Republican incumbent by at least a nine-point margin next year if they cast such a vote. Additionally, the independent voters who are so key to these Congressmen’s survival say in each district that they would consider a vote to cut off unemployment a reason to vote for someone else.”     

Between 63 percent and 68 percent of voters supported the benefit extension in the districts held by Mike Coffman, CO-6; Dan Benishek, MI-1; Rodney Davis, IL-13; and Gary Miller, CA-31, PPP found. In Boehner’s district, 63 percent back an extension, including 52 percent of Republicans.

“These Congressmen are starting out with weak approval ratings that make a vote to cease extended unemployment even more politically risky,” PPP said. “All five have negative approval ratings. Speaker Boehner is particularly unpopular in his home district with just a 40 percent approval rating… The swing district members all have approval ratings well below the 50 percent mark considered safe for an incumbent: 42 percent for Mike Coffman; 41 percent for Dan Benishek; 33 percent for Rodney Davis; and 29 percent for Gary Miller.”   

While the national unemployment rate has fallen in 2013, people out of work for several months face tough times. More than a third have been out of work longer than 27 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In California and Michigan, 215,000 and 189,700 people are in this long-term jobless category.

Congress’ recent budget deal does not touch the Emergency Unemployment Compensation fund. Boehner has called for matching cuts to other federal programs before he will bring up legislation to extend unemployment benefits. Previously, GOP lawmakers have argued that the program is vital to the economy, but many GOP incumbents face primary challenges from the GOP’s Tea Party wing, who are angry that the recent budget deal didn't cut more federal programs.

The unemployment extension poll was commissioned by Americans United For Change, which the Washington Post called “a liberal group” and “part of a wider strategy by Democrats and progressives to push Republicans into renewing the benefits as soon as Congress returns next year.” The Post noted that polls like this will add to “increasingly brutal” local news coverage of families on the brink of losing their only source of income.

In contrast, the next most recent poll of American attitudes toward Congress, according to RealClearPolitics.com, was a December 14-16 survey by Fox News, which did not ask about unemployment benefits. Instead, it focused on Obamacare, the president’s reputation, his Iran policy and the “war on Christmas.”

Republicans believing what they see on Fox News might not think there will be a price to pay if the GOP does not extend unemployment benefits. But PPP’s poll strongly suggests otherwise.

“Anywhere from 63-to-68 percent of voters in the five districts support continuing unemployment benefits with only 28-to-34 percent okay with cutting them,” PPP said. “Seventy-nine-to-85 percent of Democrats in the districts support keeping extended benefits in place, but so do anywhere from 58-to-64 percent of independents and 48-60 percent of Republicans. This is a rare issue in this polarized political climate where we find agreement across party lines.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).