WASHINGTON — Minutes after a group of congressional Democrats unveiled a bill recently to add seats to the Supreme Court, the Iowa Republican Party slammed Representative Cindy Axne, a Democrat and potential Senate candidate, over the issue.
“Will Axne Pack the Court?” was the headline on a statement the party rushed out, saying the move to expand the court “puts our democracy at risk.”
The attack vividly illustrated the emerging Republican strategy for an intensive drive to try to take back the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. Republicans are mostly steering clear of Democrats’ economic initiatives that have proved popular, such as an infrastructure package and a stimulus law that coupled pandemic relief with major expansions of safety-net programs, and are focusing instead on polarizing issues that stoke conservative outrage.
In doing so, they are seizing on measures like the court-expansion bill and calls to defund the police — which many Democrats oppose — as well as efforts to provide legal status to undocumented immigrants and grant statehood to the District of Columbia to caricature the party as extreme and out of touch with mainstream America.
Republicans are also hammering at issues of race and sexual orientation, seeking to use Democrats’ push to confront systemic racism and safeguard transgender rights as attack lines.
The approach comes as President Biden and Democrats, eager to capitalize on their unified control of Congress and the White House, have become increasingly bold about speaking about such issues and promoting a wide array of party priorities that languished during years of Republican rule. It has given Republicans ample fodder for attacks that have proved potent in the past.
“They are putting the ball on the tee, handing me the club and putting the wind at my back,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.
Democrats argue that Republicans are focusing on side issues and twisting their positions because the G.O.P. has nothing else to campaign on, as Democrats line up accomplishments to show to voters, including the pandemic aid bill that passed without a single Republican vote.
“That was very popular, and I can understand why Republicans don’t want to talk about it,” said Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But we’re going to keep reminding folks who was there when they needed them.”
The contrast is likely to define the 2022 races. Democrats will sell the ambitious agenda they are pursuing with Mr. Biden, take credit for what they hope will continue to be a surging economy and portray Republicans as an increasingly extreme party pushing Donald J. Trump’s lies about a stolen election. Republicans, who have embraced the false claims of election fraud and plan to use them to energize their conservative base, will complain of “radical” Democratic overreach and try to amplify culture-war issues they think will propel more voters into their party’s arms.
A release from the National Republican Senatorial Committee highlighted what it called the “three pillars” of the Democratic agenda: “The Green New Deal, court packing and defund the police,” even though the first two are far from the front-burner issues for Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders and the third is a nonstarter with the bulk of the party’s rank and file.
Last week Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, sought to thrust a new issue into the mix, leading Republicans in protest of a proposed Biden administration rule promoting education programs that address systemic racism and the nation’s legacy of slavery. He has taken particular aim at the 1619 Project, a journalism initiative by The New York Times that identifies the year when slaves were first brought to America as a key moment in history.
“There are a lot of exotic notions about what are the most important points in American history,” Mr. McConnell said on Monday during an appearance in Louisville. “I simply disagree with the notion that The New York Times laid out there that year 1619 was one of those years.”
Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the Republicans’ Senate campaign arm, has been explicit about his strategy.
“Now what I talk about every day is do we want open borders? No. Do we want to shut down our schools? No. Do we want men playing in women’s sports? No,” Mr. Scott said during a recent radio interview with the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt.
“Do we want to shut down the Keystone pipeline? No. Do we want voter ID? Yes,” he continued. “And the Democrats are on the opposite side of all those issues, and I’m going to make sure every American knows about it.”
Democrats who have fallen victim to the Republican cultural assault concede that it can take a toll and that their party needs to be ready.
“It was all these different attacks that were spread all over mainstream media, Spanish-language media, Facebook, WhatsApp,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former Democratic House member from South Florida who was defeated last year after Republicans portrayed her as a socialist who was anti-police. “A lot of it was misinformation, false attacks.”
She said Democrats must begin taking steps now to combat Republican misdirection, warning that their legislative victories might not be enough to appeal to voters.
“We can have a great policy record,” she said, “but we need to be present in our communities right now, reaching out to all of our constituencies to tell them we are working for them, that their health and their jobs are our priorities.”
On the Supreme Court issue, progressive groups began pushing the idea of an expansion after Mr. Trump was able to appoint three justices, including one to a vacancy that Republicans blocked Barack Obama from filling in the last year of his presidency and another who was fast-tracked right before last year’s election.
Hoping to neutralize the issue, some Senate Democrats who will be on the ballot next year have made it clear that they would oppose expanding the court, and the bill seems to be going nowhere at the moment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would not bring any court bill to the floor until at least after a commission named by Mr. Biden to study the matter issued its report, which is due in six months. The president has been cool to the expansion idea as well.
The office of Ms. Axne, the only Democrat in Congress from Iowa, did not respond to requests for reaction to the Republican attacks on her over the court plan. In an interview with MSNBC, Ms. Axne said that she, like Ms. Pelosi, would await the findings of the commission.
But Republicans are not waiting to try to score political points. They say more moderate Republican voters and independents who broke with the party during the Trump years have been alienated by the call to enlarge the court and other initiatives being pushed by progressives.
One key for Republicans next year will be winning back suburban voters while running campaigns that also energize the significant segment of their supporters who are fiercely loyal to Mr. Trump and want the party to represent his values. That may be a difficult balance to achieve, as evidenced this week when Republican leaders moved to strip Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming of the party’s No. 3 leadership post for calling out the former president’s false election claims.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said it would matter less what Republicans said about Democrats than what his party was able to accomplish.
“The one thing that will win people over, no matter what they do, is whether we can deliver,” he said. “They are doing what appeals to their base, but the voters in the middle, including a good chunk of Republican voters, actually care about getting things done.”
Mr. Peters said Democrats would be better positioned to rebut attacks such as those that falsely portray them as pressing to defund the police after voters had experienced two years of the party holding power.
“President Biden and the caucus have been very clear that we are not about defunding the police, we are about making sure police have the resources they need to do their jobs,” he said. “Ultimately, it is about how it is impacting people’s lives.”
Mr. Kaufmann, the Republican leader in Iowa, begged to differ. He said he believed the hot-button issues Republicans were homing in on would drive voters more than “the nuance of tax policy and who gets credit for the vaccine.” He is eager to get started.
“Some of this stuff is really controversial,” he said. “These are all very bold and clearly delineated issues. I can use this to expand the base and get crossover voters.”